Note on the role of knowledge

David Bade sent me the following note about some LC cataloging that demonstrates (though absence) that librarianship requires more than just knowledge of tools and technique but also knowledge of subject matter. I will write more at some point on the way we can mislead ourselves and others about our role and our skills when we say “I don’t know the answer but I know how to look it up.” David writes:

Just found LC copy in OCLC for a Russian book (translated: The political (“Asiatic”) mode of production: its nature and role in the history of humanity and in Russia). The LC cataloger had this as Slavery—Asia—History; Forced labor—Economic aspects–Soviet Union. Apparently s/he was not familiar with the old theory of “Asiatic mode of production”? Does such knowledge date me as having lived in, known and studied the world prior to 1989? This kind of disconnect? ignorance? carelessness? in cataloging just leaves me reeling in disbelief. At least in the old days (pre 1989) LC had a bunch of cold warriors who knew exactly what was under discussion.

Usually I think about the role of general knowledge and subject knowledge in reference service, but this shows it applies equally to cataloging.

2 comments on “Note on the role of knowledge

  1. I confess my ignorance of this term, with regret. Just looked at Wikipedia’s take on it, and then again at the subject headings.

    As a practical matter, if you’re going to criticize subject headings, you (David) need offer your own as an alternative, don’t assume it’s obvious to everyone what those alternatives should be. I would like to know what David’s preferred subject heads would be for this work, but I am still wallowing in ignorance.

    After reading the Wikipedia article on “Asiatic Mode of production” I still don’t see what’s all that horrible about the LCSH used/quoted. Help?

  2. JJR: The problems are multiple. There is an established heading “Asiatic mode of production” which was the obvious place to start, if one is aware of the long history of that theory: that is a matter of prior knowledge. The book has 3 pages on Asia-yes, just 3–along with 30 pages on African and 12 pages on American systems: giving a subject heading for Slavery–Asia–History for 3 pages seems like carelessness, i.e. following the rule if the word is in the title make a subject heading for it. But the word Asiatic inthe title refers to the theory, not geography–a very BIG difference.

    The bulk of the book consists of discussions the Asiatic mode of production as theory and how this relates to what happened in Russia: from the medieval situation described in Sergeevich’s history of Russian law to the industrial-asiatic mode of the Soviet Union (his description)and the results of the recent democratic counterrevolution.

    A point I have made in earlier writings is that if the librarian (or the software) cannot notice, identify and correct the problem, it does not follow that the problem does not exist. Problems only exist for the library user who knows her stuff and is looking for works on the Asiatic mode of production (for example). Librarians may think ignorance is bliss, but I doubt any library users feel that way when they become aware of the librarian’s bliss.

    I do complain, though I like to think of this as critical praxis or scientific/philosophical rigor in the interest of the library’s users. I also make my comments with the book in hand and the authorization to change the record as needed. Look at OCLC 294760672 for the current record as I altered it.

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