Saturday, June 6, 2009

Tim Spalding's Criticism of a Catalog Display


Thanks so much for a long and thoughtful critique of a library catalog. You have a lot of good insights, but it shouldn't be a surprise to you or to anybody else, that I have a few points in reply.

First, a lot of what you point out is based on the decisions of how a single library implemented their own catalog, which may be successful or unsuccessful. Some of the points of BPL (which I hadn't seen before) I like, and other parts I don't like. In any case, these are implementation issues, such as your commentary on the section labelled "Holdings" which I agree is not very successful. These parts however, are extremely easy to change.

More importantly, it seems to me that a lot of what you, and others, find fault with in our catalogs is actually our standards for bibliographic description and retrieval. We have standards in punctuation, arrangement, and terminology among lots of other things. When there are standards shared with many others, including internationally, there are normally disagreements. You see it here in Europe especially, now with the introduction of the European Union where lots of businesses must follow new EU standards, such as cheese needing pasteurized milk, or the way ham is made. Often, there is such an outcry that a standard is cancelled, such as when they were saying that Italy couldn't have wood fires in urban areas, and that meant that Italian pizzas could no longer be made the traditional way! Italy rebelled, and our pizzas can still be made over wood flame (thankfully!).

Just because the library world decides to follow the international standards of ISBD and AACR2 doesn't mean that everybody agrees with all of the rules. One rule that I think is very bad is the rule of "bibliographic identities," that is, each bibliographic identity of a modern author gets a separate heading. Therefore, if you want to look up everything by Samuel Clemens, you must look up each of his pseudonyms. This can become highly complex for searchers (first of all, they have to know about it!), and the authority files become more complex too. But I am well aware that other catalogers will strongly disagree with me and say that keeping separate bibliographic identities is critical. In either case it doesn't matter what our own opinions are, or what the general public believes, because the standards require that we keep bibliographic identities separate and there is no compromise. I must do it even though I disagree. Such standards govern each part of the catalog record,!
even the
tiniest. You questioned capitalization of titles, and double-dashes in contents notes. That's fine, but the answer for all of these questions is: we are following the standards. And the standards are available for everyone to see if they want.

Now the question becomes: do we want standards for the description and access of the physical and virtual products of human creativity (i.e. what the library deals with) or do we say that the time for such standards is past? I repeat: when you accept a standard, it does *not* mean that everyone agrees with it, or that the general public is expected to understand them. There are a lot of things I see on my television set, my DVD player, my plumbing, my car and so on that I don't understand. Do I need to? I don't think so--I just assume that these things follow the requirements of the experts, and that satisfies me. Now, does it really satisfy the requirements of every expert? Is there a major argument going on about it, or is there grumbling, such as in the bibliographic identities example I gave above? As a member of the general public, I don't care. I just want some sort of reliability and assurance. These sorts of discussions take place in another dimension, and I simply i!
gnore wha
t I don't understand, although if I wanted to badly enough, I could discover and understand it all.

Still, I'm glad that there are experts following standards out there even though I may be completely ignorant of everything: so companies cannot put chalk into our bread, or throw toxic waste into our water,
or use unsafe materials and haphazard methods in our electronic products. As a consumer, I want people to follow standards even when I don't know about them or understand them at all. Only in this way can I be assured of quality in the materials I consume.

If asked, would people say that they want standards for bibliography? I would venture that they would say yes, but this is the overarching, most important point that I made before and will do so again. When people say that they prefer Google over library catalogs, they are actually saying that they prefer no standards over standards. There is no "standard" in a Google search or record display, there is no yardstick, and everything happens in a black box. We don't know what it searches and what it does not, how it arranges results, who is manipulating it (because people can and do). We don't know anything at all. I don't believe the general public realizes this is really what they are saying, but it is up to us "experts" to let them know.

So, if someone asks, "Why do I see the title entered in this way in a catalog?" there is an answer that we can point to in our standards (cataloging rules). Each rule was agreed to after a lot of debate and argument, but it doesn't mean that everyone necessarily agreed. Still, if there are going to be standards, this is what must be followed.

In contrast, if the same person asks similar questions about Google, there is no answer because most of Google's searching is proprietary information, or the answer is simply, there are no standards, so the question itself is nonsensical. I still maintain that the reason people like Google so much is not because they understand what it can and cannot do, its strengths and weaknesses, what it misses and finds, but simply because it is so easy and it hides its weaknesses very cleverly.

