could be argued that what makes a library a library is the catalog.
A library without a catalog is just a collection of materials
So what do catalogs have to offer that is so special?
Collocation. The words of power that make a library so much more than
a mere collection. But what do they mean and how can you get them for
The online catalogs
of modern libraries have drawn much of their structure from the model
of the card catalog of yesteryear. The pieces of information we collect
are similar and the types of access they provide are often nearly identical
the surface. Title, author, subject are the big three, but with the
online environment, we have developed keyword and table of contents
and the ability to search other specialized fields that would have made
the old card catalogs unmanageably large.
So it's a brave
new world, with new forms of access, right?
Ah, but what about
organization? In the card catalog, cards were filed by humans, following
rules that allowed materials to be sorted in a logical order. It sounds
simple, but as with so many things that are simple for humans, translating
those "simple" rules for computers has proved a challenge.
A human can look at a card and see that this card is for a translation
of a work and file it with the other translations, but how do we teach
a computer to "see" this? (And let's not even talk about trying
to teach a computer what a "work" is
) Things simple
to teach humans (Don't file titles by an initial article, file "&"
under "and") must be programmed carefully into a computer
interface, and these are among the most straightforward of the filing
rules used by many libraries. Titles are simple compared to the intricate
maze of filing subject headings.
And then we come
to collocation. In some ways, the online catalog has given us a much
greater ability to collocate similar items - the card catalog had no
way of collecting titles that had the same term in various parts of
the title (barring it being the assigned subject heading), only if they
had the same word at the beginning. Unfortunately, not all online catalogs
do any better, but those that do expand our reach. Keyword searching
allows even more collocation possibilities
but as anyone in this
program knows, more is not always better. Information overload, anyone?
How often is it really useful to collocate every book with the word
"dog" in the title?
Still on the subject
of collocation, one thing card catalogs did well that most online catalogs
seem barely to comprehend is the collocation of related works. This
is where those nifty filing rules come in again - the humans who filed
the cards knew that related works were filed in a particular order in
the set of cards related to a particular work. In the computer environment,
we have the ability to relate works - we even have a MARC field for
just that purpose - but the majority of computer catalogs either ignore
or mangle the relationship, completely losing or confusing an entire
form of collocation that was available to users of card catalogs.
So we have pictures
of book covers, and clickable subject headings, and tables of contents
- all of which are lovely to look at and sometimes, for users who notice
they exist, even useful - but if we can't provide the basic services
a card catalog offered, are our online catalogs doing enough? If they
aren't providing these basic services, shouldn't we be outraged? Shouldn't
we be asking - even demanding - more from the vendors who provide these
programs? Or maybe, just maybe, we should be digging in and building
that better catalog ourselves
I don't have all
the answers, or even all the questions, so I'd love to hear from anyone
who has thoughts about where the online catalog is at and where it should
be going. Drop me a line (or three!) at email@example.com.
Let me know which important issues I didn't mention, or your view on
something I did mention and maybe next month we can see part two of