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Thomas Mann (no, not that one) has a fascinating and important article about why tagging, folksonomies, and the rest of the hip Web 2.0 stuff is inadequate to meet the needs of scholars looking for information. It is, at least informally, a response to the Calhoun Report.

His example of trying to find information about “tribute payments in the Peloponnesian War” is classic and convincing: Finding what the scholar needs requires smart human guides and the smart guides that humans have created for scholars.

But, of course that doesn’t scale:

I would be the first to agree that the inexpensive indexing methods of term weighting, tagging, and folksonomy referrals–none of which requires expensive professional input–are entirely appropriate for dealing with most of the Internet’s Web offerings. With billions of sites to be indexed, it is out of the question to think that traditional cataloging can be applied to all of them. No one in his right mind would say otherwise.

But there is a crucial distinction that is being swept under the rug: the difference between quick information seeking and scholarship.

And, he says, scholarship requires books. Thus, the labor- and intelligence-intensive scholarly information clustering techniques will continue to work because the flow of books will continue to be relatively slow:

The universe of books published every year is much smaller, and much more manageable, than the universe of Web sites; this is the “niche” of sources to which professional cataloging should be primarily devoted. … Most of the billions of Web sites do not merit this level of attention to begin with; they are too inconsequential and too ephemeral. If we are going to promote scholarship, it is not enough to simply digitize the books for immediate retrieval if term weighting of keywords, tagging, and folksonomy referrals are the only mechanisms we provide for finding them. It is not at all unrealistic to propose that research libraries fill the niche of providing the best, most systematic, access to books…

He later says that systematic cataloging should not exclude all non-books.

As an argument for maintaining human expertise in manually assembling information into meaningful relationships, this paper is convincing. But it rests on supposing that books will continue to be the locus of worthwhile scholarly information. Suppose more and more scholars move onto the Web and do their thinking in public, in conversation with other scholars? Suppose the Web enables scholarship to outstrip the librarians? Manual assemblages of knowledge would retain their value, but they would no longer provide the authoritative guide. Then we will have either of two results: We will have to rely on “‘lowest common denominator’”and ‘one search box/one size fits all’ searching that positively undermines the

requirements of scholarly research”…or we will have to innovate to address the distinct needs of scholars.

My money is on the latter.

He concludes:

We need to make the best possible use of our principles, our experience, our tested practices, and our technologies, and not yield to the temptations to let either the technologies themselves or transient fashions constrict our vision of what needs to be done to promote scholarship of the highest possible quality–and that is a goal very different from striving to provide ‘something quickly.’

Amen.

(Thanks to Bradley Allen for the link.)

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42 Responses to “Why we need librarians”

  1. on 26 Jun 2007 at 1:15 pmAngel

    I might be reading this wrong…but I don’t see why this is an either or situation, tagging or cataloging, there are several library models including the Danbury Public Library, http://cat.danburylibrary.org/search/agrafton%2C+sue/agrafton+sue/1%2C1%2C54%2CB/frameset&FF=agrafton+sue&1%2C%2C54,
    and Ann Arbor District Library, http://www.aadl.org/, that uses both standard cataloging as well as user tags in order to provide retrieval information.
    I would also like clarification as to the authors intended group of “scholars”. Does he mean Ph.D.’s who might be familiar with the assigned vocabulary of a subject area, or does he mean the undergraduate, the high school student, or the soccer mom, who may have little library experience and no concept of controlled vocabulary that nonetheless have information needs that should be met.

  2. on 26 Jun 2007 at 1:21 pmNathan

    David,

    Glad you are reading Mann. Did you know he’s a former private investigator? (I need to tell everyone that). Its shows for sure.

    You have some interesting thoughts about the future. As far as scholarly publishing goes, you might find this speech recently given by one of Wikipedia’s co-founders interesting:

    http://www.larrysanger.org/scholar_pub.html

    I have a related question.

    You have written elsewhere of user tagging that “[it] repudiates one of the deepest projects our culture has undertaken over and over again: The rendering of knowledge into a single, universal framework. The rendering has been assumed to be a process of *discovery*: The universe has an inner order that *experts and authorities* can expose. But in a networked world we know bettter than ever that such an order is a myth of rationality. We can’t even agree even on basic issues such as what constitutes a ‘major’ religion or a ‘legitimate’ state. Order and categorization, we are learning, depend on context and project. The semi-chaotic state of the ‘tagosphere’ represents the nature of our shared world better than the cool marble columns of the old mono-order ever could” (from web article “Tagging and Why it Matters”, emphasis mine)

    I bring this up because Mann talks in his paper about librarians creating and using tools to help people see “the whole elephant” *”with all the parts properly interrelated”* These two ideas – yours and his – seem to be slightly at odds to me.

    Not to say that the Library of Congress with its collective wisdom holds all the secrets of the world (when further questioned, Mann would almost certainly say that *even this* only offers some of the picture, not everything – as we are only human), but I am wondering to what extent you think people *can* *discover* things in this world? Can we at all? And if so, *how* are things discovered now, or will they be discovered, in ways that are different from the past?