Obviously, I think there is no question that libraries and their finding tools must change and become far simpler to use. Fortunately, there is a lot of room for improvement! But I don't know if it is correct to conclude that machines must do all the work and all the thinking because "people cannot be trained." That still needs to be proved. While people quickly forget what they learned in an information literacy class, I personally think that before giving up completely we could consider working with reference services to provide alternate methods of providing very quick, highly focussed tutorials delivered to patrons when they need it, and perhaps other methods. Providing basic tutorials and other forms of help may come to be seen as one of the inherent functions of the catalog, along with description and access, something that has been needed from the beginning and should no longer be considered an afterthought.

I genuinely feel that getting rid of standards means getting rid of libraries themselves since all reliability and assuredness go out the window. No librarians could do their jobs. All we have to offeer are our standards, and if we want to throw these out and create non-standardized junk, there's already plenty of junk out there and it costs a lot less then we ever could.

But, if we rather decide we want new, "improved" standards, that is a huge, exhausting undertaking doomed to failure, since it would bring lots of disagreement along with it, as any standards do. (Do you really think RDA is the answer to any of your criticisms?)

Thanks again for your critique. I'll look at it some more.

Jim Weinheimer


It seems to me that we go round and round on various issues. A lot of
it resembles a "religious debate"--a term of art in software and

One way to break religious debates is to talk about something
concrete. So, I'm going to plop something on the collective "table,"
offer a brief critique. Won't you join me?

I've chosen the "detail" page of a book, the first "Obama" book that
came up in the BPL[1]. I propose to critique it as follows:

*I'm going to critique the page, not the whole system; I wan
t to keep
things focused. As such, I'm not going to critique the top part of the
page, but just the part "below the chrome."
*I'm going to list everything I think is wrong with the page, and
offer brief commentart on it.
*They use the HIP OPAC, one of the most common, but not the worst.
*I punch because I love. I picked BPL because it is my favorite public
library. I love them to pieces, and indeed I think their catalog is
better than many.
*This email is very long--10 typewritten pages. That's because the
catalog has a lot of problems!

Here's the page:


My criticisms:

1. The page is session-based. That means we have to discuss it by
screenshot, it can't be spidered, it can't be bookmarked, it can't be
sent to a friend and so forth. In my opinion, this is a catastrophe
for libraries.[2]

2. No permalink. Despite #1, there are tricks to link to many (but not
most) HIP pages, and other tricks that can link to all. The page COULD
include a permalink, with icon--a familiar feature of sites like
Google Maps. It does not.

3. The "Holdings" section on the left is misleading. The divet and
other structure implies that the things underneath it are subheadings.
I'm frankly uncertain if that's the intent. Maybe the list is of
"holdings" related to the item. If so, "Holdings" is a very weird
word. It's a weird word even in a librarian context--a link to a
review is not a "holding." And it's weirder in a non-librarian
context, where "holdings" doesn't mean anything at all.

On further investigation I see that "Holdings" referred to the fact
that, along with all the other info, the page I was on had the
holdings info. The design is confusing.

4. The "Fiction and Biography" functions strangely. First, it's
meaningless--what am I to expect that it does?

My first guess would be that it would take me to other examples of
Fiction and Biography. It does not. Instead, it takes me to a list of
headings, "Genre" and "Topics." Both have subheadings, like
"NonFiction" and "Politician." On Safari the headings--although
black--turn into links when you roll over them. On Firefox they don't.
In neither do the links go anywhere.

The problem is probably technical. Whatever.

5. "Library Journal Review" works. Mostly. I searched for the review
elsewhere, and Barnes and Noble has it. Barnes and Noble preserves the
paragraph structure of the original, as well as italics and other
formatting. The BPL has it as one giant text lump.

6. "Summary" is somewhat confusing insofar as there is a "Summary"
field on the right, in the "book information area." The two are
different. The summary works, but it's also somewhat "undigested." It
ends with the non-sentence "a website where updates and comments may
be posted as the campaign progresses: Book

Why do libraries, which, if it stands for anything here, stands for
sophistication and exactitude of metadata, allow thesse unformatted,
half-gramattical text-blobs.

7. "Table of Contents" works pretty well. It's a bit odd, though,
insofar as the same content is presented in the "Contents" field of
the book-info-field.

It took me a while to untagle the relationship between the two fields,
though. It's non-obvious. Eventually I figured out that certain data
(eg., the introduction, page numbers) were stripped out and returns
replaced with "--". (See later for my rant against that idiotic
typographical device.)

