A lively debate

Steven and I have been having a wonderful flame war on the library list that I thought could work much better on the blog so here goes.

Original Post

From: Bernstein, Steven (Library)
Sent: Thursday, April 10, 2008 9:59 AM
To: Library
Subject: Overvaluing the Virtual

The following letter to the editor appeared in this month’s issue of American Libraries in response to an opinion piece that appeared in last month’s issue.  I couldn’t agree more with this librarian’s sentiments that it is not a good idea to allow kids to dictate what they will and will not learn.  This applies not only moving our libraries over to Second Life, but also to (and probably more to) the way in which we set up our systems of information retrieval.  Google-style keyword searching, while perfectly suited for finding relevant web pages is only one of many methods that can be used for searching a library catalog.  I would argue that when this method is used exclusively, the algorithms it employs leave gaping holes in what the user is able to find vis-à-vis library resources–both physical and digital.  A library catalog, which contains properly authorized, standardized, and formatted metadata, is best searched via the tried-and-true methods whether or not that is how the user is accustomed to searching.  An essential component of learning is considering things with which we are not familiar.  As educators, librarians are responsible for bringing their students out of their element so that they can become truly information literate.

Overvaluing the Virtual
I can appreciate Lisa Forrest’s skepticism about Second Life (Mar., p. 11). I, too, am a forward-thinking librarian but am reluctant to give up teaching users to find and use information in the real world-there’s far too much to be lost. The constant argument for a virtual library world is that we must charm a generation of kids raised on Playstation and X-box. At what point in the past 30 years did kids get to dictate what they will and will not learn? They were born digital, so they can’t learn to use books? Well, they were born unable to walk but we don’t cart them around in strollers for the rest of their lives, do we? They learn to walk and are able to discover the world on their own. And like walking, which babies learn to do instinctively, I believe that students have an inherent desire to learn-it just needs to be fostered by parents and educators. In an overzealous and shortsighted attempt to appease students, I hate to think that we’re neglecting to teach them to use resources that will offer them a larger view of the information that is available in the real world (much of it digital!). So they fall down a few times. We know-and believe they will discover-that it’s well worth it.
Kathleen Collins
John Jay College of Criminal Justice
New York City

Steven Jay Bernstein
Assistant Catalog Librarian
Elihu Burritt Library
Central Connecticut State University
1615 Stanley Street
New Britain, Connecticut 06050
PHONE: (860) 832-2079
FAX: (860) 832-2053
E-MAIL: Bernsteinstj@ccsu.edu

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5 Responses to A lively debate

  1. Edward says:

    My response

    I find this logic to be rather flawed. First there is the premise that the best method for retrieving data in a catalog in by definition the best way to retrieve data.

    “ A library catalog, which contains properly authorized, standardized, and formatted metadata, is best searched via the tried-and-true methods whether or not that is how the user is accustomed to searching. “

    This may be true as far as it goes but only the tiniest fraction of available information is in the catalog. The catalog is not a logical place to search for an article for example. If you want to find that you need to look at a database. Further, what is the point of teaching many different search strategies when computers can translate those strategies. Boolean ANDs are built into most search engines as the default for a space but not the catalog. It is much more logical to have one meta search engine translate

    Bill w/2 Clinton (Lexis)
    Clinton Bill 1946 (Subject Search in OPAC)
    Bill AND Clinton (Ebsco)
    Bill Clinton (Google)

    Of those choices the Google interface seems the most straightforward to me.

    Ultimatley we are here to serve users. What we may feel comfortable with is less important than what they feel comfortable with. The library is increasingly marginalized as place because of the library communitie’s inadequacy in changing to suit the needs of its users. Public libraries have responded to this by becoming destinations for information related activities rather than stale depositories of books. If the academic library is to survive in any form then there must be a reason for its existance. The sooner we realize we are here to promote student learning and not an outdated method of search and retrival the sooner the misguided belief that we are indespensable can go away. Faculty increasingly find the information they need to do research outside the library. They also increasingly publish in scholarly journals that never see print and are hardley ever accessed through a library portal. Students discovered a long time ago they can get through college without ever setting foot in the library. These are the realities of our environment. We should be focused on what our users want and need rather than trying to save the endangered ILS. As a systems librarian who has administered a copuple of them I know that their biggest weakness is when librarians mistakenly believe everything is in the catalog. The catalog is a rather simplistic inventory control system with a public interface, nothing more. It is one resource among many resources and not the most used or the most valuable.

