January 20, 2004

Burn the Catalog

I was doing a bit of last-minute refurbishment of my Honors seminar syllabus last week, trying to see if there were new books or articles on particular topics or themes that I might have overlooked. I had also reorganized the syllabus somewhat and had one week that was a conceptual oddball of sorts, organized around a somewhat diffuse view of the causes of colonialism in Africa that is starting to be a major part of my current manuscript, and I was hunting for older materials that I might stitch together to explain my perspective.

Using our library’s catalogue, Tripod, I was both impressed at how generally strong our collection is for a small liberal-arts college (shared with Bryn Mawr and Haverford) and frustrated at just how useless a typical electronic catalogue has become. The information technology revolution has become something akin to the tearing down of a dam: the waters are free, pouring across the landscape, but if you want to use them to irrigate some crops or even just to take a drink of water, you have to leap headlong into the floodwaters and be swept away by them.

Our librarians are eager to teach information literacy and research skills, but it’s hard to get the students to respond. Part of that is that to learn those skills from the librarians involves giving up time to listen, and part of it is that most of our students can sort of muddle through at 2am using online materials available through Tripod, especially full-text resources. There are interesting hierarchies of use starting to emerge as a consequence: on some papers, you don’t see students necessarily choosing the best work or data for their project, but preferring instead by default the resources that are available in full-text form.

I don’t really blame them. This is not just about availability, but about the near-impossibility of teaching undergraduates the kinds of search heuristics that will reliably produce useful material on most research subjects. The main reason that I don’t think students learn from our librarians is that they’re not learning from their professors how to search, either, and in some cases, because the professors themselves don’t really know how to navigate the brave new world of catalogs and databases. I used to be a punk and think that was about Luddism and sloth, but I’m realizing that the fault lies less in ourselves and more in our tools. I think I know a lot about the tools and how to search them, but I'm finding it harder and harder to communicate effectively with my students about how to reproduce the search techniques that work for me.

Electronic catalogs, wherever you go in the academic world, have become a horrible crazy-quilt assemblage of incompatible interfaces and vendor-constrained listings. Working through Tripod’s article and specialized subject indices, in a relatively small collection, you still have to navigate at least five completely different interfaces for searching. Historical epochs of data collection and cataloguing lie indigestibly atop one another. The Library of Congress subject headings, which long ago slid into uselessness, now actively misrepresent existing nodes and clusters of knowledge in many academic fields. Or sometimes, the LC headings are so insanely specific that they are inhabited and may always be inhabited forever and ever by one or two monographs, using subject headings that could never be found intuitively by a researcher, but only by someone who already knew about the one or two monographs anyway. At their outer reaches, the categories sometimes become positively Borgesian, as if they’re part of the planned expansion of human knowledge to some infinite point of universality.

To get a catalog to associate materials that I know are associated in scholarly practice, I often have to execute exotic combinations of keywords and authors. Disciplines don’t guide me to those clusters of scholarship, subject headings don’t guide me to them, and even the keywords that most obviously ought to guide me indiscriminately lump those clusters in with works that have almost no relationship to them.

I can only readily track new or interesting publications in fields whose everyday sociology as glimpsed in conferences and workshops and introductions to books and listservs and bibliographies is well known to me. If I want to find out what interesting books have been written by Africanists in the last year the most compact way is to go to the African Studies Association meetings and prowl the book fair with a notepad. Otherwise I have to recall which friends or known associates of mine are working on books and search their names; search many subjects at a high level of specificity (basically most of the major ethnonyms and all of the countries of Africa one by one); search for new titles in ongoing series (if a catalog allows me to search that field); search particular publishers who often put out Africanist works (or get their catalogs); do some highly date-sensitive searches in combination with subjects or keywords; and maybe search a few carefully chosen combinations of especially perfect keywords.

Moving out of those known sociologies into areas I don’t know as well or at all, I have to tack back and forth into the information wind with keywords, publication dates, the few known canonical signposts, and reading titles like tea leaves for hints to content. Occasionally I get lucky and there’s a good description of the book or article, or even a full-text version I can scan quickly, and that helps a lot, though the body of the full-text versions are themselves not often searchable from the catalog level. Or I go to the bibliography of the newest relevant book I can find and look for new things there. Academics with graduate students have an army of foot-soldiers who regularly hunt down what’s new and au courant, which can help a lot.

On the other hand, there’s Amazon.com. I’m hardly the first to note that Amazon as a catalog or research tool is easier to use and significantly more productive than conventional academic library catalogs. I can see the table of contents of books most of the time, and a range of associated materials--and now even parts of the book itself are searchable. More significantly by far, I can follow the actual patterns of use and association among readers through the “People who ordered this book also ordered…” links.

There are weaknesses, of course, in using Amazon as a research tool. It’s just for books that are currently in print—no articles, no research materials, no dissertations, not that many obscure monographs. The subject headings are mostly as useless on Amazon as the LC headings are in other catalogs. Keyword searching is just as messy and inconsistent in the results it produces. The patterns of reader association can become dangerously inbred: it’s still up to the searcher to make the intuitive leap from one circular cluster of associated materials to the next. But I still find myself using Amazon when I’m trying to find out what’s new in certain fields: it acquaints me with the hidden structures of readership, it uncloaks the invisible college.

I’m to the point where I think we’d be better off to just utterly erase our existing academic catalogs and forget about backwards-compatibility, lock all the vendors and librarians and scholars together in a room, and make them hammer out electronic research tools that are Amazon-plus, Amazon without the intent to sell books but with the intent of guiding users of all kinds to the books and articles and materials that they ought to find, a catalog that is a partner rather than an obstacle in the making and tracking of knowledge.