Re: Dictionary catalogs, or, Some good and bad things about alphabetical order (Was: Thoughtful article, etc.)

Posting to Autocat

On 11/01/2013 19:42, Frank Newton wrote:


“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.”
 Here you are building on what you wrote earlier in your same E-mail: “when the searcher approached the card catalog, the basic task was to flip through cards . . . in a mostly alphabetical arrangement. This was exactly the same for all card catalogs at any time. . . . but when keyword searching arrived, then there was something fundamentally new.” 
There is a fundamental point here: alphabetical order is a difficult idea for people of all ages (not just children!) to master and apply well. And keyword searching frees people from what has for a long time been called “the tyranny of alphabetical order.” Look at it that way, and it’s really easy to appreciate why people love keyword searching. But here’s the point I think our library catalog theoreticians are missing: **Although keyword searching is easier, and although computers have made life easier for grown-ups by de-emphasizing alphabetical order — nevertheless, (a) alphabetical order is still a useful way of organizing information, (b) it is still helpful for searchers to possess the art of navigating information arranged alphabetically.** Yes, people love keyword searching, and yes, there’s a good reason why they love it — but no, that does not mean that alphabetical order is no longer a useful organizing principle for both information compilers and information seekers.

I am not saying that alphabetical order should no longer be allowed–it’s that it should not be the major emphasis because people don’t search websites that way and our catalogs are websites now. When we search a dictionary online, e.g. or an encyclopedia such as Wikipedia, we do it differently from how we search a printed dictionary or encyclopedia. Online, do we search those sites in alphabetical order as we do a printed dictionary or encyclopedia? No, because it doesn’t make any sense. If we look for “dog” we type in the word, and don’t type “d” and browse through “da” “de” “di” and so on before we come to “dog”.

This is just a fact from using a new medium. The reason Cutter … [et al.] decided on a dictionary catalog was that, in spite of all of the defects they knew about the dictionary catalog as opposed to the classified catalog, it was nevertheless the simplest method for the average person because everybody knew alphabetical order, and everyone knew how to use a dictionary. Those days are dead and gone, and to force everyone to browse websites in alphabetical order won’t work. This is demonstrated by the disuse and incorrect use of library catalogs. The public does not search our catalogs like a printed dictionary–they search them like Google because it is the simplest for them and it is what they know. We can insist that people should be taught how to use the library catalog but why should we force people to continue outmoded practices? That is evidence that we demand that the world to change instead of changing ourselves to fit into the world.

When looking at this record, found by keyword,, the searcher should know that the subject heading “Disasters” has Narrower Terms, Broader Terms and Related Terms. When browsing in a catalog card, the searchers would have known because they had no choice except to browse and when they came upon “Disasters” they would have seen the NT, BT, RT and Scope notes. But with keyword, we expect them to browse backwards to “Disasters” to see BT, NT, etc. That, no one will ever do and it is absurd to expect them to. Yet, that is what people must do if they are going to use the catalog correctly and get the most out of it. Of course they fail–they have to.

This is why I say the dictionary catalog is broken and why we have to look at it from the viewpoint of the searcher who knows nothing–not from the viewpoint of a cataloger. Doing so would be following the precepts of Cutter to make a catalog for the convenience of the users.