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SIGIA-L Mail Archives: [Sigia-l] Blasphemy: Ontology is Overrated?

[Sigia-l] Blasphemy: Ontology is Overrated?

From: kalbach_at_scils.rutgers.edu
Date: Fri May 06 2005 - 04:24:07 EDT


Mr Shirky’s understanding of LCSH is indeed misguided.

Apart from the fact that LCSH is not an ontology, consider the
following:

Traditional libraries need a system to locate physical objects
because books ARE physical objects. Unless someone can find a way to
shelve a book in to two physical locations at once, that criticism
is pretty much moot. What Mr Shirky is completely overlooking is the
primary means that users locate these books: the surrogate record,
(aka the catalogue).

In pre-computer libraries, even the card catalogue had multiple
records for each physical item, in some cases a dozen or so access
points to a single object. The most common access points being
author, title and subject. Variant names, however, have long since
been accounted for even with paper card catalogues. And so have
multiple subjects. The Book of 5 Rings could very well be found
under “Business” AND “War” in a traditional, offline catalogue.
Libraries have decoupled books from their physical location long
before Mr Shirky was born.

With online public access catalogues (OPACs), the number of access
points increases. Essentially all fields of a catalogue record are
searchable. Summary texts may be searchable, as well as individual
songs on CD, for instance. This is in addition to a subject
hierarchy.

An alternative to a subject-oriented classification scheme might be
running accession numbers. With this, libraries would simply give
books shelf location numbers in the order that they were catalogued.
But then, when the average library goer enters the stacks to
retrieve a book, there would be no apparent order. The polar bear
book would be right next to The Book of 5 Rings.

LCSH and Dewey allow users to browse books on the shelf, fostering
serendipitous information discovery. Who hasn’t looked to the left
and right of the book you were going for? I’ve found important
research for my work that way and I know others do too.

People rarely use LCSH as an initial access point.

Don’t get me wrong – there are lot’s of really bad things about the
way traditional libraries are organized. But Mr Shirky has picked
the wrong target, and has made false claims and comparisons. He
should have been focusing on the catalogue system or digital
libraries in general or OPAC interfaces. Attacking a fairly
established, fairly robust system that allows for in-stack subject
browsing of physical things, such as LCSH, and then comparing that
the web to is really a waste of energy.

Jim

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