This morning I finally got around to reading Thomas Mann’s most recent essay, “The Peloponnesian War and the Future of Reference, Cataloging, and Scholarship in Research Libraries” [.pdf].
HIGHLY recommended for everyone who has anything to do with research libraries.
Recommended for anyone because just in reading it, I learned one bibliographic research trick I didn’t know before (which could have been saving me LOADS of time recently).
Basically, this essay is a passionate yet reasoned, articulate argument that the direction many researchers/theoreticians in our field and library managers seem convinced is the right one for research libraries is an assault on the culture of scholarship and the ability to conduct scholarly research.
Keyword searching, relevance ranking, folksonomies, federated search, etc are useful additions to our systems, and are obvious good solutions for the Web. But they are not acceptable substitutes for professional subject cataloging and all of the structure it brings to the catalog and the library’s carefully built collections.
It is dangerous to conflate the the needs of person doing a quick information search with the scholar doing scholarly research, who engages in an intensive process of iterative information seeking and knowledge building.
Libraries are based on principles that serve the needs of scholars. Are we ready to admit that scholarship is archaic, unnecessary, and not worth supporting in today’s world? In today’s market? It’s not sexy. It’s not quick and easy. The cash value of it isn’t readily apparent.
I think LIS educators should definitely read this, and not just those who teach subject cataloging. It is highly relevant to reference and bibliographic instruction as well.
We need to continue to teach and champion the power and relevance of the principles on which libraries are based, without either clinging to the way things have been done in the past or claiming that everything needs to change.
(and this post is an example of why i don’t blog more. i’ve spent far too much time on it and it is still all over the place and doesn’t make my point well. practice?)