Posted by: ayounglove | July 6, 2008

There’s No Catalog Like No Catalog: The Ultimate Debate on the Future of the Library Catalog

At the American Library Association annual convention that I recently attended, I went to an excellent panel discussion on the present and future of the library catalog. Here are some of the more pertinent thoughts that I gathered.

From panelist Karen Schneider:

“Sometimes place does matter.” When considering a single global catalog for all libraries, there can be too much of a disconnect between records users are looking at and where physical items actually are. Catalogs should feel freer to include imperfect data though in union catalogs. The ideal catalog is a hybrid of local and national.

“Shoot the doma.” How can we make any assertions about what is better or worse in catalog design until we develop evidence-based practices? We need to operate based on evidence and research rather than opinion and tradition.

“Libraries should be helping design the systems they use.” It would be great to have a technical expert on every library staff.

We have to get comfortable with collecting metadata on our patron’s use practices to improve our services. Patrons already share their information voluntarily (example: Librarything). Are we harvesting this data?

We assume patrons want to interact with librarians. What if they would prefer to engage with one another? Would fiction readers rather get recommendations from librarians or from fellow fiction readers?

From panelist Steven Abrams:

Have you ever gone into a store to shop for a dress and had the sales person direct you to their electronic inventory on a computer and then had the sales rep walk away leaving you to the computer and your own confusion? There’s probably a reason you haven’t!

Is your library catalog full text searchable by Google? If not, use the newest Google api to do so!

What about putting an automatic Meebo interface prompt on failed searches to interact with users and help them find out what they want.

Data mining patron behavior and use would allow us to better serve patrons. Why do libraries promote best sellers, for instance, rather than the most frequently checked out at their branch location? Librarians suffer from an innumeracy problem.

We have to know what things cost. Should you ILL with costs of $30 for an item that only costs $5 to buy on Amazon?

From panelist Karen Coyle:

Only 3 % of library users start their search in an OPAC. This means the LAST place our patrons are looking for information is in the catalog.

We are too rule bound. Example: Karen posted on a cataloger discussion board and asked “Why don’t we use title case?” Expert catalogers could only guess. This is not a good enough reason to do something.

Against one big catalog. Data can be different and still exchanged. A single catalog solution prevents experimentation and shuts out small players. Example: One library builds their catalog on WordPress.

Coyle looks forward to a future where library management software is separate from the OPAC user interface.

Final thought “We need to learn to trust our users.”

From panelist Joe Janes:

OPACs are like roach motels: easy to get into from the library homepage, impossible to get back out of.

If Google provides us with services like embedded bus schedules in Google maps, then what place does reference have in libraries? Will libraries be more service oriented in the future rather than information centered?

Full text searching would be great, but we still need some metadata. Example: fiction books would benefit from genre and character tagging.


My thoughts at the moment:

I sense two veins of thought that were going on in the debate. Abrams’ example about not going to Nordstroms and being turned over to an inventory catalog to find your dress and Janes’ example about Google wanting to digitize all the books and become the single information source lead me to think that the future of libraries is in service. That is, libraries will exist not to store information, but to teach people how to access information. Just because Google invents a service that lets users see bus schedules inside Google maps, that doesn’t mean that people know that service exists. I, for one, did not know about this feature until Janes mentioned it. Therefore, libraries are still relevant if librarians stay early information adopters and can lead their patrons to sources like the Google bus scheduler when they come in.

The second vein of thought actually contradicts the first one in part. This thought says, like Schenider and Abrams say, that libraries should become more savvy and involved in the creation of information resources and NOT be passive users. Schneider would like to see people with software development experience on every library staff. Can libraries afford to do this? Are there enough qualified librarians to do this? If Google becomes THE information provider, would it be a waste of time to do so much in-house catalog development? On the other hand, if libraries do not become more assertive about their catalogs, then they remain consumers at the mercy of large and sometimes out-of-touch vendors.

Regardless, I am very glad that Karen Schneider brought up the point about libraries needing to become more evidence-based. I work in a medical library and the idea of evidence-based thinking is at the heart of helping our nursing students do research. We really should be able to practice ourselves what we are preaching to others.

What do you think? Did any of the ideas brought up by the panelists here strike a nerve with you?



  1. I just wrote a blog today about the question of patron recommendations versus librarian recommendations. The idea of readers being able to recommend books by commenting or leaving a review on our online catalog is interesting to me and something that might make sense.

    We do use data at our library to keep track of what patrons are reading and order books accordingly. We are a small library, however, and maybe are more able to do that. It seems to work well for us though.

    I love the idea of knowing what books cost…and actually ordering from resources other than major booksellers. There are often times that I know we could get a book at a cheaper price, but the library has always done it “this way” and so, continues to do so. ILL’s are great, but you’re right…..we could probably purchase more for our own collection.

    I also love the idea about character and genre tagging on fiction books. This is something we come up against often when looking for a book for a patron. It would be a great addition to any catalog, I think.

  2. Dear Carleton Public Library,

    I found and responded to you blog with several examples of catalogs that I have used.

    I would love to see catalog records that take fiction into account as well. How do you think we can do that? Should we abandon MARC? Should we catalog fiction in a format other than MARC and make it interface with our MARC records?

  3. Thank you so much for this post, April. There’s a lot to think about here.

    I think you’re right that libraries are about service. And I think part of that service is not only helping patrons access information,but also to earn how to evaluate the information they’re accessing. That also fits in with the second part of your comments about how librarians should become more savvy and involved in the creation of information resources. I believe that libraries will eventually be more responsive to those who use their libraries, developing services focused on the individualized needs of their patrons.

  4. I really like how you synthesize the two ideas of providing a service and providing a product. I was having trouble marrying the two concepts, but you phrase it in a way that I can see the two as being more compatible. Thanks!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: