Re: [ACAT] thoughtful article – Thinking the unthinkable: a library without a catalogue — Reconsidering the future of discovery tools for Utrecht University library

Posting to Autocat

On 09/01/2013 18:29, MULLEN Allen wrote:

Thinking the unthinkable: a library without a catalogue — Reconsidering the future of discovery tools for Utrecht University library by Simone Kortekaas

Provocative, but logical. Traditionally, there have been two purposes for the existence of the library catalog: one is to let the public find materials in the local collection but just as important is to give the librarians a tool to manage the local collection. Although catalogers have always said that the convenience of the user should come before that of the library or the cataloger, that has never really been true and catalogs have always been notoriously difficult for the public to use. People have complained since the beginnings, and little has changed in the catalogs other than changing a few headings here or there, and eventually adding keyword access, which ended up doing as much harm as good since the traditional controls (series of cross-references etc.) were tossed overboard and were never brought back into the catalog–at least in any kind of useful way.

Full-text search engines were a joke until Google came on board and pioneered some new methods. I keep telling myself that this was not that long ago. Google’s IPO was in 2004 and yet so much that we take for granted with “information discovery” has changed! These new methods, in my own opinion, do not provide nearly as good and improved results as advertised, but this should come as no surprise since Google … [et al.] are for-profit businesses so of course they are going to trumpet how great and wonderful their tools are. People are still bedazzled by these methods which are constantly “being improved” and it is assumed this is for the good of the public and not for the good of the company.

More important however, the new methods have one vital improvement that overshadows everything else: for the searchers, they are immensely easier and simpler than the traditional library tools.

It has been known for a long time that it is human nature to follow the easier path as opposed to the more difficult one–even if you know the easiest path does not lead exactly where you want to go. If it’s too hard to get to Eldorado, we’ll settle for downtown Wichita or Tampa or Albuquerque. Whatever.

The traditional library catalog provided something that these wonderful search engines do not do and never have done: they allow genuine conceptual, intellectual access to materials selected by experts, and in the case of a local collection, by experts who have you in mind. The new tools leave out of consideration the vital role of reference librarian. For the “discovery process” itself, searching text (which is what full-text searching does) is not the same as searching concepts (which is what the traditional catalog permits). Few understand this distinction today–I fear that even many librarians and library catalogers have forgotten–because the library catalog is broken and has been broken so badly for such a long, long time. Few can remember when it worked as it should.

So the question becomes: should there be efforts to fix the library catalog to make it function correctly in a new type of information environment? Or do we just give up, admit defeat and have everyone use the full-text tools for discovery while libraries content themselves with “filling orders” they get from people who use Google and similar tools?

I would like to think the library community would at least try to make the catalog work again but sadly, they are wasting their efforts and resources on RDA and FRBR and trying to convince themselves that once RDA and FRBR are achieved, it will make something that the public will want, even though that has never been shown. Pursuing the holy grail of linked data (heavenly chorus) will only transmit the dysfunction of our catalogs far and wide. Still, there is so much that could be done that would be useful to the public!

I apologize for the melancholy post. It is an overcast and dreary day here in Rome.