Saturday, April 5, 2008

Fake Folksonomies in the Fog

Today my local library system, not the one I work at, announced on its catalog site that the Visual Catalog will premier on April 7th, with searching available now (April 5th.) After trying it out, all I can say is please please please do not let this be a total replacement of the current catalog. The announcement doesn't make that clear.

The Visual Catalog (as opposed to what? there is no verbal catalog) is powered by AquaBrowser Library (registered trademark -- I have no idea how to do the little r in a circle.) I'm not sure where the name AquaBrowser comes from; it conjures up images of trying to read through swim goggles underwater. Or maybe watching a book sink into the water in the bathtub. AquaBrowser's website says that 80% of libraries in the Netherlands use its products; maybe an entire sinking country is the source for the name.

Ever ready to try a new catalog, I entered into the search box Laurie R. King, an author I like. There's no choice of author-title-subject in the search box. What pops up with that search is, on the left, a "Word Cloud;" in the center, a list of titles; and on the right, the "Refine" list, which, among other things, allows one to pick up, under authors, THE Laurie R. King.

Can you figure out what the list of titles is? It's every title that has, anywhere in the entry, either "laurie" or "r" or "king." This is not helpful. I'm being deprived here of the current choices in the catalog, where an "author" search is a keyword, and an "author browse" search is for a specific name. Here I can only get a keyword.

The "word cloud" is interesting. With Laurie R. King in faint gray type in the center, there are lines to spelling variations in orange (XR, VR, Lauria, Lourie;) translations in green (daar, d r (it's hard to tell if the space is there or not between the two letters,) and haar -- none of which seem to be translations of words in the central phrase; and then a large swarm of association words in black: in this case death, kong, court, son, martin, day, luther, prince, novel, queen, england, knight, tale, ruler, lion, evil, princess, richard. What's missing are any words relating to Ms. King's fictional characters: Mary Russell, Sherlock Holmes, Kate Martinelli. The association is simply to each word or initial in the search term, not the phrase as a whole. I had at first assumed that the the word cloud was a folksonomy, a collection of search terms collaboratively created by experts (librarians,) and creators and consumers of a text. Unfortunately, the fact that the words link only to individual words rather than to the phrase as a whole shows that the cloud is computer generated, rather than a folksonomy. Too bad. As it stands, it has neither librarian-generated subject headings (female detectives, England,) nor ones created by the public (say, Mary Russell.)

One can click on any of the words in the cloud to find the associated links. I clicked, just for the heck of it, on court, and got, as the number two title, The United States Supreme Court. So, the thought process is this: the searcher wants "king." Maybe the searcher would also like "court," because a king has a court. So let's show the searcher a book on the Supreme Court, because ..... All logical suggestions are welcome. In reality, then, the association is just another keyword search, without context (i.e, no relationship of court to king.) Or have I missed some recent news about the Supremes ? I admit I've been a tad happy lately, for no particular reason, and, as the saying goes, if you're happy, you're not paying attention.

So, I went to the refined list and clicked on author Laurie R. King. The resulting list of books by her is arranged by "found editions," according to the heading. That means that when two editions of a title come out in one year, there is only one listing, with a button to see both ("regular" and large print, for example.) For the life of me, however, I cannot figure out how the list of editions is arranged. It is not alpha by title. It is not chronological or reverse chronological. It is not by series (Mary Russell/Sherlock Holmes, Kate Martinelli, stand-alones.) The very last title, on screen 2, is her most recent book, Touchstone, published in 2008. I have no idea if that "last published, last listed" approach is standard. If it's not standard, I shudder at the thought of clicking through page after page for some authors with even larger oeuvres, looking for their newest titles. (If I knew it, I could search by it. I hope.)

The news release on the library's catalog burbles that the visual catalog will be an "adventure comparable to browsing the shelves. ... [The] Visual Catalog is clearly designed with the library customer in mind." The motto for all this is provided by the vendor: Search, Discover, Refine.

I, personally, have never discovered any books on the Supreme Court next to the books on the court of King Arthur, nor in the mystery section next to Ms. King's books. Perhaps I have just been lucky. The associations in the word cloud conjure up for me not the shelves of a library, but the shelves in a thrift-store's book section. Indeed, they are fun to browse, but they aren't my first choice when I am looking for something specific, like the latest novel by an author. Or any info-shard. If I wanted to discover, I'd wander around the library, or the web.

As noted above, I don't want to be deprived of choices. I don't want to be forced into a keyword search, with the need to then further refine it. I want a list of books in reverse chronological order, so the newest is at the top. Surely I can't be the only customer who looks to the library for the newest in fiction?

Perhaps "customer" is the operational phrase here. I dislike it as a term for library patron, but many library systems (the one I work for included) are quite keen on. When I hear customer, I think of someone trying to sell me something. I do not think of someone who is always right. Does anyone, anymore? Nordstrom's (a department store) is idolized by many for its customer service. But it's considered so great, in part, because service in most stores is so abysmal. Is anyone really happy with the service they get in most places? Am I the only one that shudders when a business tells me that they are making changes for my benefit? Is there any reason my attitude should change because the Visual Catalog is shaped with customers in mind?

The outlook is cloudy indeed, if not just plain fogged over. I like the fog I see outside my office window all summer long; I'm significantly less keen on seeing it in a library catalog.

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