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Scholarly Research and the Future of Bibliographic Control

Thomas Mann has written a response to the LC Working Group report on the future of bibliographic control. In it he questions the underlying assumptions of the WoGroFuBiCo report and cautions that a “one size fits all” approach to information seeking will have a detrimental effect on how scholarly research. He demonstrates that controlled vocabularies such as LCSH provide researchers with the capability to acquire a systematic overview of their research area, “one of the most difficult tasks they encounter” especially when exploring a new area.

He points out that the current reliance on keyword searching and “facetization” may make it easier for cataloguers and non-cataloguers to assign subject headings but the effort saved by information professionals is a burden that will then fall on individual researchers.

The genius of LCSH’s control is that it gives us systematic pathways to gain a reasonably comprehensive overview of the full range of book literature on any topic, even though we may not have any prior subject expertise in the subject to be researched, may know nothing in advance of its vocabulary (in multiple languages), its component parts, or its relationships to other topics—narrower, related, broader, or tangential…”

Mann goes on to question the current LC management plan to reorganize the LC cataloguing department to “minimize (or even eliminate)” subject expertise and notes that the “drain of professionalism from the Cataloging department, caused by increasing retirements that management does not see fit to remedy through more hiring, has already become very serious.”

He offers these sobering concluding remarks:

If the Library of Congress succeeds in dumbing down its own subject cataloging operations through this reorganization, there will be serious negative consequences for all American scholars who wish to pursue their topics comprehensively and at in-depth research levels, and for libraries in every Congressional District whose financial constraints make them more dependent than ever on the continued supply of quality subject cataloging from the Library of Congress.”

From the moment I first read, Library research methods : a guide to classification, cataloging and computers, in the mid-90s I have been a fan of Thomas Mann’s thoughtful writing and clear approach to scholarly research. This is a recommended and useful critique of the current state of ‘bibliographic control’ at the Library of Congress relevant to research libraries everywhere.

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