Two Kinds of Power

If one accepts Wilson’s statement that users wish to find the text that best suits their need, it would be hard to argue that libraries should not be trying to present the best texts to users. This, however, goes counter to the stated goal of the library catalog as that of bibliographic control, and when the topic of “best” is broached, one finds an element of neutrality fundamentalism that pervades some library thinking. This is of course irreconcilable with the fact that some of these same institutions pride themselves on their “readers’ services” that help readers find exactly the right book for them. The popularity of the readers’ advisory books of Nancy Pearl and social networks like Goodreads, where users share their evaluations of texts, show that there is a great interest on the part of library users and other readers to be pointed to “good books.” How users or reference librarians are supposed to identify the right books for them in a catalog that treats all resources neutrally is not addressed by cataloging theory.

Wilson’s analysis presages the search and retrieval capabilities of Internet search engines like Google, Bing, and Yahoo. He also writes that power of bibliography is greatest if it extends over the entire bibliographic universe, not just a single selection (one universal library as opposed to the local collection); that the user is better served the fewer retrieved items must be reviewed before satisfying the user’s request (as in targeted ranking); and that direct access to the text is a greater power than restrictive use (open access).

Due to the philosophical nature of the book, one has to tease out these brilliant ideas; they are not laid out as headlines or clear conclusions. Yet in the text Wilson may have laid out a new direction for libraries decades before those same principles were discovered by Internet entrepreneurs using new technologies. Imagine if Internet search engines had the same goals as library catalogs and designed their products to cater to only those users who came to the search box knowing either the title or the author of the document they were seeking.

Karen Coyle, The Model, FRBR Before and After.