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The more things change …

May 27, 2008

Jessie Shera has always appealed to me as a person who actually thought deeply about the concept of being a librarian.  From his 1965 book, Libraries and the Organization of Knowledge:

“The hodgepodge of bibliographic services available today to scholars and research workers in various fields is the result of “microcosmic” thinking.  It is as though each of our railroads has been established by a small separate group, each running around and around its own little circuit, exchanging the produce of the local inhabitants within its own area but, but with no junction point to connect it with other similar circuits and with no overall plan to facilitate general exchange at national or international levels. Bibliography is, or should be a carrier system for ideas and information analogous to a to a well-articulated  railroad system for the transportation of physical commodities.”

While Shera was speaking of “bibliographies” in a pre-online sense (I assume that he was including the various indexes etc. available in paper at the time), this can all be translated into the current day just by thinking of the broader concept of bibliography including just about every finding aid that we use now to find information. Shera was quite familiar with all things library automation, although I’m not sure how much he could have been thinking about automation in 1965.  However, his thoughts do sum up a lot of my frustrations with current information seeking in libraries.  A lot of the world actually seems to be integrated information-wise these days, but when I turn to my local commercially-supplied indexes I find myself in a series of completely isolated, unique, and semi-functional tools. The more one lives in a world of connected information, the more annoying this state of things is when seeking info.  Libraries have mad efforts to provide links between these products  and have managed great things, but the environment remains quite a bit less than ideal.  Obviously, it’s all about various companies whose goals do not include teaming up with their competitors, but in my idealistic world information is not broken up into chunks based on who owns the rights to distribution.  I much prefer it when I don’t choose the chunk of information first (like History or Biology or whatever), but rather choose the community that I want to deal with and then find out what they use.  This is far more in line not with how information is organized, but with how it is used.  None of the communities live in isolation as the organization of the information might suggest … the communities interact, and they share information.  The organization of information into Shera’s “little circuits” is, more than anything, inconvenient. The more it is put into discreet categories, the more I turn to alternatives.

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