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<<In a modern world, where creating an index is just a clickety-boo away, what is the advantage of having "Instrument container, see toolbox" references, other than teaching readers that "Instrument container" and "toolbox" are synonyms?>>
I wondered if someone was going to raise this concern (see issue, objection).
It is true that controlled vocabularies were developed back in the days of manual indexes and card catalogs, and that a part of their purpose was to prevent the physical problems that would result from references to material on a subject -- for example, catalog cards, index entries -- being either scattered among various synonyms or duplicated for every possible synonym.
It is also true that in the online environment, many of these problems go away. For example, in an online library catalog, you no longer have to produce a separate physical card for each access point. You have one record for all access points, so that 20 synonyms no longer means 20 cards. Furthermore, it also means no more running all over the place to find those cards, because you just sit at a terminal and type in your query.
This has led many people to believe that in the online environment, there is no longer any need for a controlled vocabulary -- or for the related practice of personal name authority control, which does the same thing for names. However, this is not necessarily so, for two reasons.
First, while the obvious physical problems no longer exist, there are some more subtle problems that can creep up on you over time. For example, maybe you no longer have to type up 20 extra catalog cards for all those synonyms, but they will cause that online record to take up more disk space, and in a large library, with thousands of books, that could add up. Same for time spent searching. You might not have to run all over the place to find all the cards, but the time sent typing in the synonyms could add up. Granted, your online catalog could be set up to link all synonyms together, but if you're going to take the time and effort to do that, you may as well do it right and create online see references.
Second, the online storage, manipulation, and retrieval of data actually creates a problem that didn't exist before -- the computer's inability to make any kind of distinction other than purely quantitative. You and I know that "car" and "automobile" mean the same thing, and that "Eric Ray," "Eric J. Ray," and "E. J. Ray," might all be the same person, but to a computer, these are all character strings that are not equal to each other. This means that any computer operation that involves putting like things together, keeping unlike things apart, or singling out a specific item or category of items for a certain type of treatment will go much more smoothly if the exact same description is always used to denote the exact same thing or concept. For example, suppose you wanted to make all books on a certain subject off limits to anyone who didn't enter the proper authorization code. Wouldn't it be easier if that involved searching for only one subject heading? And how many of you have ever gotten five copies of a mailing, each to a slightly different form of your name?