Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Thinking About Librarianship

My defense has led to another long break between entries on this blog. I am glad to say that I am now ABD -- all but dissertation.

Two books that I have been reading have made me think about librarianship (beyond my monomaniacal interest in librarians and the Copyright Act of 1976.)

The first is William Patry's "The Fair Use privilege in Copyright Law." (1985.) I have been aware of this title for some time but it has been on my list of second tier titles, one of those titles that I should get round to reading but not a core text for a couple of reasons. First, not many copyright histories refer to it, which is probably related to the second reason, the title is ahistorical, and third the Library of Congress subject headings are

Fair Use (Copyright) -- United States
Fair Use (Copyright) -- United States -- Cases

Nothing about this leads the researcher to suspect that Patry wrote a legislative history of the development of the doctrine of fair use and included quite a detailed history of the evolving text of section 107 and 108 from 1955 through 1976. It is so good in fact that for one awful moment I thought he had written my dissertation! He hasn't, but his book is going to be very useful.

So why does this make me think about librarianship? Its all about precoordinate description and post coordinate searching. Precoordinate description is when an indexer creates ways in which an item can be retrieved and hopes that they have considered all the ways future researchers might search for the book. In this case, Patry and his publisher titled his book in a way that they thought would most interest their core audience -- copyright lawyers. Then the cataloger (or maybe even the publisher again, since the subject headings were part of the "Cataloging in Publication" record) created the subject headings, neither of which refer to "history." Post coordinate description happens after the event. A good current example of this is the Google Book Search program in which a researcher can search the fulltext of a book in ways that make sense to them. If I had been able to do that, Patry's book would have quickly appeared in my retrieved sets and, I hope, I would have recognizes its usefulness.

I am not suggesting we do away with pre in favor of post coordinate searching. I think that the most powerful information retrieval comes when searchers have access to both. Since precoordinate description is so expensive we should reserve the combination only for those most important items and rely on post coordinate searching for the rest. Of course, as my example shows, it is tough to know ahead of time which are those "most important items".

The second book that made me think about librarianship will be the subject of a later entry.


David said...

So, I'm wondering, do you have in mind a set of criteria for those "most important items"? If it is something like "readership" then you and I both know that comic books such as manga or graphic novels have a much higher readership than academic publications. :)

Jonathan Miller said...

David -- you raise a good point. As I said, it is tough to know what will be the most important documents. I think that will be up to particular communities. Forinstance, being a member of the "History of the 1976 Copyright Act policy development" community (a huge group, trust me) and having now found Patry's book. I may choose to put the group's enormous financial resources behind improving access to the book. Manga fans might choose to do the same (perhaps in some kind of wiki type digital space) while Midwestern corn farmers might be happy to let their literature exist without precoordinate description.
The criteria will vary for each group.