  3. [...] Weinberger has a concise summary of Thomas Mann’s long article about the concept of reference and scholarship and how it fits into [...]

  4. on 27 Jun 2007 at 3:16 amPhil

    Suppose more and more scholars move onto the Web and do their thinking in public, in conversation with other scholars? Suppose the Web enables scholarship to outstrip the librarians?

    Are you writing about the way things are, the way things are changing or the way that you’d like things to change? I like a lot of what you write in each of those areas, but I do sometimes feel you don’t know (or don’t care) where the boundaries are.

  5. [...] Ein Text vom 13. Juni den man sich ruhig mal für die nächste S-Bahn-Fahrt vornehmen sollte: The Peloponnesian War and the Future of Reference, Cataloging, and Scholarship in Research Libraries (PDF) von Thomas Mann.  Wer nur eine kurze Strecke hat, kann natürlich auch auf David Weinbergers Sicht auf den Aufsatz zurückgreifen: Why we need librarians [...]

  6. [...] both sides) and the tent-preaching (very much on both sides). As I said in response to a (related) David Weinberger post recently, it’s not always clear whether the pro-Web 2.0 camp are talking about how things are [...]

  7. [...] 30th, 2007 by maxine Why we need librarians | Everything is Miscellaneous June 25th, 2007 by David Weinberger Thomas Mann (no, not that one) has a fascinating and important [...]

  8. on 30 Jun 2007 at 9:37 amDavid Weinberger

    In this case, Phil, all three options are true.

    Yes, I do get all fuzzy in the brain about these three. It’d be good for me to be more careful. But it may not happen :(

  9. [...] Mann, Thomas. “The Peloponnesian War and the Future of Reference, Cataloging, and Scholarship in Research Libraries.” [pdf here] I think is Mann’s most balanced piece (lately) so far. It has been getting a lot of play including a nice write-up by David Weinberger. [...]

  10. on 03 Jul 2007 at 9:06 amarkham

    I had a few thoughts reading Mann, and disagree to a degree with his ideas on books. A quote from his article: “Digitizing a full book makes it virtually unreadable as a whole.” He makes other similar statements in the article, and I have to disagree. While I don’t think that paper-based books are in imminent danger of being supplanted, the idea that one can’t read a digitized book is absurd. I myself have read about 4 novels and am working on a 3rd in my PDA. Each of these has been digitized, then I downloaded them into a portable format, and…I’m perfectly happy with reading digitized books. I expect that will become more true for more people in the future…but Mann seems to think it’s impossible.

    I also have issues with his painting “digital library theorists” with a broad brush, claiming that the majority of them absolutely are against any kind of controlled vocabulary or professional input of retrieval methods. I believe this is a gross generalization and that many “digital library theorists”, particularly those with a library background do consider that user keyword tagging needs supplementation with professionally created metadata.

  11. on 10 Jul 2007 at 2:33 pmZotero testing « Documenting sources

    [...] on a link chain from If:book blog about Thomas Mann’s Pelopponesian War query through that Everything is Miscellaneous fellow, into the WP of one the imaginary thousands of librarian-minded gentlemen who quote Goethe [...]

  12. on 19 Jul 2007 at 5:49 pmMeinbrodt

    In my opinion Mann’s paper is less about the future of books or his general opinion about supporters of the “digital library idea” – although his opinions on this issues are questionable.

    He is mainly focusing on the issue of how to order huge collections of informations, irrespective their physical form, adequately so that scholars or all user who don’t need something quickly are going to get the best or appropriate results of their retrival.

    And even if “more and more scholars move onto the Web and do their thinking in public, in conversation with other scholars” create for example a wiki-based standart work of a new emerging scientific field one question is still to be raised.

    What is the best way finding it? Trim it to a precoordinate classication scheme or assigning tags or values of different facets postcoordinatly?

    According to Mann the answer should be clear. :-)

    P.S. sorry for my English …

  13. on 09 Sep 2007 at 10:31 amronald

    I Think The digital medium, particularly the Internet, offers new possibilities for scholars and library professionals :)

  14. on 16 Sep 2007 at 4:26 amWeb hosting Guy

    Think The digital medium, particularly the Internet, offers new possibilities for scholars and library professionals.

    I think the press offer more new possiblilites for schollars.

  15. on 24 Jan 2008 at 8:52 pmReal Estate Guy

    Books have already been supplanted as the “locus of knowledge” by the internet. Blogs have become a major resource for timely knowledge, most professional journals are now online, google is scanning every book in the Library of Congress and the top university libraries in the world. Even the top search engines now have thousands of human reviewers on staff and as volunteers, technology now consists of both automated and human review processes as the two converge. Soon the technology for search and cataloging will be better than any flesh and bone librarian. What will Mann say then? We are just about there.

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    [...] The universe of books published every year is much smaller, and much more manageable, than the universe of Web sites; this is the “niche” of sources to which professional cataloging should be primarily devoted. [...]

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