FRBRized

OK.  So FRBR wasn’t what I thought it was going to be.  Hardly anything is in LibraryWorld.  I had expected FRBR to be a formalized system laying out the exact rules for the actual cataloging of an item in a library. 

Something along these lines… First, *here* is the list of types of items that it is possible for a library to acquire and what their formal names and codes are.  Second, *here* is the list of fields that you will need to fill out for each of the above items.  *This* is where to find the information that successfully completes each of those fields and *this* is why each of those fields are important to fill out.  Finally, *this* is how both you and a library user can locate the many items in your catalog.

…. And, to be perfectly honest, the part about the user being able to locate items wasn’t even part of my thinking before I read about this stuff.   I had simply assumed that if I did my job properly and well – if I was knowledgeable about my collection – then any user in my library would be able to find anything by simply asking me. 

In my own defense, I have to add here that this attitude – the one of being the omnipotent deity in my LibraryWorld – doesn’t come from an unfortunate but pronounced God-complex.  It’s simply a result of being a carpenter, a web designer, a seamstress, a cross-stitcher, a landscape designer, a fixer of things broken, and a start-to-finish designer and implementer of grandiose bulletin boards, ten-foot-high construction-paper trees, and flip houses.  I’m just used to being the one that knows where everything is, what it looks like, and how it works.  Of course, now that I read this back, I guess it could kind of look like a God-complex.  But only of the little part of the world that I’m in charge of.  I digress.

Of course, if you already know what FRBR (Functional requirements of Bibliographical Records) is, then you know that is NOT what I found.  What I found was anothermodel.  A theoretical model of how we should think about items, their expressions and manifestations and, most abstractly, their originating Work.  FRBR, put simply, gives a framework of thought about objects and the relationships between them and the different manifestations of themselves.  After reading a dozen or so articles and papers on FRBR, I got a generally good idea of where this was headed. 

To King User, again.  Not that I have anything against the library user.  I’m one myself.  And so is my Tutu.  But, see… Tutu calls up the librarian and asks her about the information she’s seeking.  The nice librarian, who has been taking calls from my grandmother for 15 years, takes notes, looks whatever it is up, and calls Tutu back.  Tidy.  Considerate.  Human.  My grandmother sends that nice librarian a Christmas and birthday card every year. 

Now I don’t think there’s anyone who could say that my grandmother isn’t being treated like a Queen (User) by her librarian.   And don’t think that I don’t see the flaw in this (model) over the long term.  I know it’s expensive and impossible to service every library user in this personal a way.  But let us consider together the example set by Lowe’s, Home Depot and Wal-Mart.

As I have said, I’m an extreme DIYer.  I visit the big home stores on a weekly basis – daily if I’m in the middle of a project.  (Yes, this shows bad planning skills on my part but let’s not go there.) I’ve asked hundreds of questions over the years of the different CSR’s about everything from wiring to space planning.  Those stores are big and the items available for purchase are varied, awkwardly shaped, and usually heavy.  There’s a lot of walking involved.  They are also often humid and noisy.  When you finally reach the end of your list and head toward the checkout, you feel a sense of relief.  A big, internal Sigh that you did what you came to do.  As you walk towards the front of the store, you begin to think about all the work ahead to complete the project.  As the nice lady checks out your items, you let your mind wander for a moment, enjoying this brief but pleasant eye in the storm of your day.

About a year ago, my favorite stores introduced a new area at the front of their stores – the self-checkout.  At first, they were only one or two.  They were quaint.  They had a checker assigned to each and every one to guide you through the process.  But there were ALWAYS several other lanes open with (real) checkers.  In the last six months, though…. I can count at least 7 times that I’ve been in a big home store where they had ZERO checkers available.  The only way you could leave the store with your stuff is if you navigated yourself through their self-check lanes! 

So… are they going to pay me for the time I spend working for them as a checker?  And where is the discount I should receive for less service?  When they stopped carrying groceries out to your car, you got a discount.  I am not seeing the discount – or a better product.  I still have to buy a new drill every couple of years.  I have to tell you – this is really starting to tick me off.  I’ve been a loyal customer for years.  I’ve given them God knows how much of my time and money.  And this is how they repay me?  uh-uh.  Not this lady.  Ace Hardware may be higher, but I’ve never seen a self-check lane in one of their stores.  Less selection, too.

So, is this the choice that everythingnow comes down to?  We must sacrifice either choice, cost, or service?  A library, supposedly, is different from Home Depot.  Though less so as we march into the brave new future.  Libraries are no longer allowed to rest on their laurels as bastions of community service and scholarship.  No longer is it sufficient to allow the world’s knowledge, ideas, and creative literary spirit to flow, unimpeded, into the minds of men, women, and children, regardless of economic, religious, or racial orientation.  It seems that libraries, after all, are the Home Depots of tomorrow. 

Just as more and more people (including myself) have learned to do more things for themselves to save a few bucks, so, too, have the Home Depots and libraries of the world.  Home Depot no longer has to pay the extra 22,000/year for every checker that once stood waiting for me at the front of the store.  And my grandmother’s librarian told her last month that she is retiring.  The last two times Tutu called, she was told she could fill out a form online and e-mail her request.  She would receive a reply within 10 working days.  Or, she was told, she could come into the library and search the catalog using their new system.  Which no doubt cost a year’s salary for TWO professional librarians. 

