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 11/01/2013 15:22, Frank Newton wrote:

James, a response to some of your points — 

1. “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 . . .” 

This is an overly harsh assessment of progress and developments in library catalogs in the 20th century, especially for the period 1900-1970. I do not believe in “historical telescoping”, that is, I don’t believe it is intellectually correct to think that we can skim over the earlier years with marvelous quickness in our summation of How We Got Here.

I think this is just seeing the facts. While there were some significant changes to the practice of cataloging such as the growth of cooperative cataloging, the LC card program, ISBD, and technologically there were several advances: they could reproduce cards in a whole bunch of ways; there were selectric typewriters and automatic erasers, and so on, the experience of the searcher of a card catalog of 1970 was fundamentally the same as 1870. The cards may have been a different size; they were typed or printed instead of handwritten; there were lots and lots more cards (which led to the breakdown of the card catalogs), there were new headings. The cards themselves may have been placed in a single alphabet or in separate author and subject ranges (sometimes titles too). Some catalogs may not have arranged their cards in alphabetical order (dictionary). But no matter what, when the searcher approached the card catalog, the basic task was to flip through cards (in fact, unit records) in a mostly alphabetical arrangement. This was exactly the same for all card catalogs at any time.

Computers never did as good of a job at alphabetical arrangement, but when keyword searching arrived, then there was something fundamentally new. And keyword had its good and bad points. So I can’t see that there was anything fundamentally different for the searcher from 1870 to 1970. There were just more cards to flip through.


2. “The new tools leave out of consideration the vital role of reference librarian.”

I would reverse this observation, so that it would read “The new attitudes leave out of consideration the vital role of the cataloging librarian.” You’re right that the relationship between the cataloger and the reference librarian is crucial to the success of the library catalog! But the big obstacle there is that reference librarians and catalogers need to respect each other. I am not sure that library (and information science) schools nowadays are teaching reference librarians to respect catalogs and catalogers. How do others feel about that?

I agree with the need for mutual respect, but I am not talking about the success of the library catalog. I am talking about the success of the person who comes to the library to use the catalog. Because the catalog (card or computer) has always been so complex, people need help. It is certainly no easier to find good, reliable materials today than before! But unfortunately people think it is easier. Reference librarians have always known that their success relied on the labors of the people who made the catalog: if the catalogers were doing a lousy job such as not adding enough subjects or headings, it would make their jobs a lot harder. This is one of my problems with getting rid of the rule of three. I have certainly seen no research that demonstrated that this is OK with the various users of the catalog. I can’t imagine that people would agree, especially reference librarians. This will impact the public and it is the reference librarians who will be the first who deal with the complaints from the public.

Some library catalogs are less broken than others. I don’t think you can tar all library catalogs with the same brush. … Mm . . . is that the fault of library catalogs, or is that the fault of the books themselves, which have traditionally been the majority format in library catalogs?

Here is one of the points where I disagree with you about the “FRBR hierarchy” or Work — Edition — Manifestation — Item. I think this hierarchy is on the right track, conceptually speaking — I just think it’s going to be hell on wheels to implement it in a way that people can make sense of.

The dictionary catalog, which is what all Anglo-American catalogs are based on, is broken. The evidence is that people have rushed to use other tools and they embraced keyword without a glance back. Until that fundamental problem is dealt with little can be done.

Concerning the tired old WEMI. It is already implemented. That is precisely how the cards were arranged in the card catalogs and before that, at least since the time of Panizzi in the library of the British Museum. So make it work better than it does now–that’s fine. But we should keep in mind that lots of people complained about the arrangements back then. As I have said several times, we can do it right now with facets, and we can see it implemented in Worldcat. Here is the work of Huckleberry Finn: People can navigate this as easily as anything I have seen suggested: limit by language, by format, by dates, by added authors. (Whoops! No rule of three anymore!) Certainly the user interface could improve, but I have discussed this in some papers. So, if we want people to navigate WEMI, you don’t need RDA, you don’t need FRBR. You just need a modern catalog that allows facets, and some good catalogers. Anybody in the world can prove it to him or herself whenever they want.

Since there has been no celebration over this, I must conclude that most don’t care one bit about WEMI. We shouldn’t kid ourselves that (re-)creating structures that are already dated will provide what the public wants. At least not without at least the slightest bit of evidence?