Monday, June 06, 2005

Library Research Models, by Thomas Mann

I just finished reading Thomas Mann's Library Research Models: A Guide to Classification, Cataloging, and Computers (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993). It is an outstanding book, one I recommend for all library students and librarians. I wish my reference professor had assigned this as a text!

Mann, who is currently (as far as I know) a reference librarian at the Library of Congress, describes a number of different library research models, including: specific subject or discipline model, traditional library science model (classification scheme, vocabulary-controlled catalog, published bibliographies and indexes), type-of-literature model, actual-practice model, and computer workstation model. He notes the limitations and powers of each approach, and he concludes the book with a cumulative methods-of searching model that uses most of these models to account for the weaknesses of the others. If you want a comprehensive approach to your next massive research project, Mann provides it!

Along the way, he made a number of excellent arguments. The first is that most people believe that the organization of information in the library consists of the classification scheme alone. Thus, people assume the only way to access the information in a library is to find the call number or class where a certain subject might be and browse around that area in the stacks. Unfortunately, this is a deficient assumption. As Mann and critics of classification schemes point out, one book can address many subjects. So, where does a book go then? Similarly, a book addressing one subject can address many different aspects of it. Which aspect should be be brought out in its class assignment? Given these probelms, a person browsing the stacks may be missing several relevant books if he or she restricts the search to one class area in the stacks. Nevertheless, classification is important, as it provides a library user access to the full text of the library's collection. Mann provides examples of information that cannot be found through a library's catalog or various bibliographies and indexes, but only through browsing in the book's of a library's collection.

Another argument he makes is the controlled vocabulary used in the library's catalog is a powerful mechanism for providing access to information. Specifically, controlled vocabulary provides predictability and serendipity. Yes, that's right. Mann provides innumerable examples to show this. He rightly criticizes information scientists who insist that keyword/postcoordinate searches have made controlled vocabulary irrelevant. As we've discussed in this blog, "tagging" has become popular. However, tagging lacks authority control and the syndetic structure of thesauri and books of subject headings, such as the Library of Congress Subject Headings, and thus lacks the full predictability of formal controlled vocabularies.

Mann describes another aspect not emphasized in research or in library science education: the importance of bibliographies and indexes. He notes that the Library of Congress classification places encyclopedias and other guides to the literature in the A class (these works, he says, serve as a "table of contents" to everything after it, that is, works in the B through V range). Class Z includes bibliographies and indexes. These are at the end in the classification scheme; they serve as an index to everything before it. Mann explains how to find bibliographies, both in the catalog and in the classification scheme, and, again, provides illustrative examples of the usefulness of these works.

If there are powerful, traditional approaches to finding information during the research process, why don't we use them? There are many reasons. Mann speculates at length. One reason is that methods courses in graduate work tend to focus on discipline or subject specific resources (often in the form of lists), instead of library research approaches. Library science education, on the other hand, tends toward the type-of-literature model. Students in a LIS reference course, for example, learn about specific almanacs, atlases, encyclopedias, etc., without learning how to find them more generally, for any subject, using a library's controlled vocabulary. Reference course work in specific areas, such as government information or science, is actually a combination of the type-of-literature and the discipline/subject models. This has been the case, in my experience. If I were to teach a course in general reference, I would definitely assign chapters 3-5 in this book! (These chapters cover the library science model: classification, controlled vocabulary, and published bibliographies and indexes).

Another reason why many of these approaches aren't used is due to what is known as the Principle of Least Effort. Mann refers to this principle repeatedly throughout the book and wrote a chapter on it. We are comfortable chatting with our fellow students or coworkers and asking for good articles or books they may have read or seen, or simply looking at the footnotes of one or two articles we may have happened across in a simple keyword search of some particular database.

Mann's reliance on controlled vocabulary could be considered one of the book's weaknesses. Yes, it is important for finding information in the library, but it is difficult to teach. I would guess that most librarians would not feel comfortable teaching the LCSH! Also, most people loathe to consult the big red LCSH books, but, at the same time, there isn't an easy way to browse them online. Even the LOC's authorities Web site isn't as easy as browsing the LCSH books, in my opinion.

Another criticism of the book may be that it is a systems approach to research. That is, the book emphasizes the systems of research rather than the user. Well, that may be, but Mann does acknowledge the weaknesses of these research models and the systems they use. He also acknowledges that they take some learning. But, especially for print resources, how else is a user to find information in the library? There's been lots of research done on information seeking behavior, but few if any of these studies have suggested real changes to the current library organization model of classification, a vocabulary-controlled catalog, and indexes and bibliographies. If I'm wrong on this, please let me know!

In spite of these possible criticisms, this book helped me see the organization of library information as a whole (classification [browsing], vocabulary-controlled catalog, bibliographies and indexes). This book has me looking very much forward to an update of Mann's other book, which will be released later this year: The Oxford Guide to Library Research.


Joy said...

If you can't wait, the 2005 Oxford Guide is the third edition. The second is out in paperback--a delightful book I read before starting library school and felt that it put me miles ahead of my classmates in Reference class.

Barbara said...

I'm a huge Tom Mann fan. Years ago, after reading Research Models, Sandy Fuhr and I invited him to be part of a faculty workshop on our campus, funded in part by the IMLS (your tax dollars at work!) He was terrific - and the faculty really got into learning the ins and outs of libraries that had never really been clear to them before. More recently we had discussions with faculty about a course for graduate school-bound students and one young historian said he never really understood how to do research until he read Mann's Oxford Guide in a grad school course (and this guy's a demon researcher). Though what Tom describes really is the librarians' way of organizing information, it's good for people who really want to dig in. And as you point out, Alec, there are insights for librarians, too. Can't wait for the new edition!

As for LCSH - yes, its hard to teach to students who use the principle of least effort (one my personal rules to live by, I might add...) But the other problem is that they just aren't very good. It's not just the archaic language problem, it's that nobody devotes the time to assigning subjects that they should. I guess it's the principle of least effort at work.

Tom is still at LC by the way, where he went to work after changing careers - from private investigator to librarian. He launched a successful campaign to keep shelving books by LC call number (when the Librarian of Congress wanted them to shelve by size to save space.) Last year he published a little book with McFarland that is a catalog of his collection of photoplay editions - also has a great introduction to this form of popular culture and the script of a silly movie about a killer gorilla; the movie is lost, but the photoplay edition survives. The title is Horror and Mystery Photoplay Editions and Magazine Fictionizations - and the cover is worth the price of admission.

And I have heard rumors he'll have an article out soon in Library Quarterly...

BTW, nice to see you here, Joy - like yer blog.