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Catalog as Community: A Metadata Meditation

By Thomas J. Hennen Jr.

Library Computing  (Formerly Library Software Review)  March/June 2000; v 18, n 1/2. 

The author is the Director of Waukesha County Federated Library System as well as the founder of the HAPLR Index rating system for public libraries.  His web site is at: http://www.haplr-index.com


If catalogers are to fulfill their destiny as knowledge managers in this new millennium they must contribute mightily to a crusade – a crusade that seeks wisdom and shares knowledge.  This unorthodox metadata meditation declares that, as Marshall McLuhan might have urged, the catalog must become the community- and the community the catalog!  Despite the whimsy and emoticons found in this piece, it is a serious call to the profession to remain both human and humane as we catalog this huge electronic beast called the Net.   Hennen believes that those useful but dreadful spyders that search engineers send foraging through the web cannot do it alone.  The catalog is the community, he notes, urging us to build it with a human touch.


 Table of Contents



The catalog is the community.  Although the catalog we knew has died, the one we will soon know is just emerging.  In the last millennium McLuhan taught that the medium was the message, proving at the same time that ideas have power and that sound bites sell books.  So then, if the catalog is to be the community what will this mean for librarians, especially the catalogers? 


Imagine going back in time just ten years.  Ask someone in any community of 1990 what a web search engine might be.  While you are at it, ask a cataloger about the importance of proper metadata descriptions or package frameworks. 

 Today both the search engineers and the catalogers recognize that it is very likely that the web as a whole will become total chaos soon. Insufficient attention has been given to metadata requirements.  Lacking a controlled vocabulary and consistent catalog descriptions, the whole web is nothing but unfindable needles in a very impressive haystack. 

 The catalog is the community.  Libraries build community; communities repay the favor.


First People’s Catalog

 Aboriginal oral history provides even the details of eye and hair color of the first Europeans that had contact with the Aborigines in Australia.  In an oral culture, many individuals must memorize, usually using rhyme and mnemonic devices, a multitude of aspects of the people’s history.  It is up to the cataloger, the chief, the knowledge manager, if you will, to be able to tap the right person for the information needed.   Wisdom managers, it might be said, look to the living catalogs for history and knowledge that can be woven into a web of wisdom.


Librarians in the western world have traditionally looked to print and physical catalogs as our stock in trade.  We have relied more on objects than interactions in constructing our libraries.  The very non-physical nature of the Internet and web based catalogs have forced us to re-examine our preconceptions.  In the process, we must bring humans back into the process and realize that it has always been true that the community is the best catalog. 


The Catalog is Dead

 A funeral, it is said, is always more for the living.  Pallbearers carry their friend and, symbolically, themselves from the hallowed past into the gloried future.  If we as librarians today must bury the library that we all knew and loved, we should take care to celebrate the continued life of the enterprise as it evolves in the digital age. 

 The king is dead: long live the king.  This phrase long held a mystic hold on humanity, signifying our reverence for the past and hope for the future.  So, the catalog is dead, long live the catalog. 

 We have, most of us, been to the funerals of those 19th century card catalogs.  Some libraries even put the fronts of the drawers in our lobbies with names of benefactors – reminiscent of nothing so much, of course, as a mausoleum.  Our librarian ancestors had to preside at the funerals for book catalogs and felt the loss as keenly while hoping much for the catalog drawers that followed. 

 In book or drawer form, the death certificates are legion, but the electronic and now the web catalog will, we trust and believe, live long. 

 Who can say what new form the web catalogs successors will take?  Perhaps it will be the holodeck of Star Trek fame where we will merge as one with the data-stream yet retain ultimate control and the ability to utterly change the frame of reference.  We all know in our souls that there will be life and libraries after the Internet.  We just cannot envision what that reality might be like.  [1]

 “What is the use of a book without pictures?”  Alice enquired in Through the Looking Glass.  Upon a time, our descendants may ask, “What is the use of a Web space without three dimensional motion?”


Something Comes Before Nothing.

 Ah, yes, grasshopper, something comes before nothing just as the masters teach, but now  “The Nothing That Is” has pride of place over the something that is printed. 

 When I was in library school, I was immensely intrigued by the seemingly arcane cataloging rule that “something comes before nothing.” It signifies that a letter or numeral always precedes a blank space in AACR (Anglo-American Cataloging Rules).  It seemed to me then, as now, more of a Zen proverb than a cataloging rule. 

