Interview with David Bade

David Bade is a cataloger at the University of Chicago who has written books and articles on issues in bibliographic control and other topics. Lately, he’s has gained some attention in cataloging circles for his intelligent criticism of the Library of Congress in their recent decisions concerning the future of bibliographic description. Library Juice Press is proud to have published his latest book this year: Responsible Librarianship: Library Policies for Unreliable Systems. As publisher of the book and author of this blog, I asked David to be interviewed about the book for Library Juice readers.

David, could you tell us why you wrote the three papers that make up Responsible Librarianship and summarize the book a bit? The first paper makes up the majority of the book, so if you could focus on that…

It was out of a sense of professional responsibility that I wrote my first essay on bibliographic control in 1998. Because of the nature of work flow in the UC library, many times the items which come to me for original cataloging are already in OCLC and it was the repeated experience of seeing truly bizarre cataloging that disturbed me greatly. Back then the misinformation was not the product of the low end of the information spectrum but in almost all cases the great academic libraries of the US or outsourcing agencies like TechPro; nowadays of course it comes from everywhere. I did not understand how that could be. So I felt that I had to study the problem in depth. I felt the issue of data quality had to be addressed more forcefully in the library world, and so between 1998 and now I have spent more time studying theoretical and practical aspects of quality and errors than I had ever imagined existed. I discovered that there is an immensely valuable literature on failure in organizations and technical systems, and that is the literature of ergonomics. I feel that the library profession must begin to take seriously these issues and that literature if we are to be engaged with technologies at all. Ergonomics is a field in which one of the major changes of the past 25 years has been the realization of the crucial role that policies have in creating the conditions for failure.

The LC series decision made me feel that I had to respond publicly. I chose Autocat as the means of getting my comments out into the open (the second paper in Responsible Librarianship) and it worked pretty well. But I also knew that the people who make the policy decisions do not read Autocat, have a very negative attitude toward catalogers and often ignore discussions of cataloging entirely due to their belief that cataloging is no longer necessary. I felt the need for a more detailed argument. So I wrote Politics and Policies for Database Qualities, the first paper in the new book. In that paper the first matter was to understand just what is meant by refering to quality. The dominant argument for the past decade in this area has been Sarah Thomas’ argument that quantity of results retrieved is more important than the quality of results, combined with an emphasis on timeliness to the exclusion of all other considerations. What I tried to do in the first section of the paper was to argue that quality depends on purposes and goals, and then in the second section to argue that those are established not by library administration but by the institutional practices that the library serves. To take seriously any set of practices seems to me to preclude any reduction of all factors to time in the queue, to the simple directive Thomas enforced in her library: No backlogs.

The third part of the paper is a short overview of some of the key arguments from ergonomics concerning the genesis and management of failure. Eric Hollnagel, whose work has revolutionized ergonomics and my own thinking as well, wrote to me not long ago that “people in general seem to have enormous faith in the powers of technology and computers, to the extent that it shuts off anything that resembles normal common sense.” That common sense is on the order of “garbage in, garbage out”, but the latest library wisdom has it that we do not have to construct shared information systems, we need only exploit them. The failure to understand networked systems as systems, the failure to deal with temporal developments, a complete disregard for the diversity of goals and purposes for which information is created, a refusal to look at the results of policies, the assumption that errors do not matter: all of these recipes for disaster have been described and analyzed in detail in the ergonomics literature.

The last part of Politics and Policies for Database Qualities focuses on the political aspects of policy making in libraries. I am particularly interested in the conflict between the practices and values of scholarship and science, i.e. the values that academic libraries are supposed to support, and the practices and values of a library seen as nothing more than the management of stock, as though there is no difference between a Borders bookstore, a limestone quarry and the Library of Congress. Universities in general and libraries in particular when managed like business concerns are simply the repudiation of what the university is about, self-contradictions in the heart of our culture.

I think that’s a good summary of what is covered in the book, and should give Library Juice Readers a sense of the originality of your approach to these problems.

