The ILS Futures Forum: Catalogs and Discovery of the Future

Yesterday librarians from several small institutions in the area gathered to hear Roy Tennant and May Chang (of the University of St. Thomas) talk to us about the future of the catalog and the ILS, and a good time was had by all. The Carleton and St. Olaf librarians were all energized and inspired by what they heard. (And the surroundings couldn’t have been prettier.)

In terms of concepts, I didn’t hear anything that I haven’t heard or read before (thanks to all the amazing bloggers out there working hard to keep me up to date). But Roy was so much fun to listen to, and he spoke with so much enthusiasm and good humor that the whole thing sounded new. For those few of you who want the 4-page version of my notes on Roy’s talk, I’ve put them up here (PDF Word document), but I didn’t want to inflict them on the rest of you.

So what resonated so much? What was it that caused one of the librarians to say, “I was actually, dare I say it, excited,” and that rallied all of us around tagging in the catalog? I think it was a combination of a couple of things. First Roy couched his whole talk in terms of assisting user discovery. Our two libraries have heard a lot recently about workflow redesign because we’ve got a grant to help us do just that. So we’ve been steeped in the rhetoric of “you’ve got to change” and “you’ve got to catch up with those millennials.” What we haven’t heard so much of is what we heard yesterday: “look at all the cool stuff we could do with the metadata you’ve created” and “look at all the cool ways computers can exploit that metadata on behalf of the user.” Roy put the focus squarely on serving the user as the motivation for change rather than on change for the sake of modernization.

Another thing that resonated strongly with our group was the way he placed this change into historical context. First we automated circulation, acquisitions, and cataloging. Then we figured that as long as we had all this stuff computerized, we may as well let the public search through that information, too. Now we’re thinking of ways to create an actual public search interface rather than inflicting our workhorse on an unsuspecting public.

Placed in this context, and delivered with an attitude of “onward and upward” rather than accusations that librarians are digging in their heals, even the most conservative librarians in our group started talking about the possibilities. One person came up with the brilliant idea of finding commonly used tags and reverse-engineering subject headings to match, thus increasing number and usefulness of formal access points. I think tagging would also be a flexible and nimble way to create “scopes” for collections that aren’t actually shelved together.

I’m still not sold on sucking Amazon information and book covers into the catalog (mentioned several times throughout the day). I’m all for images of book covers, but I wish that if you clicked on them you wouldn’t get pulled over to Amazon and into the world of buying rather than borrowing. I wouldn’t baulk at having options show up to interlibrary loan or buy a book that is checked out, and I like having reviews handy… I guess I just want to have my cake and eat it too. Call me a stogy librarian who’s digging in her heals over change… :)

p.s. A big thank you to the chef at the conservatory for making me the best special-order lunch I’ve EVER had. It’s the first time I’ve ended up with better food than everyone else because of my allergy.

p.p.s. Another big thank you to the people who came up with the idea of having an hour-long question-and-answer session with Roy. What a good idea!

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2 thoughts on “The ILS Futures Forum: Catalogs and Discovery of the Future

  1. (Sorry for the deletion above; I had left out a clause.)

    I’d love to have the opportunity to hear Roy Tennant speak at length. *turns green with envy*

    So now what? Are the directors of your libraries ready to put the screws to III? Were there programmers present at the talk who are itching to get busy working on an open source catalog?

    I’m not saying that to be snarky; I’m really curious about how to keep this moving forward. And I often feel like I’m talking to the wrong people about this stuff.

  2. Neither of our two libraries (Carleton and St. Olaf) has a programmer. Carleton has a technology guy who could program if he didn’t also have to run around doing all the other technology support we need. So that right there is the main sticking point.

    The directors of both of our schools were there, and they were very interested in the idea of open source or seeing if OCLC would help us get Open WorldCat to work as our catalog front-end. And the technology people from both libraries were there, and excited, but not really in a position to say, “Yeah, we’ll take on the upkeep of an open-source system.”

    Still, a couple of good things happened. We decided to seriously consider another catalog front-end before we commit to going live with III’s WebPac Pro or their promised 2007 upgrade (which is supposed to do a lot of this stuff… but which *requires* moderation of all tags and comments!) We decided to look into what it would mean to go open-source in terms of short-term and long-term costs and benefits. And we decided to keep user’s needs more firmly in mind when thinking about our workflow redesign, and communicate our new-found focus to the consultants that will be evaluating our current workflow and suggesting changes.

    So as of today, I don’t think we’ll be designing our own discovery system, and I doubt we’ll be able to pay for a discovery system to go on top of III’s ILS. BUT (and this is huge) this is the first time I’ve heard widespread acceptance of user participation in the catalog from the population of librarians that was at this thing. Light bulbs went off in people’s heads that will pave the way for future changes on behalf of our user community. I remember when this happened to me (CiL this spring), and it was such fun to see it happen to librarians young and old from all divisions in our libraries.

    I’ve gotta hand it to Roy; he’s one eloquent and persuasive speaker. I’d heard him speak “by proxy” at CiL this spring (there was a bit of video with him talking), but it was so much fun to watch him work this crowd of hesitant librarians.

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