 So, I was struck recently when Oxford University Press gained considerable notoriety and made publishing history by deciding to forgo print publication of the substantial bibliography that Robert Kaplan, the author of  “The Nothing That Is: The Natural History of the Zero” had included in his work.  The web, Oxford University Press judged, would be a better venue for the unfolding bibliographic citation stream that would follow Kaplan’s work than would the printed page.  So now, The Nothing That Is, the text, comes before the something that is not, the bibliography – dare we say webliography?

 The famed Indian library philosopher Ranganathan taught in the 1930’s, as one of his five rules of library service, that “a library is a growing organism.”  Had he but seen the Web as we know it today, he would, I do not doubt, have added that the book, or its modern Internet equivalent, is a growing organism as well. So it is wonderfully appropriate that the data and metadata meanderings that flow and will continue to flow from, with and through Kaplan’s intellectual effort about the natural history of the zero should be the first to be set free of the gilded cage of printed text.   Bibliographies are dead: long live bibliographies.  

 Marx wrote only one Manifesto but the links from, with, and to it are enduring and endless.  Ahab stands apart from the text that Melville provided.  The stream of comments that followed, first a trickle, then a stream, again a mighty river, are now today, an endless ocean of links and scholarly text bytes.  Within that ocean of cyber and fiber links just perchance, the great white whale still lurks. 


Great Time to Be a Librarian

 It is a Chinese curse, of course, to say: may you live in interesting times. Who can deny that we do?  That makes it a great time, something that is true even if libraries and librarians as we know them will morph into something radically different in the next few years. That morphing will likely be to the point that we may no longer recognize libraries or, indeed, ourselves.

 Well if you read library history, you will see that when the first public libraries went to open stack collections, there were definitive statements of the imminent demise of the institution. Many were the soothsayers who announced our doom from the onslaught and misuse of collections by "heedless immigrants" until, of course, that immigrant Carnegie changed their tune a bit. It wasn't all that long ago that some within the American Library Association would have had us believe that racially integrated libraries would lead to the end of civilization. There was a time when librarians feared that cheap paperbacks would spell our ruin, too. There were Chicken Littles to forecast our doom from photocopiers, film, comic books, and videotape to mention just a few more.

 So yes, the times, they are a-changing. And yes, of course, the Net changes everything. And yes, perhaps this time, the stakes are higher. And yes, perhaps our competitors really will eat us alive this time - and leave the public the poorer for it!

 But libraries really DO build community, and it cannot be ALL virtual. When libraries build community, communities re-pay the favor. We all need some "face time" in our lives with real living people. If those people are smiling and offering a welcoming place to cybercafe [that's like 'doing lunch' only in a cybercafe equipped library] the public will keep coming. If we keep nudging open that pre-schooler's door to learning, parents will vote with their feet, their hearts, and their wallets. I know a lot of great library people who plan to continue to add value to the library experience as it evolves.

 The challenges are huge and daunting and downright scary. That's what makes it interesting! The times, as in that Chinese curse, are indeed interesting. The times they ARE a-changing. I, for one, think it is a great time to seek wisdom and share knowledge.

 Long Live the Knowledge Managers – K.M?

 Today some are arguing against being called catalogers, a term that is so last millennium.  Rather, they must be knowledge managers, a so very new millennium construct!  Now one can catalog a book as well as web site -- even if the latter is a constantly moving target -- but how could or would one ‘knowledge manage’ a web site?  I suppose one could always K.M. the web site?


K.M. Ordnung is Not a Maine Entry

 The potentially offensive subtitle of a Wired  magazine article is: “Phone Sects.”  [2]    To my way of thinking, only that title is potentially offensive. The rest of the article is a very enlightening look at the Amish community's method of defining APPROPRIATE uses of technology, the Ordnung.  Shall we then K.M. the Ordnung a bit?

 It seems there is a lesson for our library community to learn from the Amish approach to technology.  Perhaps like most people, I believed that the Amish simply rejected all 20th century technology and were, as Vonnegut might have said, stuck in time.  But this is far from the truth. The Amish believe that it is important to adopt only those technologies that do not threaten to diminish their faith community. Cars would lead to diminishing the value of neighbors and neighborhoods, so they are shunned in favor of buggies. Electricity would make them dependent on the outside world, so it can only be used if it is self-generated rather than off the power grid.   See “Phone Sects” in the January 1999 issue of Wired magazine for more.

 So what of technologies that are adopted?  On the one hand, the Amish reason, phones would break up family or business conversations - something the rest of us know to be all too true! But, add the Amish, like Tevia in Fiddler on the Roof, on the OTHER hand phones can save lives in an emergency.


