Cloak of Invisibility
The Making of Harry Potter 29-05-2012 Image by Karen Roe. CC by 2.0

It seems apt to make a literary reference from “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone” (Rowling, 1997) when discussing the future of the description and organisation of materials in school libraries. As users’ preferences for how they find, identify, select, obtain and navigate information, change, professional description, rather than becoming obsolete will transform under a cloak of invisibility.

The implications of the information age, as it has become widely touted (Castells, 2010), apply across disciplines and contexts. The resultant information overload means that information management- the organisation of information so that it is useful for users, but more importantly, so that users can access it effectively- has become even more important. Similarly, information quality is an important consideration. As Hider (2012) states, “…like air, some information resources may be better than others. Their content may be more accurate, more relevant, or more intelligible” (px1).

We are, of course, talking about metadata – the theme that runs throughout my most recent studies in ‘Describing Educational Resources’. Hider (2012) defines metadata as organising information by describing the process and the product and as I have stumbled through the basics of resource description tools, applying metadata, describing and classifying resources, I have gained an enormous appreciation for the work required by professional cataloguers. But we are now at a point in history where cost and scalability are increasingly impacting on the perceived value of professional description as a profession.

Professional description, using controlled vocabularies creates high quality resource description. It is highly effective but very costly. Compare this to computerised content-based (CB) retrieval and social metadata (SM) tools and it is clear that these latter two are considerably cheaper and highly scalable, plus, users, especially primary school students, are very familiar with them. However, they may seem attractive on the surface but the trade-off is in quality. If they do not produce quality resources for the information seeker, they are not effective. This is most important when considering the age and intellectual capacity school library users. If users are seeking conceptual information, especially in a non-text medium, CD and SM tools provide little assistance. If users have a general idea of the topic they need information about but do not know all of the terminology associated with it, CD and SM tools are not yet able to uncover the full range of associated information (Hider, 2012). However, professional description and its tools could meet the requirement of quality as well as effectiveness in retrieving the full range of information required by users. Through subject headings and cross-referencing, professional description tools offer users alternatives to narrow their search and they manage conceptual metadata concerning multi-modal mediums exceptionally well using controlled vocabularies. Rather than having to teach the skills of OPAC searching, internet searching and social curation separately, being able to teach one system that combines all three would produce the most effective results. As McCutcheon (2009) suggests, “the one with the most tools wins”, and whilst it would be unnecessary to explicitly teach students controlled vocabularies, this complementary approach could use a cloak of invisibility over controlled vocabularies connected seamlessly to user-preferred CB and SM tools, providing the necessary quality and effectiveness of information resources to meet our students’ needs.


Castells, M. (2010). The rise of the network society (2nd ed., Vol. 2). West Sussex (UK): Wiley and Blackwell.

Hider, P. (2012). Information resource description: Creating and managing metadata. London: Facet.

McCutcheon, S. (2009). Keyword vs controlled vocabulary searching: the one with the most tools wins. Indexer, 27(2), 62-65.

Rowling, J. (1997). Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. London: Bloomsbury.