Tim Spalding wrote:
* What good ideas have yet to become mainstream?
* What idea trends—mobile? ebooks?—should cause us to rethink things?
* Is it time to decide that the next catalog is no catalog at all?
* Is it Google? A kiosk? A cell phone? A WorldCat metastasis? Dying because the library is dying?
There are many questions here, but I would like to focus on the provocative:”* Is it time to decide that the next catalog is no catalog at all?”
Before discussing this however, there are other issues that should at least be addressed before the larger question can be answered. I have found that there are three points that have not really been addressed anywhere, or at least not that I have seen.
The almost universal request I have heard from my patrons, and that I read the public wants (i.e. when I go beyond any specific library patrons) is that while it is easy to find information, it is difficult to find materials that are reliable. You can hear this in the arguments about newspapers: the blogger vs. the journalist argument, where journalists say that people can’t rely on what they read in blogs; it is found in information literacy courses, scholars discuss it, and you find it in the popular press as well. Whether this assertion is true or false (e.g. whether information from professional journalists is really better than what you read in a blog) I am bypassing right now. Still, it seems an obvious where where the library’s task of selection can become an important part of the solution.
Traditional library selection is almost completely different from what selection needs to be today (in my opinion), and what selection will necessarily become after the Google-Publisher agreement is implemented, and when open archives begin to really take off. Traditional library selection has always been based on the principle of *inclusion,* i.e. the decision to *include* a resource into the local collection because it will be found useful to my local patrons, and I also determine that it will be useful enough that it will be worth spending the institution’s money to purchase the resource, process it, catalog it, perhaps preserve it, and so on. Even when people try to donate books for free, they are very often surprised that their books are not selected because those books will not be found sufficiently useful for the patrons, e.g. all duplicates, or on a topic nobody else cares about, or any of a thousand other reasons.
Selecting something for a library’s collection has “never meant” that it is necessarily a *better* resource than others out there, or that the actual selector agrees with two words out of it, or even if the resource is full of absolute lies. We must recognize that there are plenty of lies in libraries now: older materials where the information has become obsolete (e.g. books on surgery from 1880), or because even though they are full of lies, we believe they are still necessary for the patrons. In this regard, I think of the works of the Marquis de Sade, or the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. The purpose of a collection is to serve the needs of its patrons, and not to reflect the morals and opinions of the librarian. That would be censorship. (Although in some countries where librarians follow other ethics, something like this would be considered more like “social protection”)
Library selection is not understood at all well by non-librarians, and we see this all the time when localities want to remove, e.g. the Joy of Sex or Huckleberry Finn from a library. I won’t go into this here, but the point is: in the new information universe, selection necessarily becomes a process of *exclusion* instead of *inclusion.* What I mean by this is people can very easily find and access all kinds of materials today. What they desperately want and need are information resources that are “reliable” (whatever that may mean) and they realize they are not competent to determine the reliability of something since they are only learning about it. There is too much and they need help from experts in limiting their results.
The upshot of this line of reasoning is: I believe that first of all, library selection is going to have to change to being a “trusted area” where people can go to find information that has a least a level of credibility. (Ross Atkinson wrote a certain amount about this) We would gain many followers and provide a vital service if this were accomplished. It would be a tremendous undertaking that would go far beyond the library community (as the task of library selection does today) but the problems of selection must be faced before the idea of a catalog, which theoretically controls and provides access to what the library has selected, can even begin to be discussed.
The meaning of “find” has changed in a fundamental way in the last 20 or so years. It certainly means something quite different from when I went to library school and learned to use a card catalog. I don’t know what it really means today, but I do know that “finding” on Google is completely different from “finding” in an OPAC, which was different from “finding” in a card catalog. I have the feeling that for someone who considers Google searching to be “normal” (I confess I still find Google results quite bizarre), they expect something quite different from what a library catalog can provide them. So, let’s for a moment consider the FRBR user tasks to be correct: “find, identify, select, obtain,” the very first part has changed in the popular culture. How has it changed? I don’t know, but if it has changed, it must change the rest of the user tasks, that is, if they are still valid.
#3 Where the catalog will be accessed
This concerns the laziness factor again. Just as I pointed out that I can’t understand that a student, or almost anybody who has a virtual copy of a book on display in their computer, would actually stand up and go through the process of getting a physical copy of that book–even if they are in the same building–I think the same analogy is valid for library catalog sites on the web. Right now, people use the library catalogs to find the *books on the shelves* but when that goes away (perhaps frighteningly quickly!), why would anyone ever go to a separate library catalog? I think people will be “too lazy” to do that. Therefore, if we want people to use our records (which is what I want) we must create APIs that can be incorporated very easily into sites where our users choose to be, so that they can search our databases in the background. In this way, our records will in essence, go to them. This has additional problems because when you take a catalog record out of a catalog, it begins to look very strange and it will function in bizarre ways. (This happens for various reasons but primarily because catalog records are designed to function within a specific-type of catalog. When they are taken out, things tend to break)
The solution here is to ensure that the records retain their function even when they are in different environments. By this, I mean an AACR2 record working with a DC record with an ONIX record and so on. Doing this is another huge undertaking, but I am sure it can be done, and in the meantime, it will take the catalog in entirely new directions.
Before we discuss what the library catalog is to become, or even if it should continue to exist, I think these issues need to be discussed. And of course, the experiences and skills of librarians become crucial.