Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Another tool in the cataloger's trusty toolbelt?

I stumbled upon OCLC'S Classify by way of The FRBR blog's post about it.

Using any number of identifying characteristics (UPC, OCLC no., ISBN, ISSN or Author and/or Title), a user can identify the most frequent and most recent call numbers for both Dewey and LC Classification for a (for lack of a better word) work.

I got really excited thinking about the implications of a tool like this. I couldn't help but think that, sitting next to Worldcat Identities, that this might be the Next Big Thing for catalogers.

Upon further consideration, I wondered what exactly one might do with Classify and the use I kept coming up with was certainly not what OCLC had in mind.

Imagine being a small library without the funding or resources to purchase a copy of DDC. Imagine being able to use a freely available web resources to assign a call number to something you own.

Given the stranglehold that OCLC seems to have on DDC, this was certainly not the intended use for this technology.

But what if it had been?

In light of this argument for setting classification free, Tim Spalding's idea about Open Shelves Classification doesn't seem so radical after all.

A library's ability to catalog it's collections shouldn't be tied to how much money it has. Period. End of story.

It's one thing to choose not to catalog a collection. It's quite another to not be able to because you don't have the means to do it.

Spalding's OCS (well, our OCS, if you take adhere to the truly open nature of "open" anything) puts part of that decision back into the hands of libraries.

I still think OCLC's Classify is a neat and potentially useful tool. And it has the ability to do a lot of good if it remains freely available. But, if it goes behind the wall of subscription services, it doesn't give us a whole lot more than what we've already got or what we can get by way of worldcat.org.

OCLC's Classify: shiny toy or useful tool?

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

"How" versus "why"

Eszter Hargittai, sociologist from Northwestern University, is interviewed in the "Wired Campus" section of The Chronicle of Higher Education. You can find the interview here.

She asserts, in this interview, that students aren't as Web savvy as we believe that they are or as they claim to be.

Hargittai makes an argument throughout this interview that loses me. She seems to be arguing that because users don't know how technology works that they are Web-skills deficient.

I read this interview think that she was trying to make the argument that it's like having keys to a car without ever having had any formal instruction on how to drive.

Students are taking their cars on the road and learning how to drive by successfully (or not) making it to their destination.

A student learns how to navigate the Web through successful (and unsuccessful) searching.

I buy that. What I don't like is that she seems to imply that the job of instructor or librarian is to to teach the student the mechanics of how a particular tool works instead of why a user should use this tool to access information.

It's teaching the user how the car works instead of how to drive it.

Hargittai says "Most students don’t know that wikis can be edited at that moment. Their eyes just open up wide when they find out."

I'm not sure the how of Wikipedia matters much to most users. Maybe it should, but it doesn't.

I think that what's more important is the why, especially when teaching students to look critically at Wikipedia as a reference source.

The how is the mechanics of the car. The why is the Driver's Ed. lesson.

Earlier in the interview, Hargittai also says "Ask your average 18-year-old: Does he know what RSS means? And he won’t."

I appreciate her question, but I think she's asking the wrong one. Instead of asking a student what RSS means, ask him if he uses Bloglines or Google Reader to read some of his favorite blogs. I suspect the answer might be "yes."

Should we spend our time, then, explaining the how of RSS? Or should we teach students the why of RSS: how to use feed readers to subscribe to sources of information that might be useful to them?

Again, it's teaching a user how the car works vs. teaching the user how to drive the car.

It is true that as librarians we might be more tech savvy than the users we serve. We should know how each part of the car works in order to help our students drive it better. But I think the burden of learning how the car works lies on us.

The truth is that even if users don't know how technology "works," they're using it. So, it's our job as librarians to help empower our users to be better consumers of information. We may never move from teaching students the why of a technology to teaching them the how, though we may aspire to.

But why, not how, is where we should start.