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A “Series” of Thoughts

The Library of Congress recently announced “that it will cease to provide controlled series access in the bibliographic records that its catalogers produce.” This has created quite a tizzy in some circles, with most of the tizzying on the order of:

* But series work is important!
* LC is supposed to provide it for us!
* LC didn’t ask us ahead of time what we thought of this idea!

Some librarians on the Council list have even suggested that librarians talk to their legislators about this on Legislative Day (exactly how, or why, no one could say–can you see series cataloging making its way to the Supreme Court, with library lawyers arguing in Biblish about controlled fields?). There is even a petition–you’ll have to find it on your own.

* But series work is important!

After a few days of this, I asked what I thought was a reasonable question: how important is series work? Where’s the real evidence that series work improves access to users? I heard a lot of anecdotal testimonials, but not much else. Then a cataloger pointed me to this report on access, and its appendix.

However–and correct me if you read this report differently–the main body of the report provides anecdotal support for series work, while the appendix demonstrates that hardly anyone ever uses it. When I pointed this out, I was told that things had changed so much since the report was done that series report was indeed very valuable now for users. When I read that, I could feel my eyebrows hit the top of my forehead.

Is that the best evidence we can gin up for the value of series work? If so, then perhaps LC is right after all–it’s not needed. I’m not sure of that, but I would need better evidence of user behavior and search outcomes before I concluded that series work added value to the records commensurate with the work (read: expense) required to provide it.

* LC is supposed to provide it for us!

The Library of Congress had not outlawed series work (surely THAT case would make it to the Supreme Court); they just said they, LC, wouldn’t do it any more–which created a firestorm of indignation. But no one has explained to me why this is LC’s job in the first place.

Sometimes we treat the Library of Congress as if it were the de facto national library, but it isn’t funded anywhere near that level. Personnel costs are rising all over. And cataloging is expensive work, at least as we do it now, in this first decade of the 21st century. I believe in metadata and structure; truly I do. But traditional cataloging has turned into an ornate behemoth far too cumbersome and expensive for the outcomes it provides, particularly in the world of finite results. (Peter Murray’s comments on my earlier post sum up these issues better than I can.)

I’m inclined to give LC the benefit of the doubt that it alone best knows where the sucking money holes are, and where the cuts will do the least damage. Libraries that want to do this work: don’t let anyone stand in your way.

* LC didn’t ask us ahead of time what we thought of this idea!

Well, of course they didn’t do that. This was an internal fiscal decision. Not only that, I’m sure (and I’m sure they were sure) that the answer would be “we want series work.” (I can just see the committees and the subcommittees and the task forces, each one meeting face to face at ALA for the next three years, finally reporting out that–while its value to the user couldn’t actually be proved–series work was important, and LC should keep doing it.)

This year’s MPOW survey exercised a modest amount of “radical trust” in asking users their opinions about budget-plumping ideas such as online advertising (which a surprising number of people endorsed). But if a fiscal option wasn’t really on the table, I didn’t offer it. The survey offered several opportunities for free-form comments, and you might or might not be discouraged to learn that some working librarians felt that in lieu of even something as mild as Google Adsense ads on search results, MPOW should do all of its work with volunteers, fire that overpriced and unneeded director, let the team shrink due to “attrition” (as if a 50% budget cut wasn’t attrition enough), use donated server space (been there, done that, and I can tell you how expensive “free” is), and, my favorite–and mentioned by a handful–charge fees to websites to be added to MPOW. I can see the tagline now: “Websites we have strongarmed.”

I am willing to be persuaded that LC’s decision will hurt the user, but even if that is the case, what else should LC give up? Maybe they can recruit volunteers to do series work; maybe they could turn off the air conditioning. I’m sure a survey would yield creative results. But in the end, perhaps they are making a decision we should all learn to live with.

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