Friday, August 6, 2010

catalogs and scholarship: a bit of sentiment

OK, it must be Paul Courant day here or something like that. I was looking at his blog post about the closing and more specifically the removal of the U. Michigan card catalog, and in his discussion of responses to the removal he spoke of his own sentimental response. These are the lines that struck me:

"... I’ll always remember the card catalog as the rich, powerful and brilliant piece of scholarship that it was, and as a place that I visited in eager anticipation of learning something new. I don’t think that I was ever disappointed."

The catalog as a work of scholarship is a view one rarely hears anymore, but it is the correct view of the card catalog of a research university. Those catalogs were the heart of the heart of the university, or the soul in the machine, or whatever lovely, sentimental phrase you most prefer to use. When one was "in" the catalog following a citation or browsing an author's works or perusing a subject, one was in more or less the active mind of the library and thus one could imagine it as the mind or memory of the university or of scholarship itself.

If the catalog was a work of scholarship, then the cataloger was a scholar. And in that I think we can feel the loss that many catalogers feel when they consider the past 30 years and look ahead to the future of cataloging and libraries: their work as scholars is at an end. It is possible to see a descending arc--the catalog as scholarship to the catalog as information repository to the catalog as a database. And the arc descends for the cataloger from scholar to information manager to data assistant. This view is a sentimental one and a depressing one; it is not objectively true, but I know that it feels true to many catalogers. It is part of the sorrow of catalogers that many lament the loss of status as scholars and don't feel any warmth for the status of a data-centric programmer.

Paul Courant's talk at OCLC: "Economic Perspectives on Academic Libraries,"

Paul Courant's recent talk at OCLC is now online. It is called, "Economic Perspectives on Academic Libraries," and it is worth a look and listen.

His talk and slide take about 70 minutes. There is a QA video, too. Another 15 minutes or so.

His talk is interesting just to get his perspective as a university librarian (U. Michigan) and as a former provost (also at UM) and as an economist (on faculty at UM).

Summary: A library is a complicated institution, a big nonprofit business that supports the mission of an even bigger nonprofit business. It plays essential roles in the production and distribution of scholarship, which can be understood as an industry. For over a century, a library's focus has been almost entirely on the interests of the local institution and its local value has been almost entirely dependent on it role in sharing the costs of expensive information. However, digital information technology is radically altering the value of that focus and that role. A library is profoundly affected by both the emerging role of the network and by the fact that copying and distribution (of books, articles, etc.) are now very cheap. Courant develops these themes and shares some of his thoughts on the effective and efficient functioning of academic libraries.

There is no transcript to read, but there are 17 slides to view and both and MP3 to listen to and a Webcast to watch and hear.

His blog is at and is called Au Courant.