So by a complicated communal process known as the Ordnung, the community has banned phones from the home, but not the farm. Amish phones are placed out in the field, often as not in a shed; frequently it is attached to the outhouse! Phones are there for emergencies but not for interrupting family conversation. Since few want to wait in the outhouse for calls, they use battery-operated answering machines! Now that cell phones are here, they can be and are used - but only in the field, never the home or office.


The Ordnung is much like the communal spirit that built a consensus-based set of rules for the Internet in its early days. Netiquette and all the attending values of the pioneering days of the net emerged from that virtual Ordnung.  The expansion of the net to HTML, SHTML, JAVA, cascading style sheets, - this and so much more, have swamped our ability to pick and choose wisely.


For over a century the American public library has adapted successive waves of technology - from the paperback to the phonograph record to the videotape and now the Internet. As we rush headlong into the Internet and all the places the new commercialized net is taking us, it seems well to take a page from the Amish book, and at least ask ourselves from time to time whether we are controlling the technology or it is controlling us.


Will there be life after the Internet? I have no doubt although I cannot imagine what it will be.  Can we help bridge the digital divide?  And what of books and bytes - can we tear down the iron curtain between them?


The Amish have taught me that if I buy a cell phone I sell my time if not my soul, and that in libraries as in life, we should take care that we control technology or it will control us. 


So then Catalogers, or Knowledge Managers, or whatever your authority controllers ultimately divine, get ready for the task.  It is by your Ordnung, not Forest Press[3] fiat that you can, in fact you must, build the catalog as community. 


Public Space

 According to Andrew O’Baoill’s article “Slashdot and the Public Sphere,” which appeared in a recent issue of First Monday[4],  “The public sphere is part of that space which is beyond the influence of systems such as economy, church, and state.”  It is another and better place, that public space – a place we all need both virtually and physically. 

 O’ Baoil uses Habermas’ work, “The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere.”  He notes that the theoretical discourse is interrupted with "talk of coffee houses, newspaper circulation or literary salons."  Habermas identifies places such as the eighteenth century coffee house as "a bourgeois 'public sphere', an ideal forum within which newspapers and journals were read and discussed in face-to-face groups.” 

 Habermas’ criteria for an ideal public space can be summarized under three headings:

  • Universal access - anybody can have access to the space

  • Rational debate - any topic can be raised by any

  • Disregard of rank - the status of participants is ignored

It takes both physical space and cyberspace to make a library a community.  We all need interaction with others in a public sphere as well time to read and reflect.  Catalogers must share in this community as knowledge managers, helping library users to sift information, share knowledge, and seek wisdom.


E-vanity fare and infinite selection. 

One of the favorite stories used to illustrate chaos theory is the legend of the butterfly.  The small disturbance of the butterfly wing moves a leaf that unsettles an air current that in turn, over many days and weather events, becomes a hurricane. 

Once catalogers described a physical book that stayed static like a butterfly in a collection.  Now that flow of intellectual property is as free as a living butterfly to fly where it will, to migrate hither and yon, and even to begin that hurricane by chance. 

 The output of books or e-texts is expected to increase radically in the coming years. Over 90% of an iceberg is below the water and over 99% of writers are unpublished.  But the Internet and wildly inexpensive storage and transmission costs are changing the latter equation. 

 Footnotes give scholarly context and are the forerunners of hypertext but footnotes did not exist until Gutenberg made them both possible and necessary.  The web and hypertext change the very manner in which we use intellectual property. 

 As e-texts and footnotes move towards the infinite, we can glimpse that potential 500 channels of noise and nothing that so perplexes television critics.  We will not cope with bibliographic descriptors alone, only human interfaces will suffice.  This is a grand challenge that makes it an exciting time to be a librarian – to build the catalog, to build the community. 


 Semantic Interoperability

 The tower of Babel rises swiftly as the Internet blithely ignores the archiving and cataloging functions that librarians know to be crucial to the wise collection and storage of data, information, knowledge, and, yes, wisdom.  Semantic interoperability is crucial to the future of knowledge management and libraries.  

 On the web there is no controlled vocabulary such as one finds in cataloging rules. The word <bridge> means one thing to an engineer, quite another thing to an orthodontist, still another to a card player.   A rose by any other name may smell as sweet but a bridge by the same name should smell different to a proper search engine.  Search engines will never catch the nuances without the help of catalogers for the web. Enter the Dublin Core, the OCLC CORC project and the Warwick framework, to try to catch, rather than reap, the whirlwind.