So… back to FRBR.  It occurred to me while I spent the several days reading about it, that perhaps I was missing something.  I read several accounts of different experiments with FRBRizing existing collections.  I gather that it would be most helpful in video/dvd/audio collections.  It also appears that it would be VERY expensive to go back and re-rig the records to be able to search them using FRBR principles.  And all this to basically give a different display to users when they search.  A dumbed-down, very specific display.  Super-smart, super-expensive search tool for dumb users. 

I see two problems with this.  One, today’s user isn’t that dumb.  Two, today’s (and tomorrow’s) librarian thinks he has to cater to a user that is not only dumb – but fickle and cheap as well. 

These are the two opposing tides in the information ocean right now.  One is the tide of the information providers.  They are working, working, working to best put information in the hands of the people looking for it.  They are searching for the easiest, least complicated, most accessible way to do this.  They want to be the source of choice for the information seeker and they are making assumptions along the way of who that information seeker is so that they may achieve their goal.  The opposing tide is that of the information seekers.  They want what they want when they want it.  They are increasingly sophisticated as to how to go about getting it.  The generation coming of age now has been entirely raised in the Internet era.  They understand most of the basic rules of computer system interfaces.  They have done hundreds, if not thousands of searches before they ever get to the library’s search tool.  Some librarians think FRBRizing their records will help these people in fundamental ways to find information better.  But it doesn’t seem to me like they’ve thought about who these people are likely to be.

There are studies, sure.. and trends.  But all of it (in my humble view) boils down to three types of information seekers. 

The first is the academic.  these are the scholars, students, and scientists who are on an unending search for all of the planet’s accumulated knowledge.  These poor souls cannot be helped.  They are, as were the Blues Brothers, on a Mission from God.  They will find what they are looking for – if it exists – because they must.  A better search tool would be nice, but it would also probably cause them to lose sleep trying to absorb yet another new system of looking for that elusive article.  Yes, this first type, like all others, appreciates being able to access things online.  But they have more of a problem getting full-text results than they do with deciphering a page of possible hits.

The second type is the single-fact seekers.  These would include my grandmother.  She usually wants to know what countries are contiguous with Nigeria or how many people live in Houston.  Or perhaps, even, whether ‘lie’ or ‘lay’ is appropriate in an e-mail.  I have known her to call and give the librarian a line from a long-forgotten poem and ask who the author was.  These people are after very specific information.  They want it quickly and with as little fuss as possible.  In other words, they want Google from their phone, from their office desktop, from their laptop in the coffee shop.  A new search tool for the catalog isn’t going to help them.  If they are going to be made to do it on their own, they might as well do it from the convenience of their own space.  If my grandmother was better with the internet (and she’s getting there), she would have little use for her library other than the hot new summer fiction she places on reserve every April.  Or the audiobooks that she checks out for my uncle for his long drives for his work.  Which simultaneously places her in the third category.

The third category is that of browser/borrower.   This is the person that wants to wander the stacks.  They want to see what books are in the self-help section.  Or see how many books by a certain author are available to read right now.  This is the person with some time to spend.  They see reading as an important addition to their life of the mind and are willing to invest in it.  These are also the people who merely want to borrow, and not buy, a given item.  This could be because they can’t afford it.  Or maybe because they live in a small place and don’t have room for the collection they’d like to have.  Maybe they move a lot.  Or maybe they just like to support their local library and the ideals it stands for.  This third type really isn’t going to change their habits because of a better or worse search tool.  You will never find someone who browses the stacks that will tell you they equally enjoy browsing a search engine.  It’s just not the same.  And if you’ve ever watched a library over a day, you will see how many people just go wander into a section that looks appealing.

So…. academic, single-fact seeker, and browser/borrower… I think the LibraryWorld must concede that they are going to lose the single-fact seeker to the internet.  But the academic is theirs for life.  He may come, in the future, exclusively through their portal into online databases, but he will come.  And he will never truly forsake the stacks, the rare documents collections, and the government archives.  He knows how to interpret search results because he has been interpreting information for all of his academic career. 

But the browser/borrower…. now HE is the crux of this matter, really.  Will FRBRizing records make him tip his scales towards continuing to frequent his local library?  I just don’t think so.  I think whether a library has a large and varied collection will.  And if they have books by his favorite author.  And whether they are clean, pleasant places in which to spend an afternoon.  I think an excellent staff, helpful and knowledgeable, will help him tip his scales.  I sometimes even think that a venerable-looking building and the smell of old books can do the trick.  But FRBR….

Today’s OPAC user enjoys keyword-search capability.  This searches everything in an item’s record.  How is that not adequate to find what you wish?  Why do I need some anonymous nonprofessional person’s ideas about what tags it should have to be able to find it?  Are their ideas about what’s important about something the same as mine?  The ESP Game tells me they’re obviously not.  So will it help me find something if it has so many tags that almost anything will produce a hit on it?  I think not.

So…. FRBR.  An interesting and complex model that took a lot of people a lot of time to come up with.  Does it really help me find what I want to find more easily?  I suppose, in certain types of collections, it could.  Would it determine whether I’m going to use my local library or not?  not really.  And isn’t THAT what all this is really about?  Worrying if libraries will exist, have a constituency, get funded? 

I’d have to say that turning my local library into the literary equivalent of Home Depot, with a self-check (albeit FRBRized)  stall where my knowledgeable and friendly librarian used to be isn’t the way to keep me coming back.  I may have to buy my 110 wire at Home Depot, but I have alternatives for where I get my read on.

And on the subject of Becoming a Librarian in 40 Years or Less….. I’d have to say being a Do-It-Yourselfer has contributed heavily.  🙂

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