semantic web/ part 3

The problematic solution to the solution: catalogers

If you happen to strike up a cocktail conversation with a cataloging librarian, it’s going to feel a lot like talking about music with that indie kid from high school. “Aw man, can you believe they used [obscure band] for the [indie film] soundtrack? I was listening to those guys YEARS before anyone had heard of them! Now Jeff is saying the football team is gonna use it at the pep rally! I hate everything, darkness, darkness etc.”

But here’s the thing: that kid didn’t make any of the music he’s claiming credit for. Catalogers though? They’re the real deal. Actual rock-stars, but ones that won’t leave a couple goats with red racing stripes painted on their sides lapping up whiskey from the hotel bath tub. 

You remember how the W3C started trying to figure out how to get machines to read data waaaay back in 1999? Librarians beat them there by over THIRTY YEARS.

Librarians probably welcomed Neil Armstrong to the moon

I’m sure there was a librarian waiting to welcome Neil Armstrong to the moon

All the records in your library’s catalog are encoded in the MARC21 format, right? (right) And what does MARC stand for? MAchine Readable Cataloging! It was developed by the brilliant Henriette Avram in 1966, and while this kind of “machine reading” isn’t quite the same as what we need for the Semantic Web, it’s clear proof that librarians were gnawing on this pickle loooong before anyone else knew the Snack Shack around the corner was even selling pickles.

Look at it this way: for as long as people have been recording information, our proto-librarian ancestors have been classifying, cataloging and archiving that information for other people to use. Trust me, we know what we’re doing.

And what is the Internet but a feral wilderness of undomesticated information? Who better to tame these stampeding herds than a librarian? Alas, the guys in IT were too busy looking for mugwumps to bother with a librarian, and librarians weren’t about to let a bunch of rowdy youngsters come stomping into the hallowed ground of their sacrosanct catalogs, tracking grease from their parents garage and still reeking of pizza and RC Cola.

[side rant/ we don’t like to talk about it much, but we all know the library spent a dark few decades in a Medieval period of witches-won’t-sink-but-they’ll-sure-burn thinking. Somehow we lost sight of the ENTIRE POINT OF LIBRARIES and thought it was our job to scare the shit out of anyone brave enough step foot in a library.


Things are better now–most libraries are amazingbut it took us a while to come around.]

So what should have been a natural partnership never worked out. All the skill and experience of catalogers was effectively wasted without the practical expertise of the computer gurus. Even now, the two fields are far too separate from one another, but there are a few important overlaps. As luck would have it, one of those cooperative overlaps is a shared vision for the Semantic Web. Next up, Bibframe, Zepheira and other tales of not-quite-linked-data.




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