Why we need librarians, or tagging vs folksonomy, some explanations

David Weinberger has a concise summary of Thomas Mann’s long article about the concept of reference and scholarship and how it fits into modern day librarianship, especially research libraries. This is the sort of thing Michael Gorman talks about in grouchy pundit ways, but Mann really digs deeper and seems to understand both sides of the equation. Weinberger’s posts sums up some of the high points with some strong pullquotes, but I’d really also suggest reading Mann’s entire essay. Here are some quotes that I liked, but don’t think that gets you off the hook from reading it. You hve to get to about page 35 before you hit the “what sholdl we do about this?” part.

I cannot claim to have a system that flattens all the lumps, but I am concerned that many of the more important problems facing scholars are being ignored because a “digital library” paradigm puts blinders on our very ability to notice the problems in the first place.

On different types of searching:

Note that as a reference librarian I could bring to bear on this question a whole variety of different search techniques, of which most researchers are only dimly aware of (or not aware at all): I used not just keyword searching, but subject category searching (via LC=s subject headings), shelf-browsing (via LC’s classification system), related record searching, and citation searching. (I also did some rather sophisticated Boolean combination searching, with truncation symbols and parentheses, discussed below.) Further, as a librarian I thought in terms of types of literature–specialized encyclopedia articles, literature review articles, subject bibliographies–whose existence never even occurs to most non-librarians, who routinely think only in terms of subject searches rather than format searches. And, further, one of the reasons I sought out the Web database to begin with was that I knew it would also provide people contact information–i.e., the mail and e-mail addresses of scholars who have worked on the same topic. The point here needs emphasis: a research library can provide not only a vast amount of content that is not on the open Internet; it can also provide multiple different search techniques that are usually much more efficient than “relevance ranked” and “more like this” Web searching. And most of these search techniques themselves are not available to offsite users who confine their searches to the open Internet.

On folksonomies:

While folksonomies have severe limitations and cannot replace conventional cataloging, they also offer real advantages that can supplement cataloging. Perhaps financial arrangements with LibraryThing (or other such operations) might be worked out in such a way that LC/OCLC catalog records for books would provide clickable links to LibraryThing records for the same works. In this way researchers could take advantage of that supplemental network of connections without losing the primary network created by professional librarians.

2 comments for “Why we need librarians, or tagging vs folksonomy, some explanations

  1. Nathan
    26Jun07 at 12:39


    Thanks for bringing this to everyone’s attention. I saw Mann’s article referenced on Library Juice last week, but I was hoping others would comment as well. Thank you!

    As I look at the LIS future, I want to be both “with it” (cutting-edge) when it comes to promoting new possibilities via tech. In the midst of this mentality, I think Mann does a marvelous job of reminding us – and revealing – the treasure troves that we possess and dare not lose.

    By the way, according to the back of his book “Library Research Models” it says that Mann is a former private investigator. I submit it shows.

Comments are closed.