8. "More by this author" works as you'd think, but there are still problems:

*Clicking on it takes you to other works by the author. In this case
there are some. In many other cases, there aren't. When there isn't,
it takes you to the record you are on! (Most users will record that as
"I clicked on the link and nothing happened. So I did it again.
Nothing. So I left and went to Amazon where the website works.)
*The Last-First format is a fossil of the "dictionary catalog." In
other book contexts--book covers, spines, bookst
ore displays, Amazon,
B&N, LibraryThing, publisher websites, etc.--authors are First-Last.
Only bibliographies still use last-first, precisely because
bibliographies require "dictionary order." No such order is needed
here. It looks fussy.
*It's unclear to me why the author's first name needs to be followed
by "1969-." Not even bibliographies do that. It's probable that
libraries are in the pocket of the gravestone industry.

9. Subjects. Some problems:

*Subjects are in Last-First format (eg., Obama, Barack). This is
unusual--elsewhere I see his name as First-Last. There must be a good
reason. Surely it is because it's an alphabetical list. Whoops, it's
not. There is no reason for it.

*The links *look* hierarchical, but they aren't. Given "United States
-- Race relations -- Political aspects" you'd think you could click on
any step of the hierarchy. You'd think wrong.

*The links take you to a dictionary list of subjects, including the
one you clicked on. You have to click it again to get something. That
is, the link doesn't take you where you want to go, it takes you to a
list of thinks, including a link to where you want to go. Did humans
design this?

*The use of "--" to indicate hierarchy is non-standard. The rest of
the information work uses ">." It's unclear why libraries think the
most basic web conventions must be ignored.

*Whoever decided on using "--" in a web-product should spent five
minutes with the Chicago Manual or Words into Type. "--" is what
typewriters used for the em-dash. It didn't exist before typewriters,
and it has no reason to exist now, when every computer and most
cellphones are capable of the em-dash.

*Since we're being persnickety, it's unclear why subjects end in
periods. They aren't sentences. Punctuation, like "--" and "." have
meanings. Misuse isn't a big deal, but it decreases confidence and
tires the eye.

*2001- should be an en-dash. Okay, I'll stop.

10. "Browse catalog by name" works okay, but it's unclear why it gets
only one entry, and that's the author--who already got a link. Given
the term "browse" I'd think that the link would put me in the middle
of a millions-long list of books sorted by author. No. It does the
same thing as the "More by this author" link.

11. "MARC Display" is weird. But at least it's small. Now, onto the
main part of the page!


12. "Barack Obama : this improbable quest / John K. Wilson." Is weird
in at least four ways. Together they reinforce the impression that the
library catalog is arcane and fiddly.

*The string "Title [slash] Author" is a library convention. In other
situations, title and author are distinguished either typographically
(as on a cover) or with the words "by."

*In real life (except in France), book titles employ capital letters.
As I've said before on this list, when LibraryThing started showing
library titles, users complained that the site was "broken." Something
was causing book titles to lose their capitals. Funny? Alas, the jokes
on libraries.

*In real life, colons don't have spaces before them.

*In real life, author-title lists don't end in periods.

13. All text from this point goes underlined when rolled over. But
it's not clickable. This makes no sense at all. If LibraryThing did
this, I'd have ten bug-reports inside of a minute. I wonder if people
report this, or if the general atmosphere of brokeness prevents it.

14. "Publisher," "Boulder, CO : Paradigm Publishers, c2008." What a
peculiar string. The publisher is "Paradigm Publishers" but their
location is listed first? And why call it "Publisher" when it includes
publisher-town, publisher-state, publisher name, copyright symbol (in
case you thought it might be public domain?), and publication year.

Order implies importance. On what planet is the publisher's location
the second-most important fact about this book?

15. "ISBN: 1594514763." Is this really the second-most important fact
about the book? To whom? I know it's shocking, but most readers don't
know what an
ISBN is. The rest don't care.

And ISBN *might* be a useful way for a knowledgeable user to jump from
Amazon to a libray catalog. But they'd have to get the right edition.
The rest of the time, the ISBN is trivia for stockboys.

16. "Description: vi, 210 p. : ill. ; 24 cm." As others have said,
this is a meaningless jumble. It doesn't merit the title
"description." It's junk.

The patron *might* want to know how long a book is--so "210 pages"
migtht be useful. I'd even be fine with "216 pages."

The patron might also want to know that the book had photographs. It
would be better to know how many, or even to get a list of them.

24cm is wrong in about ten ways. First, although "the most European
city in America," Boston is still part of the USA. In the USA we use
inches, not centimeters. There's there's the issue of one measurement.
Is can't be width. Is it height? Width? Maybe it's like TV and
computer monitors. That must be it.

