March 2008

Quite un-apropos of an earlier post on Library 2.0, I’ve just read Steven Johnson’s Everything bad is good for you. The basic premise of the book is that – contrary to generally held assumptions – today’s popular culture in the form of TV, video games and the Internet is actually more intellectually stimulating and socially-expansive than the popular culture of days past. TV shows, for example, have become more complex, with multiple plot-lines, layers of subtlety, and hidden references to movies or contemporary events. Social networks have built up around specific shows, where plots and subplots and relationships are dissected in infinite and miniscule detail. The outcome of all this is that humans have become more intelligent over the years – what Johnson calls the Flynn effect –  as our brains are exercised and stimulated in increasingly complex ways.

Johnson acknowledges that not all popular culture necessarily has redeeming qualities, just as not all popular culture of the past did. I’d have liked to have seen more discussion on the seamy trend of some TV shows and video games – Johnson just pays lipservice to that. But overall, a great read.

So, Johnson’s book and Library 2.0? Johnson talks about how social networks, a fundamental precept of Library 2.0,  operate; although the book was written in 2005, so doesn’t really pay justice to the massive growth in social networking that has occurred over the past couple of years.

More particularly, Johnson’s book and video gaming in libraries? Has Johnson convinced me to change my mind, that gaming nights (as opposed to having video games for loan) have no place in libraries? Not at all. But I might be a little more flexible on the concept of libraries installing video games on library computers and allowing patrons to actually play, rather than just try them out before borrowing.

Having spent a fair bit of time the past few weeks checking out other institution’s IRs, one thing is clearly evident – very few are using controlled subject vocabularies, except in the most rudimentary way. Most of the Australian IRs are using the Australian Research Council’s Research Fields, Codes and Disciplines (RFCD) codes. Logical, since research activity must be reported by these codes under the Higher Education Research Data Collection (HERDC) scheme; and laudable since they provide a common search point across Australian IRs.

Most IRs are also using user-suggested keywords, sometimes (but not often) supplemented by metadata specialists. Very few are using formal controlled vocabularies apart from RFCD. This is understandable, as implementing controlled vocabularies in IRs can be quite a complex undertaking.

To enumerate just a few of the problems –

  • Which controlled vocabulary to use? Different disciplines may have different preferences.
  • Not all repository software supports the building in of controlled vocabularies; so how to ensure users use recommended vocabularies in this situation?
  • If multiple vocabularies are supported by the IR (Fez comes to mind here) , how to manage them and their different user groups without overly complicating repository administration?
  • How to ensure that users select appropriate terms? One user’s “car” is another user’s “1925 Ford Model T Tudor sedan”.
  • If considering using metadata specialists to vet user-submitted terms, how to resource such a labour-intensive task, especially for potentially high volume submissions?
  • How to balance the need for making controlled vocabularies compulsory with user frustration when encountering required fields <link to follow>

So the challenge for respositories is to determine not just whether fully-fledged controlled subject vocabularies are worth using in (and building into) their IRs, but if so, which ones, and the best way to implement them with a limited amount of resources and without alienating users and compromising usability.