Losing Control

Let’s talk about controlled vocabularies for a bit.  Librarians love them, patrons get frustrated by them, and us techno-geeks just get annoyed that we have to keep having this debate in the first place (yes I’m a cataloger, but try to ignore that for the duration of this post).

So, here’s the two sides.  On one end, we need to limit the terminology for subject headings to avoid confusion between similar terms and ensure that.  Thus materials that would otherwise be sorted into cooking, cookery, cookbooks, and cooks all gets grouped together in a single place (of course given the option we selected the worst label of the bunch).

On the other a controlled vocabulary is very limiting.  If you don’t know that cookery happens to be the chosen term then the difficulty of searching the catalog skyrockets.  A smart system (and most are capable of this) will then bring the user to a screen saying something like “please use cookery instead”.

The solution to this confusion as things currently stand is user tagging.  It’s not a great solution really, but considering that the alternative is recataloging every item in every database out there, it’s the lesser of evils.  Problem still being that many in the profession fear that compromising the integrity of our carefully controlled vocabulary will ultimately throw out our quality control.

This is a ridiculous notion because there’s absolutely no reason the two data sets can’t co-exist.  With the technology available to us we should be able to provide the means of allowing our patrons to search however they see fit, as long as they are able to use those tools successfully.  It really shouldn’t matter if someone wants to search for the tag “dogs” or the subject heading “canines” if they’ll both work.

So can we please get over this fight and start making some progress at last.

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