James Weinheimer recently sent out a post on RDA-L about his presentation at the CaMMS Forum at the ALA Annual Conference. The title of his presentation was “Reality Check: What is it that the Public Wants Today”. In this presentation, slide 5 has the following statement: “metadata isn’t what it used to be: massive, Bottom up, messy, inconsistent, out of control”. James is quoting David Weinberger from David’s talk ‘Too big to know” that James has kindly embedded into his post. This slide really caught my eye because I know that this is true to some extent although I wish it weren’t. Before clarifying, let’s get back to James’ presentation.
The presentation begins with a few known facts about the increase in non-traditional resources. Videos, webpages, tweets, Facebook posts, etc. are on the rise. These resources often have metadata associated with them, more often than not computer generated with perhaps a few tags from the user. Today you can search full text along with the metadata created automatically and by the user. James uses David Weinberger’s talk, “Too big to know” and David’s phrase that “metadata is not what it used to be” to reference that this metadata is not the metadata of library cataloging. According to David, through the eyes of James, metadata is no longer about searching genres, subject headings, or books by the same author. It is searching for the several instances of a single word or phrase in the entire text, getting data about that word or the words in that phrase, definitions of a single word or phrase, a biography of the author, or the socio-economic history of the times of that author. James sums up David’s new world of metadata as: “For him, metadata is what you know and data is what you are looking for. Therefore, everything can function as metadata.” From here, James goes on to quote some other thinkers on the topic of metadata and information. First, James refers to Clay Shirky to emphasize the problem of information. Yes, there is a lot of information out there and has been since 1500. The problem is the inability to filter this information effectively or alternatively filter it in such a way as to trap the internaut in a filter bubble. Second, James refers to Barry Schwartz and people’s inability to act when confronted with too many choices. Lastly, James quotes Noam Chomsky on the ever constant need of a guide to help people find resources.
James asks that librarians begin to think of themselves as filters. In using a library catalog, there are a preponderant amount of facets, answers, and information. Referring back to James’ second reference, this is an overload where the user becomes unable to make a choice. There is a lack of filter and a lack of understanding about what all these data are. James recommends that instead of presenting the data as it is done currently, that we use something like a narrative account. These narratives would be descriptive summaries of the search results with pointers on which resources are recommended. James believes that such narratives would provide a much needed context to search results thus providing an answer to the paradox of choice, the failure to filter, and the lack of guidance when faced with information overload. This leads James to conclude that the problem is the catalog not the catalog records.
Overall, I very much enjoyed James’ presentation. I have felt that the talk of information overload disguised the underlying problem of what James refers to as the paradox of choice and filter failure. I appreciated James highlighting the changes in the ways we conceptualize metadata. Since working with data management plans, I have been rethinking the way in which I approach metadata. When I first started working as a professional metadata librarian, metadata for me was singular and consisted of metadata schemas or standards that fell into the commons types of administrative, preservation, rights, descriptive, technical. Of course, the types weren’t always clearly defined. But for simplicity’s sake, it was sufficient to learn Dublin Core, METS, or MODS, and how they were implemented to create a bibliographic record that would be displayed much in the same format as a bilbiographic record in the online catalog. Today, it is certainly important to have an understanding of different national and international metadata standards for content, data, transmission, etc. However, metadata isn’t. Metadata are. The focus is not so much on the type of metadata. The function of metadata is extremely important. This forces one to think how bibliographic data will be served up and used by the public. If the data are there, then the ways to re-use this data could be endless. This is why I enjoyed James’ use of narrative theory. Providing context from the metadata can help users situate the data, glean information, and hopefully gain knowledge on a topic. One issue that this use of narrative might have though is to create a filter bubble that locks people into one perspective from which they will not be intellectually challenged. However, if that can be avoided, the idea is appealing. First for the simple reason that online catalogs are not easy to use, not user friendly, and for the most part serve up a ridiculous amount of useless data that isn’t even information. I would agree to a certain extent with James that the catalog is the problem. I would specify that one of the problems is how the data are served to the users in addition to how the data are shared (or not) and stored. Our online catalogs still resemble card catalogs. Perhaps it’s time to go beyond serving users single records with metadata and go to a more sophisticated approach of using this data to serve users a context of that data for that resource. In addition, along with a context, the user could have the ability to re-purpose or re-use the data to create their own visualizations or linkages that allow them to better understand the data. This can be done if we provide a way to indicate to our users how to re-use and re-purpose this data. The re-use goes beyond “liking this book” via Facebook or tweeting about your recent find in the library catalog. It could be to link to a biography of the author, to a timeline of how this resource has been used, to articles published on it and a map of where these have been published, etc. Many of these ideas exist already. However, they are displayed on busy pages with too many choices. If the user were presented with a content and then a few filters as to the possibilities of the search, the user could determine which resources were relevant to their query and the information that they need.