Archive for the ‘Cataloging’ Category

….but sometimes you don’t want to learn it just before lunch.

First, a little background. My colleague, Joann, has been listening to and cataloging some great oral history interviews with a Nunamiut Eskimo elder. Reindeer are one of the major food sources for the Nunamiut who are inland-dwelling Eskimos. Warble flies are one of the major parasites of reindeer, often laying their eggs under the skin of the animals.  In one of the interviews, the elder describes how, in the old days, people would cook the reindeer hide in order to eat the warble fly larvae therein which they regarded as a delicacy.

Which lead us to a new subject heading we had never used before: Entomophagy. You can read more about it here in Wikipedia. I don’t know what trace mineral elements warble fly larvae might have, but I assume that the larvae were consumed as an extra source of protein.

Oral history cataloging: it’s fun, it’s educational, and it’s not for the weak of stomach.


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Every now and then you have a little moment that reminds you why you are proud to be a cataloger.

Cataloging is an arcane science.  I like to think of it as a kind of cryptography–you analyze the object in hand and then “code it up” so that people can find it when they do a search.  Mostly that involves putting down the information that is already there, but a really good cataloger takes that extra step and finds the information that isn’t there, but should be.

Today, my assistant, Joann, was cataloging an oral history interview with a woman who, in the parlance of the time, was referred to by her husband’s name–let’s call her “Mrs. John Smith”.  This is an old practice and reflects the thinking that when two people marry, they become one person and that person is the husband (British common law, I believe).

Hoary laws and customs don’t do the modern researcher any good, however, and both Joann and I were keen to find this woman’s first name, but we were batting zero. Finally, I suggested that Joann take a look in the Pioneers of Arnor records.  If the husband was a member, then the membership rolls might name his wife.  As it happens, my guess was on the money and I’m proud to say that  “Ada Jean Smith” was entered as the author and subject of the interview.

In doing this bit of extra digging, we set the historical record straight and gave this woman back her identity. A small thing and no more than our job, but we were glad to do it.

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It’s just a wild and an untamed thing …. –Rocky Horror Picture Show

Back in the Really Olde Days when I was but a wee nipper, our high school biology teacher had us do an interesting exercise. We were to pretend that we were stranded astronauts trying to make it back to our base. He gave us a worksheet listing various items that we could take with us and we not only had to chose which items we would take to help us survive, we had to rank them in order of their importance. First, he had us do the picking and ranking on our own. Then he gave a second copy of the worksheet and we had to form small groups and do the same thing. Afterwards, we compared the two worksheets. The one that we had done as a group had more right answers than the one we had done individually. This was my first introduction to the intelligence of the collective.

What I find most fascinating about LibraryThing is not the bookshelf or community functions, but the tagging. The LT community is now large enough and has generated enough tags that they can actually catalog by consensus. That is, if you pick any one book from the list and have a look at its tags, most of them will accurately describe the book. There will always be a few inaccurate tags in the mix, but the majority are spot on. LT is an excellent example of a folksonomy–a taxonomy where the terms are generated by non-experts.

The other thing–and this is a big one–that fascinates me about tagging is that for the first time we can really see how people think about and use information. To understand why this is exciting you have to understand that most of the time librarians can only count the number of times people access information. That is, we can tell how many times a book circulates or how many hits a database gets, but we can’t tell what the patrons thought about the information they found. Did they find the book they needed? Was that article really what they were looking for? LT is essentially an on-line laboratory for information scientists.

I think that it would be very cool to be able to either overlay or import LT’s tag clouds into our own catalog and then to be able to search on them. LT has already done most of the work, including cleaning up the spam tagging, so it would essentially be a free extra for us.

This is one of the most interesting Learning 2.0 assignments to date. I was inspired to look up other articles on tagging in the Library Literature database and to follow the discussions on LT itself. I highly recommend watching the video of Tim Spaulding’s lecture on LT and tagging at the Library of Congress which is about 40 minutes long. Tim introduces LT and then talks about the strengths and weaknesses of tagging vs. controlled vocabulary and about the importance of opening library catalogs to on-line search engines. I also recommend checking out the discussion of tag mashups, LT’s version of Boolean searching.

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