ALA 2008: There’s no catalog like no catalog – the ultimate debate onf the future of the library catalog

A bit of different start to the afternoon – after an ‘acquisitions’ heavy morning, this is a LITA sponsored session.

The session is being moderated by Roy Tennant, with a panel of Joseph Janes, Karen Coyle, Stephen Abram and Karen Schneider. I’ve not come across Joseph Janes before, but the others I’ve read or corresponded with over time.

Might be more difficult to blog this session, as it’s a bit more free form, and any of the below should be seen as paraphrased in my words, but here we go…

What is the appropriate role of the library catalog?

KC: If we go back to the start the catalog was there to tell you if a book was in the library. But this was in a time when ‘the library’ was the only place you could go and get information. The catalog was essentially ‘inventory’

We still need inventory, but now we have a whole world of information available online – the library is just where you go when you think ‘can I pop downstairs and get that off the shelf’

SA: It’s good for librarians! Example of extreme anal retentive behaviour!

The catalog is no good for users – it doesn’t enhance learning, or add anything, it simply ‘retrieves’. If you walk into a bookshop they don’t point you in the direction of their inventory system.

We tell people what we have, rather than helping them find what they want.

KS: When the catalog works well, when you can put in a word and kind of get what you are looking for, and when the catalog covers a wide geographic area (e.g. statewide), it can be a real enabler

We just need it to be better. It should work with

JJ: Joseph starting by making sure we understand he may not mean anything he says (just in case I blog this…)

Thinks that Reference Librarians would tell you the catalog is a really useful tool. However, from the user perspective perhaps it isn’t good.

But Joseph says – perhaps this is how it should be – perhaps the catalog/inventory management system is a staff tool, and users shouldn’t have to dirty their experience (my words) with this.

Joseph noting that because of the vast amount of material, the catalog only represents a tiny amount of the ‘library’ collection

SA: Must change our ideas – we’ve invested huge amounts in these systems over time (perhaps more than anything else)

Why have we not all integrated Google Books into our catalogs – providing full text search. [surely we need to approach this the otherway around – if I want to search GBS, I’ll go there, and if/when I can’t get the full-text then I’ll go

JJ: But need to look at what we want. Lots of ways into the catalog – but not very many ways out – a dead end? Arguing that with the card catalog if you failed, then there was more ‘option’ for the next step – you were in the library, you could ask. But OPACs tend to just give you a deadend – no online reference, no links to elsewhere, no shelves to browse.

We focus on ‘what is in the library catalog’.

Library catalog clearly not the only game in town

WorldCat local and OpenLibrary has raised the idea of ‘one big catalog’ – is this a viable approach?

KC: No – we need lots of catalogs, but we need to stop being ‘place oriented’, but ‘resource’ oriented.

SA: If we don’t want catalogs, how does a big catalog help? If we are going to expose data, we need to let go of it.

KC: We have to let other people do stuff with it, even if we don’t like what we do

KS: Feel the need to contradict everyone today 🙂

But agree – Free the Data. Both what we release, and what we bring in.

Arguing that ‘place’ does matter – people like to walk into the library and find a book. What is bad is when the experience ends if they don’t find what they want.

KC: But do we need a catalog?

SA: WorldCat isn’t a catalog – it’s a information registry

How does it integrate into other stuff?

We are taking an 18th Century metaphor and stretching it to breaking point in the 21st Century

JJ: Worldcat is a catalog – we are a Worldcat local tester site. However, he says he doesn’t use it – just UW only catalog instead. Confusing for the patron though. Worldcat local is a really interesting idea, and at least in some ways it is a ‘catalog’

Not just about ‘one big catalog’ – but ‘one big resource’ – example of bus information (including next scheduled bus) integrated into Google maps.

[I’d note the point about Google maps is that they don’t necessarily need to ‘have’ the bus data – they can easily link it in given the right interfaces – this could have as easily been done by the bus information supplier as by Google]

KC: Google have announced they are going to do a ‘catalog’ – one record for every book

SA: Google also published list of books and copyright status

JJ: With these changes – what kind of things are will we do – it’s a different kind of institution and different kind of skills.

