This week I read an excellent article by Stacy Allison-Cassin in The Journal of Library Metadata, “The Possibility of the Infinite Library: Exploring the Conceptual Boundaries of Works and Texts of Bibliographic Description.” Allison-Cassin explores the ways that library discovery and cataloging are bound to notions of “the work” and texts that are solidly grounded to Western ways of knowing. She argues that serendipitous discovery is hindered by the limitations of these concepts of the work and of attribution, and that they don’t accurately reflect the information universe, and wonders how we might begin to rethink our notions of bibliographic control.
Allison-Cassin asks whether it’s even possible for us to apply the same types of bounded rules that we have been using to describe the universe of information in our current information ecosystem. The rules of bibliographic control were codified in a time when the information universe was bounded, and now, it isn’t. It’s endlessly expansive, and perhaps we need new rules that reflect that expansiveness. Perhaps we need to recognize that we can’t control or contain this new information universe, but we can provide new ways to enter it and access it, and new ways to leap from one node to another within that universe. Perhaps our new practices should be focused on providing these new types of access points, rather than continuing to try to contain and control the information universe.
If our metadata, our cataloging practice, wasn’t focused around creating static, textual records, how could we provide better access to the information universe? Subject headings and links to other related works could be updated and shifted over time, to reflect current language uses, to reflect new intellectual connections being made. We would be able to make connections between objects that don’t rely on language, enabling access to non-textual objects in ways that don’t attempt to force it into a linguistic description.
And as we continue to digitize texts, and to create materials in digital formats, we have the ability to make links within the text, not just about it, and this can show the multiplicity contained within a text. Full text searching means that the cataloging surrogate isn’t the only way into the text, just another way. What if we could locate the places in a text that refer to another text, and bring that link out, make it easier to see? What if we could enable a user to access that referred-to text from the link within the original text? What if we allowed anyone to create those links when they see a similarity, a reference point within a text, because our bibliographic metadata is out there, re-usable and re-purposable?
At many moments throughout my reading of her article, it occurred to me that linked data offers us new ways of presenting the information universe and engaging with bibliographic metadata in ways that can break out of the hierarchical limitations inherent in our current practices, and she does make that point in the conclusion of her article. Linked data is a way to bring serendipity back to information discovery, to allow leaps between concepts, texts, and ideas.
We aren’t in a place right now where things are going to be either/or, and we won’t be for a long while. Libraries will still need to inventory and control the physical objects we own, but we can start enable other, newer kinds of access to the concepts and ideas within those physical objects (as well as to the objects themselves), and we can start to integrate our digital and physical collections more seamlessly through linked data practices.
It is totally worth reading if you can gain access (alas, The Journal of Library Metadata isn’t open access). I like this kind of theoretical thinking about the work we do, and I think libraries would be better served if we spent time questioning the foundations and the epistemologies underpinning what we do, and asking whether they still suit the world we’re living in.