Libraries and Learning

Not So Fast!

June 5, 2019

My friend and former colleague Amy Fry wrote a smart response (not paywalled) to an essay by Timothy Messer-Kruse in the Chronicle Review, “How Google Scrambled the Academic Mind” (paywalled). Messer-Kruse argues that digitization has “vaporized” the structured knowledge represented in the card catalog and other forms of pre-digital organization that relied on human curation, abandoning order to the anarchy of keywords and word frequencies used by Google. (In fact, Google’s algorithm is a good bit more complicated than that, but it isn’t hand-crafted.)

He notes that catalog records still exist in library discovery systems, but are less useful than they could be. He laments that you can’t “descend through layers of specificity to discretely arranged topics” – though, if I recall my old-school cataloging rules, that never was the case with subject headings. You were supposed to describe the book in specific terms, though subheadings could further refine that specificity. If the book was about parrots, you didn’t put vertebrates – birds – parrots in a subject heading. You put parrots, with maybe a geographic subdivision. The arrangement of topics from broad to specific is found in classification, the rules that determine which shelf the book will be on – something that doesn’t generally pertain with ebooks. There are a other errors that Messer-Kruse would have been spared had he talked to a librarian. (No, publishers didn’t give books subject headings, the Library of Congress started doing that in 1971 with the Cataloging in Publication project.) But I am somewhat sympathetic to his main point: we have grown accustomed to the idea that if we use the right keywords, we should be able to find answers quickly and easily.

Amy Fry doesn’t fault him on the facts, she points to the reality that organization doesn’t matter if the stuff isn’t there in the first place. She writes

Few academics may realize that we are in the midst of a vast dismantling of academic library infrastructure . . . no matter how carefully libraries catalog, if we are not adding the content to our collections that the majority of our students and researchers need to use, there will be nothing there for them to find.

Those who know me will predict that I agree. Libraries don’t buy books like they once did, even ones well-suited for a particular academic community. For undergraduates, in particular, books are often more useful than the more specialized treatment of topics found in the scholarly journals articles that are devouring our shrinking budgets. Bundles of ebooks are not the solution when we know students prefer print (though ebooks make win out for students in distance programs or where commuting time and limited parking make library visits difficult). And unlike print books, most ebooks can’t be shared through interlibrary loan, which is a huge step backward.

Both Amy Fry and Timothy Messer-Kruse wonder what this means for student learning. Amy points out that students won’t have much alternative to Google if the library doesn’t have anything to offer. Messer-Kruse worries that students seem incapable of asking questions, only of searching for topics, stymied by the anarchy of unorganized search.

I’m not so sure. I was hired the year my library switched from a card catalog to a computerized version in the late 1980s. It took several years before indexes and abstracts went online, first to CD-ROMs and then to databases. Only recently did we acquire the now-ubiquitous “discovery” system that mixes the catalog with databases unless you know how to ask it not to. In over thirty years, I don’t recall a time when students didn’t struggle with the idea that they should ask questions, not simply seek answers, that they should make arguments, not write reports. That’s always been a challenge.

The Googlization of the catalog has certainly had downsides. When students are looking for a book we don’t have but find a review of it, they are naturally confused. When we locate the book in another library, but they can’t borrow it because it’s an ebook, they’re understandably disgruntled. They have to be shown the filters on the side of their results that let them narrow to books or by broad subject headings, which just seems like extra work. When libraries got jealous of Google’s popularity, we thought we could reconstruct its simplicity, but we don’t have Google’s engineers and the kinds of information we offer is not easily put on a Google Knowledge Graph Card, those little boxed answers that appear next to your results, usually swiped from the first paragraph of a Wikipedia article.

But to be honest, library systems of cataloging and classification have never been great when it comes to seeing connections and building knowledge through understanding context. Maybe Google has created the false impression that finding answers is easy, because they’ve made easy to answer simple questions. But students need both the time to explore and the motivation to ask questions that matter – and that has never been simple or easy.


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Babel Fish Bouillabaisse II by Barbara Fister is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.