What do you want to tell catalogers about how we should go forward?

KS: Not about telling them what to do, but engaging them. Need to identify good practice and what does and doesn’t matter.

Making the point that people keep trying to solve this problem – any new attempt to record information about things turns into a cataloging project.

SA: Google, Yahoo etc. all making use of cataloguing skills – and catalogers doing great things – but for some reason all this work seems to have stopped at the OPAC – why?#

JJ: Ultimate aim is to link user to the resource they want. Perhaps we need a new set of ideas – might not look like MARC or like a catalog

KC: We have forgotten why we do what we do – got lost in the rules. For example – why don’t we use title case for titles in a catalog – no one seems to know for sure – we need to check that it still makes sense now. It made sense at the time, but does it still make sense?

KS: Broader problem than just cataloguers – librarians are a dogma based professions – not very evidence based.

I’m puzzled … this is all vision stuff and needs discussion, but we all have libraries to run in the meantime, and systems to keep going. Seems to be a tension between finding whats in the library, and finding stuff in the whole world of information. What kind of thing/system do we need? What practical advice can you give?

KC: We can help people find stuff in libraries, but have to give up the idea we’ll all do it using the ‘same system’. Really have to open up and allow experimentation. We are afraid to do something different – and we need to stop

JJ: What do you mean by different?

KC: For e.g. Scriblio built on WordPress – takes bravery

KS: Agree, we have passed the point where the monolithic catalogue is a necessity. We need to move ‘seamlessly’ across data – stop coming up short against library silos. Need to look at different data formats (not just MARC)

SA: We don’t need to host our systems – get rid of your server rooms! Need to use stuff from the cloud – SaaS. Look at examples where we do it ourselves we lose stuff – we aren’t good at this.

Have to take away some of the crap jobs that can be done better elsewhere

KS: Do we want ‘one big record’? Why do we have a zillion ‘local’ records. This needs discussion. It is extremely expensive

JJ: Any kind of transition has to be done with great care. Not just about ‘holy wars’, but even with ‘normal people’. Librarians are not ‘normal people’ – we are ‘information people’, and we’ve been entrusted with preserving aspects of cultural heritage – and we need to be careful – look at the reaction when we got rid of the card catalog – we mess with this stuff at our peril.

[Missed a load of debate here around effectiveness (or not – mainly JJ against and SA pro) of full-text searching due to a computer freeze]

JJ: Two great questions: “How does a book get better each time you read it” and “How does a library get better each time it is used”

KS: Need to look at what works and what doesn’t

JJ: Need to look at allowing people to ‘keep stuff’ – despite privacy issues and Patriot Act, we need to look at allowing opt in for some of this stuff to provide better service – netflix queues etc.

KS: 10 years ago I wouldn’t have believed I would put the details of my entire collection of books online – but I have, and I actively tell people about it

At what level does usage data need to accumulate?

KC: We need to be able to share it at a high level. Like MySpace or Facebook – need to be able to share not randomly – but with ‘your people’. Also true of cataloguing data – you want to see the catalogue record that your community is happy with.

E.g. all Law Libraries

SA: We don’t use our usage data. We don’t have enough statistical analytical skills in the profession – need to bring this in from outside.

Work to date shows that library users don’t behave in the same way as the ‘general public’

Does Open Source s/w provide a compelling solution?

KS: Yes! (she works for an Equinox who sell support for Open Source solutions). [missed her expanding on this]

KC: OSS is not good by default – some of it is pretty poor. We need to insist on good quality software

SA: Yes – but… SirsiDynix use a lot of Open Source s/w and lots of good stuff out there. Some things you need to be clear about – contracts, insurance, etc. If you are managing finance there are regulations – your system needs to be able to get through an audit – vendors spend a lot of money on this.

