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The Future of Our Catalog

I spent all day today at a school two hours northwest of my school meeting with a bunch of librarians of all kinds (including library directors) who work at private colleges in Minnesota. On the agenda: contemplating the future of our catalogs.

Four groups of librarians presented their visions of what this future might look like using a combination of examples already extant (WorldCat in many paid and free forms, Koha, NCSU’s Endeca interface, Google, LibraryThing for Libraries, etc.) and “what if” ideas drawing from the world of Web 2.0 and the hope that search algorithms will continue to evolve. Then we broke into groups to discuss what we’d heard and add our thoughts. And finally we reported to the group any ideas, concerns, questions, or random thoughts our discussion groups had generated.

Even more interesting than these presentations, though were two revelations. First, only one of us indicated she liked our current catalog (which is not a smear against any particular catalog, since we all used different ILSs, but against the ILS landscape in general). And second, we learned that when it comes to thinking up feature and function lists, there was a large degree of consensus, regardless of school affiliation or job description. We wanted all the usual social web features, web 2.0 discovery aids, and recommendations based on user behavior… all of that. Plus we wanted the option to search the full-text of our books’ tables of contents, introductions, bibliographies, and indices.

One group even decided that we need to ditch the name “Catalog.” In fact, we were so busy ditching names that all we could come up with was “up-pushing thing” (based on the idea that whatever tool or system of tools we come up with should be able to push relevant/important results up from a pool of articles, books, archival material, images, recordings, web pages, and anything else the library might care to point people toward). Oh, and this tool’s uber-descriptive name is only proper if accompanied by a hand motion that would take far too long to describe, but involves moving upward…

We still aren’t quite sure about a couple of things (the role of metadata, privacy, how long some of the transitional technologies and solutions we identified might need to be kept around, etc.). But we’ve only met once…

At the end of the day, the directors of our respective libraries stood up and reported where each library stands in respect to its ILS. These ranged from “thinking about thinking about changing” to “actively exploring alternatives,” but it was nice to get that up front. It was especially nice to get that cleared up because after that they called for volunteers to work on behalf of all of these schools to explore future options. And somehow (not quite sure what possessed me…) I ended up on this Think Group with 7 or 8 other librarians from around the state.

So here I am… thinking about thinking about the future of OUR catalog. I’m a little worried that this will be a lot of work, and that it’ll turn out we don’t actually do anything. (And I DEFINITELY don’t believe what one director said: “think as if money is no object.” We tried that for another and much smaller decision and got burned. Money is always an object.) But at the very least, I can contribute my year’s worth of accumulated information on this topic, and maybe set up a wiki for us…

11 thoughts on “The Future of Our Catalog

  1. Just to keep this on topic, I won’t further mention how too little effort is being put into the back-end user experience (in other words, what technical services people like me see every day).

    We could just call it “the box.” Lately, I’ve wanted to call it something like… “integrated primary information discovery application.” That’s what the ILS vendors have been trying to create, especially over the past year or so. There’s been a lot of discussion today on the IUG discussion list about etiquette when it comes to mentioning ILS enhancements (proposed or soon-to-be-implemented), so that’s about as far as I’ll go for now.

    I’m so through with the “O” and “C” words, too. However, I deal with them. Adding cool features to the “public” side of an ILS that don’t fit into the “traditional” catalog (e.g. incoming RSS feeds, spell check, user comments…) just doesn’t excite me. (I typed that somewhere before, but I can’t recall exactly where at the moment. Please excuse my lack of a proper citation.) These features just aren’t good enough yet because the products into which they are being forced do not represent a more refined version of the overall vision.

    My bold statement, to conclude, is that Catalog 2.0 doesn’t exist.

  2. Yes, yes, and yes. That’s why we’re becoming convinced that we have to rethink the entire package rather than add tweaks and fixes to what we’ve already got.

    Tagging can be a very powerful complement to traditional classification. Rating and commenting don’t compute in my mind, but they seem to be important to at least a portion of my patrons, so it’s up for consideration. RSS is absolution essential. But none of these work well on top of our current systems (no matter the platform). So where does that leave us? That leaves us with a group charged with thinking about ruminating about planning…

    But you’re right. Whatever we think about, it should include better staff experiences (as Steve also reminded me). That’s something that came up today, but didn’t get a whole lot of discussion.

    And I’m interested in what this etiquette thing is. I thought the point of a user group was to learn from each other’s experiences and help each other figure out what’s going on with the product.

    [And who stole me and put this cranky girl into my skin? I guess it's been a long day.]

  3. Hi Iris,

    This is not meant to nitpick, just as a help to you and the others. You wrote, “…aren’t quite sure about a couple of things (the role of metadata,….” When and if you have time, I’d like to see you flesh that out a bit more, even if only for yourself and the committee, although I’m highly interested in what you come up with.

    My point is is there are many kinds of metadata required to do the things you want, including the “typical” MARC records. While this was your 1st meeting I would expect that there is some lack of specifics to the “metadata question.” But, imho, if “you” can’t answer that question then you can’t have any of the other discussions either.

    And, clearly, it IS an iterative process. You need some idea of what you want to accomplish so the you know what metadata and services are required to provide the feature. But it seems to me that one of the earliest answers you need is just what role metadata is going to play (again, really several different things there) before you can decide if the feature is doable.

    Thus, I’d like to see that statement fleshed out some. I mean, clearly, “you” must have some idea that metadata is critical, you will most likely being using MARC even if it is only to transform it into something else, etc.

    And Julian is definitely right about having the backend improved! The gyrations we have to go to to catalog something is completely insane. I have no illusions that acquisitions is any better. In fact, from all I’ve heard it is even worse.

