Friday, February 6, 2015

Questioning Authority Control

This post is cross-posted on the Follett Learning blog.

If there is one thing I have learned as a librarian in the 21st century, it is to question The-Way-It’s-Always-Been-Done. Not reactively fight it, but just reexamine it with the mind set that change can open doors to new ideas and transformative learning.

And yet, standardization is at the core of librarianship: Dewey, Library of Congress, MLA, APA, etc. Much of what we do is guided by standards, and standards are intrinsically linked to The-Way-It’s-Always-Been-Done. There isn’t much wiggle room. This is our 21st-century professional paradox.

I remember first learning about authority control in library school. It seemed so logical back then. You establish a set language for a subject, and then cross-reference it in a few places, and voila! That seems like a very long time ago.

I moved from the classroom to the library in 2001. Back then, our library did not subscribe to databases; we did not have a library website. We had fewer than a dozen computers scattered about our facility. Even in that era, authority control, as a teachable concept, was over. The best a school librarian could do was teach students that in an advanced search, choosing the delimiter "subject" might generate fewer, and more relevant results so long as students typed the right word into the search field. That's very different from explaining that effective research on the French Revolution requires a search for France - History - Revolution, 1789-1815.

If authority control was a problematic concept to teach in 2001, it is even more so now. As a school librarian, I am an unorthodox cataloger. Established subject headings by the Library of Congress and Sears drive my thinking far less than the words students type into search fields. Every New Canaan High School research exercise has its own subject(s) in our Online Public Access Catalog (OPAC), Destiny Quest. A search for any of the following phrases will produce a list of 50-250 library resources.
  • R U What U Eat?
  • Napoleon's Trial
  • Dictator Dating Game
  • Who Killed the King?
  • Global Pitch
Our students know this. If they plug a project name into our OPAC, Destiny Quest, their results will include an array of formats--free websites, database links, copyright-protected ebooks and articles, digital files, and of course, call numbers for print books. They can’t do that in Google! Destiny Quest makes it simple for students to easily locate all resources available to them, whether in print, digital, or online.

So it isn’t that standards are a problem as much as standards need supplementation. For example, if I import the MARC record for The Age of Napoleon by Susan Conner, my import will include
  • Greenwood Guides to Historic Events 1500-1900
  • Napoleon I, Emperor of the French, 1769-18821
  • France History 1799-1815
  • Biography & Autobiography / Historical
  • History /Europe / France
  • History /Europe / General
But a careful review of our Napoleon’s Trial assignment will reveal that our students might also look for the following keywords or phrases, most of which are pretty unconventional subjects by any standard (no pun intended). So we added them.
  • Amiens (Peace of)
  • Aristocracy
  • Aristocrats
  • Catholic Church
  • Civil Code
  • Concordat
  • French Revolution 
  • Jacobins
  • Louis XVI, King of France, 1754-1793
  • Louis XVIII
  • Napoleonic code
  • Napoleon's trial
  • Peasants
  • Restoration
  • Third Estate
  • Waterloo, Battle of, 1815
One could easily challenge this practice, pointing out that a student researching the Catholic Church might not want French Revolution resources in their search results. They may not, but we do because it helps build curricular connections. A New Canaan High School student researching Catholicism should be reminded about the de-Christianization of France during the 1789 revolution.

This becomes increasingly important as students turn to digital sources for research. There was a time when librarians would “pull a cart” of books for a project. Pulling a cart of electronic books is doable; there are resource lists, shelf-browsing tools, etc., but these are not quite as user-friendly as a cart full of print books, at least not to the current high school population. I expect that will change as the iPad generation moves up. The best way to “pull a cart” in the digital world is through enhanced cataloging with a curriculum-driven list of customized subjects.

It could be argued this denies students the learning experience of locating resources independently. How will students learn to locate resources using their college and public library catalogs? My answer is, “Baby steps, baby!” At least they aren’t searching the catalog for “Is Napoleon guilty of crimes against humanity Italian widow “ and anyone who teaches research to millennials can recognize this as progress.

Radio interview with Larry Jacobs on EduTalk Radio

No comments:

Post a Comment