Regarding the conflict between the values of science and scholarship and the values of simplistically defined efficiency that you talk about in the last part of the Politics and Policies… That is obviously a key problem of our time within our field and in others. I wonder how you answer critics who say that the money isn’t available to do things to the standards that you would like to see. And possibly related to that, how does the literature of ergonomics relate to cataloging? I thought it was about having my monitor at the right height…

There is a classic paper in economics: Akerlof’s 1970 paper “The market for lemons: quality, uncertainty and the market mechanism.” For a brief discussion and links see . Bad quality drives out good: that is a law that should disconcert anyone who looks at what is being entered into our databases. It was very easy for me to jump into the economic literature and find an abundance of research suggesting that the library wisdom is not the least bit economically sound. I discuss just a bit of that in the first paper.

It is certainly the case that every library has to determine what they can do given their existing budget; the problem is that in almost every case that I know of decisions about what needs to be done are being made on the basis of misconceptions about what information technologies do. This always leads to decisions supposedly based on economic considerations, but since the overall situation has been misunderstood, the arguments are simply invalid. That was why 35 years ago shared databases led libraries to get rid of catalogers in the expectation that someone else would do the work. The same thing is happening all over again except that now we are expecting Yankee Book Pedlar, foreign book dealers and to provide all the information we need. The problem is that instead of a clear understanding of what technical potential presupposes and requires for its successful performance, the technical system is itself assumed to be the guarantee of success, a mistaken belief that lies at the basis of many library policies. A classic case is Sheila Intner’s 1990 boast that some good expert systems programmed for cataloging would be better than all the combined intelligence of the world’s catalogers. If you start there, and so many library movers-and-shakers do, then the place to put your money is in software not people. If on the other hand you are committed to research and scholarship as essentially a conversation and debate, then it would seem downright fascist to let the conversation be guided and deterimined by some algorithm “under the hood.” To me the issue is much more a political matter connected to what, why, and for whom we operate than a matter of economics.

The misunderstanding of technical systems among librarians is evident in every article which discusses information technologies as simply technical systems, i.e. virtually everywhere. Paul Duguid, Uwe Jochum, Wanda Orlikowski and above all Philippe Breton have been important correctives to those misunderstandings, but references to all of them except Duguid are absent in in the library literature. With a right understanding it would be impossible to treat information systems as both cooperative constructions and at the same time simply resources to be exploited without consideration of any other participating institutions.

My original attitude toward ergonomics was the same as yours: something about carpal tunnel syndrome, monitors at the right height, etc. The only reason I began reading the ergonomics literature was in order to see if there was anything there that might aid me in understanding what was happening in libraries. That literature covers a wide range of topics, from accidents to reliability engineering to organizational barriers to success and policies that guarantee failure. In large part research in ergonomics has come to focus not on technical systems in isolation but on people + technical system + social environment, for it is only from this larger perspective that one can understand both the success and failures of people working with technologies.

Many librarians have been urging change upon us, insisting that everything must be done in a certain way and done ASAP or we are all going to become obsolete. These calls are nothing other than the tyrannical efforts of those who have decided that the way forward is not discussion and debate but universal obedience to managerial decision. We are to follow technological developments rather than critically engage them. Technical systems follow a logic of their own: certain things are facilitated, others impossible. Technical systems are rigorous, i.e. totalitarian. They operate according to design imperatives, not political debate. The ergonomics literature at times comes tantalizingly close to this realization. It was Hannah Arendt’s book on Eichmann, though, not the ergonomics literature, that led me to look at the significance of treating libraries as systems for cargo transport rather than engagement with the life and goals of scholarship.

David, how do you hope librarians will make use of your book?

I hope it will make them think. I hope it will lead them to reconsider the importance of investigating failure. How can we possibly improve librarianship if we refuse to look at where we are failing? And I hope it will lead them to think of librarianship as part of a normative practice, rooted in communication among people, with communication understood as genuine dialogue and debate not simply transportation and storage of some unexamined cargo.

Thanks very much for talking about your book, David.

5 comments on “Interview with David Bade

  1. Thanks for this, David. What an interesting discussion. I never realized the broader meaning of ergonomics, either.

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