17. "Target audience: Adult." This is useful here. There are a lot of
kids books about Obama. I'm glad this isn't one of them.

18. "Summary." Fine, except for point six, above.

19. "Contents." Fine, except for point seven, above.

20. "Bibliography: Includes bibliographical references and index."
This is marginally useful. For "bibliographical references," I'd use
the plain-jane word "bibliography."

It's funny that this is spelled out in prose but "ill." isn't. There's
probably some good reason.

21. The "Copy/Holdings information" box has some problems:

*I'd love to be able to click on locations to find out where they are.
Although a long-time Boston resident, "O'Bryant School of Mathematics
and Science" means nothing to me. I guess I'll have to ask at the

*The "Collection: Nonfiction" confuses me. I wasn't aware libraries
were divided that way. In fact, they aren't. But there probably is a
fiction section, that includes *most* of the fiction.

*Capitalization is almost random. "14 day loan" but "In Library"? Why?
Or take the capitalization of the section header, "Copy/Holdings
information." The other place with a similarly-styled heading uses
title case, "Related Information." Small inconsistencies make a site
look sloppy.

22. The form below is literally backward. It's formatted like this:

Format: ( ) HTML ( ) Plain text ( ) Delimited
Subject: __________________
Email to: __________________ [SEND]

When I reach the third line, I gather it's an emailing form. Why
doesn't it look like almost all other email forms on the web--the ones

*Whoever designed this form didn't look at how you email things on any
other site! Do I need the subject field? If I do, why can't I write a

*What is "Delimited" anyway? I have no idea.

*The form cuts off the title, into "Barack Obama : this improbable
quest / J". The form field allows only 40 characters, but is visually
larger. This is confusing and completely opposite how most web forms
work. Anyway, why are they only allowing 40 characters--bandwidth

23. "Next Reads." I gather Next Reads is much liked.[3] But this
"advertisment" feels intrusive and over-prominent. It certainly
doesn't fit in with the design at all. The line "Sign up for email
book suggestions in your favorite genre!" *may* relate to the icon
here, or it may not.

24. "Did you know? Many items held by the BPL are not listed in this
catalog. Find out about all of our catalogs."

*This notice is not visually separated from the line above, about
NextReads. Are they all part of the same notice. All separate?

*The notice is certainly unfortunate. If all their stuff isn't in the
catalog, they need something like this. But it certainly raises

### Final Points

25. The design is unappealing and slapdash. Some examples:

*The information architecture of the left-hand side is all weird. I've
mentioned the divet and the "--"s in the subject. But what about the
stray horizontal line in between "Table of Contents" and "More by this
uthor"? Is it necessary? Is it attractive? Did somebody's teenager
design this?

*The "Add to My List" and "Hold this for me" buttons, although on the
far right, are somehow creating extra space between the book title and
its information. To an untrained user it's just another tiny mark of
inferior quality. To the trained web developer it's evidence that
someone doesn't understand floats.

25. Font sizes

*The most important information--the book info and the holdings
info--are in the smallest fonts. That's crazy.

*Apart from that, font sizes and styles are slapdash. The title of the
book is less prominent than "Related Information."

26. Accessibility

*The page fails all levels of all accessibility tests. Five years ago,
when I made school software, I paid close attention accessibility.
Governments all require it. How did libraries get to opt out?

*Test aside, nobody has looked at basic accessibility issues--semantic
coding, order of information, tab-order, alt-text, etc.

27. The great bullet problem

Finally, as web developer I have to mention one thing that, when I
found it, made me laugh out loud--and I don't usually do that.

The bullets on the left--the giant, ugly bullets that don't quite
align right--are not an unordered list (
  • ...
, etc.).
They are instead a table, with two columns--someone's attempt to
produce a bulleted list, without using the HTML markup for... a
bulleted list!

To get it, the list was "tableized." The left-hand column is for the
bullets. But instead of printing the unicode for a bullet, using a
graphic or wahtever, the left-hand column is comprised of
single-entry, no-content unordered lists. Apparently someone at
SirsiDynix thought that

  • was a trick to get a bullet.

    [1] The BPL is having some sort of deep problem. Most of my searches
    turn up page after page of blank records. This was the first non-blank
    [2] Not being "on the web" is, in my opinion, the single most
    important factor that drags libraries down in the internet age, and
    therefore a great threat to library success, library jobs and indeed
    to education and democracy. But hey, what do I know? Maybe the rest of
    the web is wrong and libraries are right!
    [3] I don't know the product very well, but I am a fan of Novelist and
    its people

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