Library Policies for Unreliable Systems
Author: David Bade
Published: February 2008
The three papers in this volume (two previously published short papers and one unpublished long paper) were written in the wake of a single policy decision at the Library of Congress: the decision to cease the practice of distinguishing and collating series through the use of distinctive headings maintained in an authority file. Because of the interconnectedness of technical systems in libraries and library networks, local policies, organizational structures, work flows, and personnel everywhere are designed, implemented and managed with certain assumptions about that system, what it requires and what it provides. A single decision, such as LC’s decision on series authority records, can have repercussions throughout these systems. As long as individual institutions are aware of the different goals and practices among the institutions providing input to the system, accomodation of and adaptation to that variety can be a constant local preoccupation of policy and practice. This activity presupposes local control (autonomy), clarity of institutional purpose, flexible staffing and financial support. Yet these are precisely the elements which the growth of the technical system makes it possible for library managers to eliminate on the grounds of efficiencies in labor, productivity and cost.
These papers examine library policies and organizational structures in light of the literature of ergonomics, high reliability organizations, joint cognitive systems and integrational linguistics. Bade argues that many policies and structures have been designed and implemented on the basis of assumptions about technical possibilities, ignoring entirely the political dimensions of local determination of goals and purposes as well as the lessons from ergonomics, such as the recognition that people are the primary agents of reliability in all technical systems. Because libraries are understood to be loci of human interaction and communication rather than purely technical systems at the disposal of an abstract user, Bade insists on looking at problems of meaning and communication in the construction and use of the library catalog. Looking at various policies for metadata creation and the results of those policies forces the question: is there a responsible human being behind the library web site and catalog, or have we abandoned the responsibilities of thinking and judgment in favor of procedures, algorithms and machines?
David Bade is a Senior Librarian at the University of Chicago’s Joseph Regenstein Library where he is responsible for the cataloguing of Eastern European publications. He studied linguistics (minor in Arabic) and librarianship at the University of Illinois. His present research is focused on the processes of misunderstanding, mystifying and mythologizing technologies and how this allows a technocratic elite to turn convivial tools into tools for control and exploitation. The communicative and linguistic aspects of this process—from managerial rhetoric to spamming—are the subjects of work in press and in progress.