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The Library Catalog: What's in it for You?
By Jenna Irwin
January 9, 2003

UW Library CatalogIt 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?

Access. Organization. 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 your collection?

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…on 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 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 this discussion.

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Edited by Michael Harkovitch

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