Review of David Bade’s Responsible Librarianship

Book review sent to the RadCat discussion list.

RESPONSIBLE LIBRARIANSHIP: LIBRARY POLICIES FOR UNRELIABLE SYSTEMS, by David Bade. Duluth, Minn.: Library Juice Press, 2008. xv, 172 p. $22.00. ISBN 978-0-9778617-6-7.

To say that David Bade has a passion for the topic of which he writes would be a gross understatement. In the time since the Library of Congress announced that it was no longer creating series authority records or even tracing series in bibliographic records, Bade has appeared as a man on a mission, decrying the increasing trend in libraries toward deliberately lowered quality of bibliographic control. His articles have been published in journals such as Cataloging & Classification Quarterly and Language & Communication, and his contributions appear occasionally in email discussion lists such as AUTOCAT. His latest book, Responsible Librarianship: Library Policies for Unreliable Systems, is an important work comprising three papers, all written after the LC announcement. Addressing the LC series policy specifically is a letter to AUTOCAT dated May 31, 2006 (although the shortest piece in the book, it is rather substantial and lengthy by AUTOCAT standards–a full six pages). The letter is sandwiched between “Politics and Policies for Database Qualities” (a nearly book-length work in itself at 107 pages) and “Structures, standards, and the people who make them meaningful” (a revised version of a paper read in Chicago before the second public meeting of the Library of Congress Working Group on the Future of Bibliographic Control). Preceding all of these is a very lively “Foreward!” by Thomas Mann (Library of Congress).

The “systems” of the title refers not only to automated integrated library systems, but also to the entire bibliographic information production and delivery chain, extending to the vendors, organizations, and networks beyond the individual library. The word “for” in the title could be read in two ways: in making his case for good library policies needed in the context of unreliable systems, Bade gives examples of library policies that result in unreliable systems. In the age of Google and tightened library staff budgets, the traditional functions of the catalog are being questioned and standards for bibliographic data are being revised (one might rather say “dumbed down”), and general keyword searching is being endorsed as sufficient for almost any catalog query.

In the first paper, Bade talks of the purposes of libraries, of the designs of systems and their subsequent uses, of successes and failures of organizations. He guides us through ergonomics, goals and standards, and into high reliability organizations (HROs). In the picture he paints, today’s research libraries are far from being HROs; instead of ensuring the accuracy of data input, they are placing emphasis on quantity and speed, opting to take on a “repair service policy” to handle only the most serious errors.

Bade provides as an in-depth example of bad policy the Classification on Receipt (COR) procedure at Cornell University Library. In that procedure the unstated assumptions include rapid processing as the only goal and keyword searching as the only search strategy needing support. Bade demonstrates that COR renders classification and shelf browsing meaningless, makes precise searching counterproductive, creates and disseminates misinformation, and propagates errors. By limiting the amount of work that can be done on an individual record, professionalism is devalued. And by adding substandard records to the OCLC database, other libraries are burdened with the task of upgrading those records, calling into question the nature of “cooperative” cataloging.

Bade makes it easy for the reader to see that under the current paradigm, the quality can only continue to decline: if every library creates brief records, and does not upgrade the brief records created by other libraries, in time all there will be is minimum level, everyone settling for less than mediocrity. It is difficult to avoid seeing a vicious circle: as libraries continue their attempts to do “more with less” by cutting staff and lowering standards, administrators are rewarded for their good work and asked to take it even further. The tragedy is that as cataloging production costs are reduced, information finding costs–for both library user and library staff–increase dramatically. If the data in the record are in error, are incomplete, do not use controlled vocabulary, or are in fields only accessed by general keyword searches, a resource might be found only with great difficulty, or perhaps not at all. The reliability of the system is suspect; a database is only as reliable as the lowest quality data it contains. Or, as the author puts it, “we have a First World information system crippled by Fourth World information lack.”

There is a point that Bade just hints at in the first paper, and one wishes for elaboration: in reading his account of the trend toward acquisition (instead of local production) of bibliographic data, the reader might notice a parallel to the development of library technical systems themselves. Many of the systems were first created by libraries, then sold off to commercial enterprises. What had started out responding specifically to the library’s needs now responds mainly to a corporate bottom line, and has slipped out of the librarians’ hands. In his book, Bade talks about librarians ceding control of the bibliographic data itself. Why is it so difficult for librarians to demand what is needed from the system vendors, and could the source of that difficulty also lie beneath part of the trends in cataloging and catalog maintenance? This is a topic that perhaps lies outside the scope of the present book (for sure such a discussion would have gone on a tangent in the area of psychology), but would be worthy of further exploration.

The second paper in the book is Bade’s letter to AUTOCAT, delivering a blistering critique of the LC series policy. For regular readers of that email list this is a repeat, but well worth rereading. Its location in the book is a bit curious, however; it would seem to have fit better at the beginning, in proper chronological context and as a prelude to the major work.

The third paper contrasts the goal of bibliographic data, communication (i.e., the bibliographic record having something to say, and the catalog user comprehending it), with the LC Working Group’s apparent theory of librarianship, data transport (i.e., in Bade’s words, “data are not created for people but for processing by applications”). In Bade’s analysis, an emphasis on data transport results in structures and standards that impede the goal of communication. There needs to be a better understanding of what the users and uses of the catalog are, and a better understanding of what technology can and cannot do. We are relying on increasingly sophisticated computer programs to mine the catalog data, yet we are at the same time ever more reluctant to supply the actual data. It is as if everyone has forgotten the old axiom “garbage in, garbage out”.

Bade’s research is quite extensive–the bibliography in the first paper lists 175 items over 17 pages!–and his arguments are supported by discussions in areas such as philosophy, ergonomics, and TQM. His highly academic writing style may not be the usual for readers whose main professional reading diet is along the lines of American Libraries; but those who might find it challenging at first are advised to stay with it, for they will find their effort repaid in full. As one who is always compelled to follow a reference, this reviewer was quite pleased to see the use of actual footnotes, eliminating the need to keep a finger stuck in the back of the book. (In the first paper, the footnotes are copious and substantial, and should not be missed.) The third paper is accompanied by reproductions of the handouts from the LC Working Group meeting; it is unfortunate, however, that the screen prints which originally appeared on 8.5 x 11 in. sheets have been shrunk to fit pages half that size, so the print is tiny and slightly fuzzy (readers with excellent eyesight will not have too much trouble). Attendees at the Working Group meeting were expected to have read the background papers, and readers of this book may want to do the same. The URLs for the papers are given in the bibliography, under “Fallgren”.

Responsible Librarianship is very highly recommended for anyone interested in bibliographic control and the role of the catalog in libraries and scholarship. It is especially recommended for cataloging managers, technical services administrators, and library school faculty, but is of interest to anyone who cares deeply about the future of science and scholarship.

Reviewed by Kevin M. Randall, Principal Serials Cataloger, Northwestern University Library, 1970 Campus Drive, Evanston, Illinois 60208-2300