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