    Julian, I kind of understand your being unexcited about shoehorning new features into our current systems, but I honestly cannot understand why you have an issue with spell checking. If you have the time, could you maybe explicate that one a little more in reference to your “overall vision” reference, or any other context you like?

    BTW, I fully agree with your “bold statement.” :)

  4. Yes, I do have ideas about metadata. Here they are: more is more. I don’t think (as some people did) that metadata will become less important as more full-text is available and search algorithms become more robust. I think we need formal metadata (MARC etc.), informal metadata (tagging, user behavior, etc.), and robust full-text searching. Both, and, and.

    But here’s the other piece of the puzzle. Part of our meeting was to think about what we wanted out of a catalog, and the other was thinking about the future of information in general. And no matter what we projected and imagined, we aren’t actually programming anything, so even if I thought metadata had outlived its usefulness (which I don’t), we couldn’t do anything about it since all of the systems at our disposal need it.

    So I’m left a little confused. I think I’ve participated in a brainstorming group about the future of our catalog, but at the same time most of it felt like science fiction. “Ten years from now students will download texts to their BRAINS…”

    So I guess what I’m saying is this: we won’t be building a system, from scratch or otherwise. But we will be thinking hard about our systems and trying to figure out what small, private, Minnesotan colleges need to offer their students and faculty in terms of functionality and funability. Then we’ll figure out what options out there would get as close to that ideal as possible.

    Does that answer your question? I’m too tired to figure out if I completely missed the point or not…

  5. Now I feel bad for taking over this post. I apologize. :( I singled out spell check because it’s something that my library’s ILS vendor is offering as an expensive add-on instead of a standard enhancement to the existing product (which would be provided with the annual update). I didn’t mean to de-value spell check. This is an invaluable tool for any information discovery application. It’s just not something that should cost thousands of dollars, which is why my library did not buy it. (I have quite a few applications on my system at home that use Aspell as a spell checker.) By putting such a no-brainer as spell checking in the category of “expensive add-on,” an ILS vendor continues to make the statement that its front-end of the future will be a bunch of parts cobbled together. So much for the integrated library system. Additionally, anything that’s not an add-on will, in the future, likely be subject to an all-or-nothing proposition (e.g. WebPAC Pro, Encore, Rome…), with the library lacking the ability to customize as it sees fit.

    I speak so passionately about the back-end of the ILS because at work, I am part of a forum that deals with the ILS. We spend almost all of our time talking about the public side. Rarely do we talk about the back-end, and I asked to be there specifically to bring balance to the group (to prevent it from being the Public Display Forum).

  6. Don’t feel bad. This is exactly the kind of thing I wanted to have happen in the comments. How can I learn from people if they don’t take what I’ve written and run with it?

    And you’ve hit on two highly important points: the incomprehensible strangeness of ILS vendors who have such immense systems that they have a hard time conceiving of completely starting over with newer technology that actually does what we need it to do, and the problem of the public/private side of our current system.

    I’ll come right out and say that right now, my top priority is the public side. I’m a public services librarian, I sit on the Public Access Working Group (we don’t have an ILS forum… we split the working groups into front-end and back-end groups), and we’re embarking on this process to enhance the user experience and the user’s likelihood of getting what he or she needs.

    That doesn’t mean that we aren’t concerned about being able to use this thing ourselves. And it certainly doesn’t mean that staff interfaces are fine and dandy. Anything but. It simply means that we want to fully and completely declare that the patron side of things is abysmally bad.

    And as to certain unnamed vendors adding spell check as an exorbitantly expensive add-on. I’m right with you. It sure takes the wind out of your sails to think that you could either offer spell check or feed a small country for a year… Hence our desire to look at our options. Maybe it’s time to stand up for our belief that spell check should be standard, not the ILS equivalent of a diamond tiara.

    But here I go making grand statements. I’m still not convinced that we’ll see forward movement in the ILS arena, no matter what this glorious “Think Group” comes up with. Still… a girl can hope.

  7. Iris, you answered just fine. There really is no “correct” answer, although perhaps there are incorrect ones. In fact, much of what you (the group) are trying to figure out needs to be sussed out first before you can decide exactly what kind of metadata you’ll need. As I said, it’s a very iterative process. And seeing as you won’t actually be building anything, it does leave the whole process a bit squishy, to say the least.

    And, Julian, despite what I just commented on my own blog about not speaking for others, I don’t think you took over anything here. You added some valuable thoughts. I also kind of felt there was an underlying issue and that you didn’t actually devalue spell checking.

    I think an ILS vendor even considering charging for spell check is outright criminal! Unfortunately, not in a legalistic sense, but it certainly goes to show that that company is morally bankrupt, in my not so humble opinion.

    I certainly appreciate discussion of the front end of our systems. Both for the normal (non-staff) users and also as a primary user of said as an active cataloger. They are abysmal!

    But I fully agree with you about the back end also and would love to see more discussion. The things we as Technical Services staff are forced to do just to provide an adequate service to our patrons is ridiculous. I’d love to see some of the ire expressed about costs by the likes of Calhoun directed at our back end systems.

    You want catalogers and acquisitions folks to be more productive? Give us some useful tools!

    We shouldn’t even have to talk about “front” and “back” ends; they should be two entirely separate systems.

    OK, now I’m ranting. I’ll stop. But isn’t it nice to be able to get excitable among friends?

  8. Rant fully appreciated, Mark. I haven’t taken up the issue of “back end” abysmalness primarily because I only have to touch the “back end” about once a month, so I never know if my issues and frustrations are simply caused by unfamiliarity or if the system is actually that bad. From what you’re both saying, it sounds like it’s actually that bad…

    But you’re absolutely right. Somebody which more than a vague sense that something’s wrong should push this issue, and push it hard.

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