In Fords in Four, we ask an alumnus four questions; he shares insights and stories. In this blog post, Bruce Johnson '71, who currently works for the Library of Congress, shares memories of learning music and writing at Haverford, and how those lessons have helped shape his career.
Which faculty member at Haverford had a particularly strong impact on you?
The Upper School music teacher during my V and VI form years was Roman Pawlowski. Before Mr. Pawlowski’s arrival, upper school music focused mostly on a glee club approach to music. It was lots of fun, but not very profound. With Mr. Pawlowski’s arrival, the “Glee Club” became the “Male Chorus,” and our repertoire changed from Gilbert and Sullivan (lots of fun) to Brahms’ German Requiem (lots of Sturm und Drang). We had performances with Shipley, Baldwin, and the Curtis Institute’s orchestra that were challenging and truly memorable. Mr. Pawlowski taught us more than how to sing the music, but what it meant and where it came from. I think he also opened the eyes of some of the boys to the possibility that music could be a career, and not simply a pastime. I frequently think of Mr. Pawlowski and his focused dedication to introducing us to the world of music.
What do you do in your role at the Library of Congress?
I am responsible for the development of a content management system called Cataloger’s Desktop, which provides all the information that a library cataloging professional needs to provide content- and access-management to newly accessioned library materials. The reason that this activity is important is that a library’s simply owning a book, recording, map, or electronic resource does not achieve anything if the resource can’t be found. What the cataloger does is describe the object in a consistent, predictable way, analyze what it’s about and assign controlled vocabulary subject strings, and then find a place to park the item that enables intelligent browsing. To accomplish this highly technical task, the cataloger needs ready access to a large body of technical standards. Each of these standards are developed independently by dozens of different organizations, and each has a unique editorial practice that makes internally logical sense, but which is a barrier to its incorporation into a corpus of expert information.
What Cataloger’s Desktop does is merge hundreds of technical resources into a single information store where the focus is on discovery and intuitive navigation. What we have built into Cataloger’s Desktop is predictive searching that is based on language-neutral, computer-generated concept pathways. The user doesn’t need to know what the concept is called or how it is spelled. Desktop has incorporated several specialist dictionaries in over two dozen languages that link concepts together, regardless of spelling (e.g. British versus American spellings like “colour” versus “color”), terminology (e.g. British versus American like “full stop” versus “period”), or language (e.g. English “access point” versus Chinese “检索点” versus Albanian “Pikë hyrëse”)
Because most search discovery is serendipitous, Desktop also incorporates how cataloging professional conceptualize process and navigation. This is achieved through computer analysis of the concepts included in the infostore, along with weekly review of search behavior, focusing on what search arguments were used, and what information the user ultimately retrieved. This gives us a good sense of how the user visualizes information and how they fly through it to get their desired results.
This system has made my colleagues all over the world much more productive and has allowed them to focus on improving access to the end-user. I was recently recognized by the American Library Association for this body of work with the Margaret Mann Citation.
What is the most compelling or rewarding part of your work?
I began my library career cataloging books and other materials at Northwestern University. I needed several shelf-feet of technical resources that were shared with other colleagues and were often physically located elsewhere. These resources were in either paper or microform, and many were only occasionally updated in fully cumulated form. Further, none were written in a way that made consulting other related works easy. Lots of time was lost in the frustrating and often unsuccessful effort to bring together related concepts in disparate resources.
When I began work at the Library of Congress, I took it as my mission to change that reality. We developed our online system, at first as a CD-ROM-based PC application, and later as a centrally-hosted online knowledgebase. Working with my colleagues all over the world, I’ve been able to reproduce how catalogers conceptualize information organization. The resulting service takes the “search” out of “discovery,” which in turn allows professionals to do their jobs, confident that they’re using the correct, fully up-to-date information. This has made my colleagues all over the world much more productive and has allowed them to focus on improving access to the end-user. I was recently recognized by the American Library Association for this body of work with the Margaret Mann Citation.
Don’t limit yourself to what you think you may be in the future. You almost certainly don’t know today where you will be ten or twenty years from now. Be open to the possibilities and find the challenges that interest you and that you find rewarding. If you can find a spot where you can make a difference, you will be happy and will achieve fulfillment and success.
How do you think current students can make the most of their Haverford education?
Don’t limit your horizons. The conventional measure of success frequently channels us into careers that promise high incomes. When I was at Haverford, I was convinced that I would be a physician like my dad. I went off to college as a pre-med student and quickly realized that my heart really wasn’t in that course of study. I switched to a music history major, and then earned musicology and library science master’s degrees.
It was only when I began writing my musicology doctoral dissertation at Northwestern that I realized that my future was not in teaching music history, but in library science. This would never have occurred to me while I was at Haverford.
Did Haverford prepare me for my career? In many ways it did. My involvement in Haverford’s music program was a major part of my life’s concentration on music. The challenges of Haverford’s focus on developing writing and research skills have paid off in everything I have done. When I came to Haverford in Form IV, I thought I knew how to write well, but Haverford quickly disabused me of that misconception. Daily and weekly writing assignments, not just for English class, really put my writing skills under a microscope. Three years and scores of papers of all lengths later made me a much better writer. It also forced me to learn how to analyze complex concepts and synthesize them into intelligible narratives. Without a doubt this has put me head and shoulders ahead of most of my colleagues.
I have had the good fortune of having a career that has fundamentally re-shaped my profession. Don’t limit yourself to what you think you may be in the future. You almost certainly don’t know today where you will be ten or twenty years from now. Be open to the possibilities and find the challenges that interest you and that you find rewarding. If you can find a spot where you can make a difference, you will be happy and will achieve fulfillment and success.
Bruce Johnson ’71 is a semi-retired team leader at the Library of Congress in Washington, DC. He developed and is responsible for the Library’s online knowledge base, Cataloger’s Desktop, which is used by professional librarians worldwide. He is a nationally recognized expert on information discovery and search technology. When not at the Library, Bruce serves as a national officer of the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary and the Boy Scouts of America’s Sea Scout program. He recently completed a two-year assignment commanding the roughly one thousand Auxiliarists in the Maryland-National Capital Region. His current assignment is integrating the Sea Scouts as the Auxiliary’s official youth program. Bruce and wife Holly sail their sailboat, Glamorgan, on the Chesapeake Bay and enjoy international travel.