Changing Nature of the Catalog

I finally sat down and actually read Karen Calhoun’s report “The Changing Nature of the Catalog and its Integration with Other Discovery Tools” (PDF). It’s not as long as it seems when you first open the PDF and are greeted with the “Page 1 of 52″ message, and I highly recommend reading it. I don’t, however, highly recommend reading it the way a lot of people read reports like this (reading the introduction and main body material and figuring that the appendices aren’t that important and can be skipped because after all, they’re appendices and even the author didn’t include them in the meat of the report).

On the contrary, the really interesting and important stuff here is in the Introduction, Appendix A, and Appendix C. The rest can happily be skimmed or [gasp] skipped. Why? Because in these three sections of the report, there is a strong theme of questioning the ideas upon which catalogs are built and maintained with an eye to aligning this process with user needs. In the two chapters that make up the main body of the report, this focus on conceiving of a system that is fundamentally useful gets a little lost in explanations of market concepts, correlations between dollars spent on books and serials to dollars spent on cataloging, calls for updating copyright law (now there’s a can of worms!), and other such issues. The culmination of these two chapters is Calhoun’s blueprint for change, a four-page list of action items including everything from “Find Funding and Partners” to “Improve the User Experience.”

So what’s useful about the non-core sections of this report? First of all, if the Library of Congress is studying this issue, it is NO LONGER A FRINGE ISSUE. So the first take-away lesson is that we may not agree with all or any of what’s presented in this report, but that doesn’t exempt us from asking the questions that prompted this report. We will still have to ask what our users need from the catalog and how we can serve those needs. We also still have to acknowledge that what our catalogs do now does not best serve those needs. Hey, if LC can do it, we can do it.

How do we know what our users need? Let’s see… How often have you heard “Why can’t I find journal articles in the catalog?” That’s clue number one. Obviously, the nice little categories of things in our heads don’t make sense to our users. This question and its permutations are the most common questions I get when I’m at the desk. (Calhoun points out this and other user needs on pages 25 and 26.) One of the people Calhoun and her collaborators interviewed pointed out that “For serials, librarians and faculty may be the only users who think in terms of the container [the serial title]” (page 35). And I know from talking to students that it is no longer obvious to them that serials are things that come out – um – serially. I have to point out that the article they’re looking for is inside of something else, and that this something else is shelved with many volumes all arranged by year. When articles are increasingly findable as discrete things, devoid of context, this concept of serial publication is less and less familiar to students. Ironically, they have no trouble with the idea of serial publication in blog form…but I digress.

But libraries aren’t just oblivious. We’ve been thinking about improving the user experience for years and years. And the enhancements that library scholars have called for are getting implemented, but not by libraries. Calhoun quotes Holly Yu and Margo Young who say:

In spite of many studies and articles … over the last twenty-five years, many of the original ideas about improving user success in searching library catalogs have yet to be implemented. Ironically, many of these techniques are now found in Web search engines” (Yu and Young, “The impact of Web search engines on subject searching in OPAC.” Information Technology and Libraries. 23.4 (2004). Quoted in Calhoun, page 26).

What’s more, the interviews and literature review that Calhoun did revealed that usability is not helped by intensely customized records, catalogs, or displays. “The idea that every library has to have its own catalog is problematic,” said one interviewee (page 37). And another said, “Libraries want a ton of customization; this is ridiculous and must stop” (page 41). So I think that instead of having a local catalog, it might be useful to have a union catalog that would allow users to scope their searches by “what’s available here and now” (e-access and local holdings) and “what’s available to interlibrary loan.” Each record for items not available here-and-now would then have multiple options for getting the item (have it delivered, have it held so you can go get it, buy it, etc). Not only that, but standardization would sure help me teach students what they’re looking at when they look at a catalog record.

And finally, there were many, many references to the idea that ILSes of the future will have to be made of separate, interoperable modules, just like Paul Miller said at CIL: like legos.

Lots of other blogs have linked to the report, but here are a few that actually talk about it:

I’m still thinking on this, and plan to read Thomas Mann’s critical review of the report.