Quality Rules

Here is a letter from our very own Paul Deschner, to the Harvard Library community (and – now – beyond). It was so well received here that we thought it worth sharing more broadly.

Hi all,

During this time of general re-evaluation of library services, I thought
it might be helpful to share a few thoughts from my vantage point as a
software developer at the Harvard Library Innovation Lab regarding the
relationship between our catalogers (we’re in the Law Library) and the
data they create and software development for library applications.

My project work at the Lab has time and again shown the crucial
importance not simply of cataloged records, but of cataloged records
created to a high standard. I work primarily on data platforms,
harvesting bibliographic and related data and making it accessible to
other developers who create amazing tools and services for library
communities.

One of the primary challenges in this work is getting data describing
books and periodicals (catalog records) to relate to data from
non-library sources, such as data about book talks on YouTube or to NPR
broadcasts of author interviews or to archival collections. It’s all
about connections in the data. The barer the data, the less described
it is, the more it falls flat.

On the bibliographic side, every new Library of Congress subject heading
a cataloger adds to a record creates a rich set of connective
possibilities downstream for people like me. Likewise, every uniform
title entry inserted into a record allows us to show users of our
software another edition of a given work in the context of all its
editions — a crucial feature for any discovery service in the library
materials space.

No software can create these connections if the underlying data hasn’t
been carefully composed into richly structured records, based on solid
analysis and comprehensive description. The difference is like that
between reading a newspaper consisting of headlines only and reading one
which also has accompanying articles. It is dramatic.

I hope in moving forward that we don’t lose sight of the importance of
this kind of quality analysis and description.

But also: the expertise which catalogers bring to the task of
comprehensive bibliographic description has proven crucial to me as a
reference resource in my work of designing software to harvest and
process bibliographic information. At the Law Library, the catalogers
are a few hallway steps away, and are as crucial to my being able to
create smart software as anyone on my development team. I’ve spent
countless hours, regularly throughout the years, with my cataloger
colleagues exploring the complexities of MARC data structures, uniform
title rulesets, authority record uses, holdings data locations, and much
much more. Having them as a co-located resource has been crucial to my
being able to get my software written.

There are some amazing cross-departmental symbioses here in the Harvard
Library, as well as some crucial, perhaps non-obvious, dependencies
between departments. From where I’m sitting, they comprise a major,
wonderfully effect part of our current ecosystem.

Paul Deschner
Applications Developer
Harvard Library Innovation Lab

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