    Edward Iglesias
    Systems Librarian
    Central Connecticut State University

    PS This would be an excellent blog thread.

  2. Edward says:

    Steven’s Response


    Your accusation of flawed logic is based on a flawed reading of what I wrote. I did not say–as you imply–that every fraction of available information is in the catalog, but rather that one cannot apply the methods of searching webpages–which do not contain authorized, standardized, and formatted metadata–to searching databases (a catalog is a type of database) and expect to retrieve the most relevant results. According to almost every theory of information seeking behavior, one of the first stages of information seeking is to define the task of the search (i.e. “I am looking for books”, “I am looking for web pages”, “I am looking for articles”, “I am looking for images”). Google understands this, which is why at the top-left of their search screen, they have a listing of the different types of searches available to the information seeker. While most of these search types in Google are simply a web search with limits applied, there are a few that actually search databases of structured metadata (i.e. Google Maps) and therefore, require different search strategies. Databases require a different search strategy than web search engines. It’s as simple as that. Automobiles and airplanes are both types of vehicles, but you can’t use your knowledge of how to drive a car to fly a plane. Different skill sets are needed because each vehicle does something very different from the other.

    As far as your comparison between Lexis, OPACs and Ebsco is concerned, the fact that different databases structure their metadata differently is irrelevant. What is relevant is that their metadata are structured to begin with and the search strategy used for searching them is very much the same regardless of the thesaurus used to control their entries.

    I also fully disagree with your assertion that we are here to serve users. We are here to educate students to become information literate. What the users want is not necessarily what we should be providing. My favorite analogy is the school cafeteria: just because students want pizza, soda, cookies, and chips for lunch does not mean that that’s what the school should serve; rather it should serve healthy well rounded meals (that potentially could include a slice of pizza, etc.) and educate the students with regard to healthy eating habits. They are afterall students (as are we all) who are here for the very reason that they do not know it all.


  3. Edward says:

    My response back


    I hope you are right and others think you are right. It would mean that I have job security. I do not believe that to be the case though. In the business world the first department cut is the library. As universities increasingly become businesses and not academies they will start to realize that the library is a bloated department that does not return much value for the investment given. As for the searching of differently formatted materials I would argue that this is increasingly irrelevant. The information the user is seeking is contained somewhere. In a book, in a blog, in a journal. The instantiation does not matter. The answer to the user’s question matters. It is interesting that you use google as an exemplar for good user interface design. If you look at what III is doing with
    Encore or OCLC is doing with Worldcat local they take the opposite approach. Put in a keyword and figure out what it is you want from there (Faceted Searching). See


    part of


    Edward Iglesias

  4. Edward says:

    Steven’s rebuttal

    Your idea that the instantiation does not matter is true in some cases but not all. To say so blurs the line between the casual information seeker (who may not care that they have an exact thing just as long as they have something) and the researcher (who requires precision). As an academic library, our users consist of researchers and students whose goal it is to do research. I understand that universities are quickly becoming businesses that care more about seeming cutting edge than seeing to the needs of their constituents, but I don’t have to celebrate that fact.

    Google is an examplar for good user interface design for a web search engine, not for a database. The difference is what it is that I am trying to communicate.

    As far as faceted search is concerned, it is true that faceted search makes use of keyword searching, but I never said that keyword search of a catalog was a bad thing. I said that keyword searching used exclusively when searching a catalog is not sufficient. What is exciting about faceted search is that it makes use of the metadata contained in the database to allow the user to broaden or narrow her search. This is something that cannot be done with a web search engine since web pages do not have the same structure as bibliographic records.


  5. Edward says:

    Back at ya,

    I agree that there are some researches who need greater precision, however I disagree that the standard catalog interface is the only or best way to get at that information. Just as we really do not need the Reader’s Guide in its venerable green book form when we have it online so we do not need to teach students methods of searching that are rapidly becoming outdated. While highly structured search methods are necessary for highly structured databases the trend I see is to free the bibliographic database from its MARC prison by converting it to XML for example. The user rules and ILS vendors realize that.

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