 There are ongoing attempts to catalog the net using the Dublin Core and the Warwick Framework. (References below).  Search engines can’t possibly keep up with fast growing and chaotic web resources yet they are “indexing” the net. This is worrisome to catalogers.  They seek semantic interoperability - tell me that's not an eight-bit concept!

 The story of the search engineer’s epiphany is perhaps, apocryphal, but it serves nonetheless to make our point. 

  • DotCom programmer: “We are working on a method to strictly define the metadata descriptors on web sites so we can provide semantic interoperability across sites!” 

  •  Cataloger:  “Oh, you mean like a controlled vocabulary?’

  • DotCom Programmer, crestfallen: “You mean someone has thought of this before?’

 In Wired magazine Kevin Warwick [5] outlines “is plan to become one with his computer." Warwick, what a great irony, for catalogers, no? Warwick is a researcher in Great Britain not a Framework or "container,” as in the Warwick container of metadata fame.  Warwick describes his plan to implant a chip in his arm and an attempt to record his emotions and then play them back to his nervous system, eventually, he hopes, over the web! He fears heights, so he will climb a cliff, record the emotion and play it back to his nervous system over the net. Spooky, no?

See: http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/8.02/warwick.html

 Therefore, even though we haven't even BEGUN to properly catalog the web that we already have, we must now, it appears, turn to emotions! My question is: where does one turn in Sears List of Subject Headings or the Dewey Decimal system for some of the following emotions.


  • Emotion 1: That sinking feeling in the pit of your stomach when you realize, just as you slam the door, that the keys are still in the car.

  • Emotion 2: That raw, I wish it were the weekend thought when the patron slams the books down on the desk and shouts "I am a taxpayer, and..."

  • Emotion 3: That helpless feeling when your teenage daughter asks if you would be more bothered by a tongue piercing or a tattoo...





 I have argued, a bit tongue in cheek, of course, that the catalog is the community, that libraries build community, and that communities repay the favor.  Our old catalogs and much of the old library we loved are dead.  Revere the past but sing the future!

 The First Peoples can teach us about the catalog and the library to come.  The new libraries and catalogs we are making need not just added cyber but more fiber as well.  It cannot all be virtual, we need face time and community, or what’s the point? 

 Ranganathan taught  that “a library is a growing organism.”  If growing, it must be alive, and, we hope, human.  We must continue to catalog with humanity and humanely, using humans.  Those useful and dreadful spyders that search engineers send foraging through the web cannot do it alone. 

 The catalog is the community.  Build it with a human touch.




  • Dublin Core:


  • Warwick Framework


  • CORC Project





[1] Wild as it may seem, there IS a prototype for a Star Trek type of holodeck library catalog.  It is called Librarea and it can be found on the ActiveWorlds web site.  Jack Colbert of Flint River Regional Library System in Georgia runs the site.  The attempt is to create a virtual reality library web site that one can navigate much as one would a video game.  One can wander through halls and bookshelves clicking on pictures that bring up texts, pictures and library history.    Visit Librarea, which takes special software to navigate, at  http:/www.activeworlds.com

 [2]  Look Who’s Talking: Phone Sects,” in Wired, Volume 7, 1999.  Page 128+.   There is a wonderful and delicious irony to this footnote.  I tried, at the request of Library Computing editor Kristin Antleman, to find the full citation to this article on the Web.  I could not do so.  The Web version of the Wired site does not, of course, give page numbers.  With a web site shelf life for most URLs at 72 days or less, I was concerned.   I called my local library, Racine.  They do not get the magazine but happily referred me to my local University library, Parkside, where it seems a faculty member had, um, taken the issue for, shall we say, an extended stay.   I then called Waukesha Public Library, the largest library in my federated library system.  The reference librarian gave me the needed citation and added that the music while I was on hold was indeed Mozart – better than elevator Muzak J.  The University library later called me back with further information, as did the Racine library - humane and human services all!

[3] Forest Press, the long time publisher of the Dewey Decimal system, and other cataloging tools.

[4]  First Monday:  http://www.firstmonday.dk/issues/issue5_9/baoill/index.html  Editorial note:  there is some irony in using this discussion of virtual public space to discuss physical public space!

 [5] Wired Magazine, February 2000.  "Cyborg 1.0" by Kevin Warwick.   See: http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/8.02/warwick.html  - If you are reading the footnotes correctly you will see the irony to this citation!


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