Need to have ‘real’ developers – either in-house or with a support company.

KS: Lots of FUD (Fear Uncertainty and Doubt) about Open Source. You should always use good software.

SA: Quote Cliff Lynch ‘the stupidest thing we are doing is reinventing our internal operating systems, when we should be focussing on the user experience’

Where is the library systems market going?

SA: Will be lots of changes – mergers of companies etc.

KS: Employees of library systems vendors moving towards Open Source and OCLC. Energy crisis also having big impact.

SA: National debt rising – budgets will drop. Suppliers are impacted directly by this – they rely on income from publicly funded bodies

People stop travelling – stop driving to the library as well.

KC: Are we facing a future without libraries?

JJ: People turn to libraries as costs of buying goods go up – people may move from Amazon to libraries – is this an opportunity?

SA: You should already be this for this. Libraries already have loads of stuff you can use from home – need to get your marketing campaign in place now.

KS: Now at the point where a Prius is a financially sensible purchase. Green agenda also on the rise. Libraries are ‘green’ as they reuse the books. Seeing impact all over – this is a great opportunity. But we don’t want to be a choice for ‘bad times’ – this is what we should value – sharing resources and sharing community

KC: This is a time that we really need to know the cost of things. We need to make sensible decisions about what we do – we need to know cost vs benefit. We know that cataloguing costs us, but we don’t have a financial value on the benefit.

SA: When we do know what it costs, we should act on this. Some research that shows that for the top 1000 books requested on ILL they were available cheaper on Amazon used books – it would have been cheaper to buy it for the patron directly and let them keep it, than to do an ILL.

What would you like to have happen in the future – what would you change ‘one thing’ in the tools we have?

KS: Every single (s/w) product to be Open Source

SA: Our market develop and culture of innovation. Most libraries are 6 generations behind on their ILS. We have to be up to date.

KC: That systems separate library management from user service. Stop hindering good user service by linking them to complex management systems. Currently these needs compete.

JJ: Library software market to be bigger. If it were bigger – would suggest there was more demand – drives supply etc. virtuous cycle

There is a ‘homespun’ feel to the market. Would be great to merit the attention of major s/w players. Wouldn’t it be nice if Apple or Nintendo were developing s/w products for libraries. The largest threat to libraries is ‘indifference’

Roy imjagines the Wii interface to the library catalog – with a card catalog interface…

One thing you could do to help people find books/information better than they do now?

KC: Connecting people to each other.

SA: We keep trying to improve transactions. We need to look at the continuum of user need – they are trying to go somewhere, and we concentrate on ‘lending them a book’ rather than what their aim in borrowing the book is – education, better life etc.

JJ: Everyone gets their own personal Nancy Pearl. She represents ‘the community’ librarian – who ‘knows’ their users.

KC: User to user engagement. Mentioning ‘Bibliocommons’. People want to engage with each other – not with librarians

Final Words

SA: The best thing we can do is to get onto the most modern platform as quickly as possible, get over it, and start working on the user experience. How many of you have the ‘virtual’ branch staffed and managed to same extent as the physical branch?

JJ: Encourage people to work together. Put the drive of new people in the profession with the experience of people who have been in the profession for years – draw on the strengths of both. Combination of expertise, experience, tradition and innovation has lots of potential

KC: Give up our dogma (as KS said earlier) – need to look at what we do, and why we do it. Some of our practices are based on the card catalog. We need to engage with non-libraries and non-librarians – Google, Amazon, Internet Archive etc. All of these people should be in our environment.

We need to trust our users – when we think about tagging etc. Some of the people involved will have actually written the book!

KS: Too many discussions that put two things against each other (tagging vs traditional metadata, fulltext vs cataloguing) – these are not alternatives, but both have strengths.

As with KC – need to put our dogma aside and look at alternatives. We need to ‘weed’ our practices – and only when we’ve done this can we see the really good practices that we have, as well as new practices that we can put in place.

People love libraries.

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