Reflections on chapter 11 of The Portable MLIS

When I tell people about my desire to become a librarian, they almost always bring up the Evil Internet. After the jokes about how long it will take to grow my hair long enough to make a proper bun, the E. I. is probably the most common reaction I get. How can I possibly put this much effort, they ask, into learning a profession that is being made moot by the great electronic revolution as we speak? The E. I. is democratizing access to information at a torrid pace, obviating any need for libraries, newspapers, television networks, and any other vestiges of the dictatorial systems of the past. Why would anyone come to me for advice on finding a particular piece of data, when Google and Yahoo have made the task as easy as putting on a pair of pants?

Until now, I have responded to these concerns with some sort of speech about how librarians are needed now more than ever, for as the information available to the average person multiples exponentially, the ability to intelligently search and retrieve that information becomes even more valuable. In order for democracy to be valuable to you as a voter, you need more than simple access to the booth; you also need a way to educate yourself about the issues you are deciding, lest your vote become meaningless. Thanks to Judith Weedman, the author of chapter 11 of The Portable MLIS (2008), I can now dispense with the oratory and answer with one simple word: kittens.

Ms. Weedman uses kittens in a discussion about social tagging, the phenomenon whereby the users of an online resource create their own information retrieval as they add content by adding tags to their content. In her example, users who upload pictures of kittens are likely to apply the tag “kitten” to the photos because that is the tag that will make it easy to find whenever that user needs a picture of a young cat. In the best case scenario, the vocabulary used in tags converges, that is, all users decide on “kitten” as the proper tag for this type of photo (as opposed to “cat,” or “young cat,” or even “dog”), and the system evolves organically into a useful database, containing a powerful, intuitive information retrieval system. If you want a picture of a kitten, and you don’t have one, you can use the communal tag and find other users’ kittens. In this way, online communities obviate the need for librarians, as all information is correctly catalogued by the users themselves.

If you are looking for a picture of a kitten, any kitten, this system is likely to work well. If you are writing a paper on the defeat of Erwin Rommel’s Afrika Korps by British forces at El Alamein in 1942, and you need to find information on troop numbers, strategies, key leaders, and the impact of the campaign on the overall course of World War II, then community-operated databases may not be your tool of choice. Sure, Wikipedia has a page on Herr Rommel that contains a bounty of information, but how do you know that all of it is accurate? How can you be sure that its sources include all of the information on this particular episode? The litmus test for a professionally designed information retrieval system is that it will find not just some information on a particular topic, but the most reliable, most relevant information. Or as I will now tell my friends, say you lost your kitten. Would you be satisfied if someone brought you any old kitten, as smart and cute as it may be, or would you insist in finding the very same one you lost?

Weedman, Judith (2008). Information Retrieval: Designing, Querying and Evaluating Information Systems. In Haycock, Ken & Sheldon, Brooke E. (Ed.). (2008). The Portable MLIS: Insights from the Experts. (pp. 112-126) Westport, CT: Libraries Unlimited.


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