Ever been stumped as you tried to find something in a huge, complex data environment that encompasses a hybrid of all types of internal and external data? It used to be that data systems were tactical, technically focused systems that provided point-to-point data access. In that era, it wasn’t so involved to locate the precise data you needed. But these days, data environments have evolved into highly strategic, collaborative, context-driven organisms.
In this crazy world of big data with so many variables and nuances, finding the right information can be mind boggling. Short of being able to “Google it,” I think back to what I would have done in years past to find the information I needed.
Where would I have gone for help? To the library, of course. But isn’t the library vastly different from a business data environment? Maybe not. Let’s see what data lessons we can learn from a library.
Libraries have a long, rich history of organizing information to make it accessible to any and all who desire it. When it comes to organizing and understanding your organization’s data, it turns out there is much you can learn from the library’s approach.
Consider applying the 5 laws of library science to classifying and creating catalogs, for example. Let’s compare these library laws with our corporate data laws. And then we’ll see how this approach can help those who are looking to find the right data at your organization.
The 5 laws of library science applied to data
Way back in 1931, S.R. Ranganathan established five laws to serve as guiding principles for the operation of a library or library system. The same laws can serve as an overarching strategy for organizing and sharing access to your business data.
- Law 1 – Books are for use. In other words, books in libraries are not meant to be shut away from their readers.
- Data lesson 1. If data is not used, it is has no value.
- Law 2 – Every reader his/her book. Librarians serve a wide collection of patrons, and they acquire literature to fit a vast collection of needs. They don’t judge what specific patrons choose to read. Everyone has different tastes and differences, and we should respect that.
- Data lesson 2. Respect every data request. It is not our place to judge what data is requested. Of course, it is important to protect personally identifiable data, private data or sensitive data – similar to the way librarians treat rare book collections.
- Law 3 – Every book its reader. A library's books have a place in the library even if a smaller demographic might choose to read it.
- Data lesson 3. Even the least popular data has a purpose, just as the most detailed data has a purpose.
- Law 4 – Save the time of the reader. All patrons should be able to easily locate the material they desire, quickly and efficiently.
- Data lesson 4. Anyone who wants to should be able to easily locate the data they desire, both quickly and efficiently.
- Law 5 – The library is a growing organism. A library should be a continually changing institution, never static in its outlook. Books, methods and the physical library should be updated over time.
- Data lesson 5. As new systems come online or old ones are retired, you need to evolve your systems, platforms and methods.
Library (and data) classification systems
Classification systems are meant to help organize library materials according to subject. Generally, related materials are grouped together. Several library classification systems exist, such as the familiar Dewey Decimal System and the Library of Congress Classification system.
To date, most business organizations classify data based on the application that creates it, the source that stores it or the report that presents it. Classifying data in this way is not necessarily conducive to easily locating data.
The data lesson here – Classify your business data in a way that makes it easy to find – not based simply on location (where the data came from, or where it now resides).
Library (and data) cataloging
Descriptive cataloging, of course, is closely associated with classification. In the past, libraries used descriptive card catalogs to describe their library books. While card catalogs have gone the way of the apothecary table, that 3x5 card held a wealth of information.
Note the word descriptive. The card from the card catalog describes what the book or resource is, who wrote it, what it is about and – most importantly – where you can find it. This 3x5 card is often considered the “original metadata.”
In today’s data world, we’re accustomed to talking about metadata (data about data) – and most of our metadata is very rich as it relates to structure. But many organizations fall short when it comes to having rich descriptive metadata.
To complete the analogy here, organizations have to look for ways to go beyond a basic data dictionary. They need to expand their dictionaries into full-fledged business glossaries. Ultimately, this will create a rich card catalog that will describe all the details anyone needs to know about their information resources.