Legacy Thinking - If the Catalog is Your Only Tool, Everything Looks Like a MARC Record

I had lunch yesterday with a some folks from outside the legal industry where we discussed issues of making existing knowledge more readily available to others within our companies. I was taking my own advice and discussing the issues of libraries and knowledge management with those outside of law firms to see if there are different approaches that they are taking that we may not have thought of. Unfortunately at this meeting, it turns out that we in the legal field may be further ahead on KM/Library issues than those sitting at the table with me. I was both proud of that, and a little saddened that it turned out that I would be the one doling out the information at this session.

One of the issues we addressed was the fact that the employees of the company were creating documents that would actually benefit others within the same company, but that the departments were so siloed that currently there was no logical way that employee 'X' could even find a document written by employee 'Y' because X was in Houston, Y was in Dallas, but no way to search each others documents. It's an old problem, and one that they know needs to be fixed, but they're not sure where to start. They asked their existing library for help and their answer was for the authors of the documents to send their 'important documents' to the library and the library would catalog and store them in their Online Public Access Catalog (OPAC). This is where someone in the group said, "this is what we call 'Legacy Thinking'." Legacy Thinking is where you're trying to make new problems 'fit' into existing solutions, even if that solution isn't practical or effective in solving the existing problem.

Now it was at this point when the same person then told a great "geek" joke that I'm going to share with you:
Q: If God is all powerful, why did it take 6 days and one day of rest to create the heavens and earth?
A: Legacy Systems
Ha... that still cracks me up! Okay... back to my story.

Legacy Thinking doesn't mean that new problems can't be solved using existing resources. What it means is that you're trying to solve all problems using one of the resources that you know, rather than thinking bigger and perhaps determining that there are other, and perhaps better resources for solving this issue. Perhaps those resources already exist in other parts of the company, or it is time to search for an external solution by bringing in a new tool to solve the problem. In this case, the traditional library answer of "put it in the catalog" was Legacy Thinking. Perhaps you could get everyone to send their 'important' documents to be cataloged by the library, and perhaps you could train all the employees to search the library catalog for important internal documents, but, that's asking a lot of your employees to change their basic habits of how they collect and search for existing knowledge. Quite frankly, I don't know of a lot of places that do very well at this type of collection process.

When I heard this story, I immediately told them that this was a "Knowledge Management" problem and that they need to go to their KM department (which they immediately said didn't exist), or their IT department (which they said didn't seem to want to address the problem), or hire a KM consultant (which they finally nodded and said they had the money to do) to come in and see what could be done to solve this issue.
So everyone walked away with their 'next steps' in the process, and I left feeling that the library at this company missed an opportunity because they were stuck in Legacy Thinking mode. It is like the old saying of "if your only tool is a hammer, then all problems look like nails." Same with this situation, if your only solution is the catalog, then everything looks like a MARC record.  (Look it up!)

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Patricia Barbone said...

The sad thing is that just when the catalog tools are really flexible and will let you attach pdf or word documents with subject heading (taxonomies), authors, practice groups, and all kinds of notes, without adhering to a strict MARC record, just when they can do all the things we wanted them to do without a lot of fuss, they become passe. Now its enterprise search.

Greg Lambert said...


You are absolutely correct in pointing out that there are a lot of catalog tools that expand way beyond the what we traditional think that a catalog does. Perhaps I should have clarified that the way the solution was presented to the group left them with the impression that it would go in as a MARC record. Even worse, the group I was talking to said that the library's answer was to put it in the "card catalog".
So, sometimes the way the answer presented is more representational of "legacy thinking" than anything. It's hard to think of something as "Enterprise Search" when the answer presented comes across as "card catalog".


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