This blog represents most of the newspaper columns (appearing in various Colorado Community Newspapers and Yourhub.com) written by me, James LaRue, during the time in which I was the director of the Douglas County Libraries in Douglas County, Colorado. (Some columns are missing, due to my own filing errors.) This blog covers the time period from April 11, 1990 to January 12, 2012.

Unless I say so, the views expressed here are mine and mine alone. They may be quoted elsewhere, so long as you give attribution. The dates are (at least according my records) the dates of publication in one of the above print newspapers.

The blog archive (web view) is in chronological order. The display of entries, below, seems to be in reverse order, new to old.

All of the mistakes are of course my own responsibility.

Wednesday, April 18, 2001

April 18, 2001 - Cataloging & Metadata

Imagine that your mind is the front door of a refrigerator. Throughout the day, you stick all kinds of notes on it, using either sticky notes, or paper and magnets.

By the end of the day, and definitely by the end of the WEEK, let's face it, your mind is a mess. Some of those notes are very important. Some of them are trivial. But even very important things don't need to be attended to today.

Meanwhile, some exceedingly trivial things are tied to a time that's just around the corner. You can let them go, and it could be that you often do, but at least some people will not be pleased.

Not only that, a lot of those notes are just things you wished you could remember if your memory were perfect.

So part of the problem concerns time management. Some things are urgent and important. Others are urgent but less important. Some things are important, but not urgent at all. And many, many, many things, are neither important nor urgent.

But the refrigerator postings of your life have another dimension. This is something only librarians and other information professionals bother to think about. It falls into the area of "things you want to remember."

To really keep track of all the data and information that barrages us daily, we need a tool called "metadata." In brief, we need to take a step back from the odd jotting, the random note, in order to label it. Then, at some late date, we can retrieve that note on the basis of the label we gave it.

Or at least, we hope we can.

Take a book, for instance. A particular book contains a lot of information. The great value of librarianship is something we call "cataloging." In your own life, you might call it, "grouping."

Librarians extract data. We say, "this book has the following bits of information."

Somebody wrote it. That's the author. It could be that one day, you'll want to find or remember all the books by that person.

The book has a name, a title. Somebody is bound to look for it — although they might remember only a single word, and that might not be the first word of the title. And so librarians offer you a search for KEY words.

The book is about something. To librarians, that's the "subject." Suffice it to say that we have a lot of subject "headings" — words, descriptions, we have agreed to stick to, the better to help the average person stumble across books on the same topic, right next to each other on the same shelf.

Then there are things, other data elements, that you may not want to search by, but still matter. Somebody saw that it was produced. That's the publisher. The book has so many pages. It has an index.

By the time we're done, we have what we call a "bibliographic record," a detailed description of the item we snagged for our collection.

That record conforms to certain standards that librarians around the world try to follow. We dutifully type this information into our computers, and all around the globe, other librarians and library patrons type in those key bits of data, according to the systems we've established, and try to fetch all the books that match the search.
Of course, libraries are about more than books. New formats are popping up all the time. There are magazine articles, audiotapes, CDs, e-books, web pages. All of these contribute more new categories, new metadata.

Here's the bottom line: we are in danger of being inundated by new data, by random works, and facts, tossed at us from every angle.

Libraries can't tell you which, of all those offerings, really matter to YOU. But here's what we can do. We can give you a way to deal with all of it, to lump whole fields of knowledge together, to sort through it all, to fetch just those things that interest you, without being overwhelmed by irrelevancies.

Libraries are the memory you wish you had.

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