Re: The Process of Cataloging in the Future

Posting to RadCat

I guess I am not so enamored of the long past halcyon days. While I love libraries, and always will, before library school I didn’t know how to use a catalog at all–even though if someone had asked, I thought I knew all about them. From the beginnings, people have come to libraries to use the materials in the library, not to use the catalogs, and normally not to talk to librarians. They used catalogs only because it was the only way into the materials that interested them. And they talked to librarians only because they couldn’t get the catalog to work, or couldn’t find the materials on their own. This has been since the beginnings.

Although major complaints from the public were noted by the Royal Commission, where they discussed Panizzi’s catalog, the Commission pretty much dismissed those complaints, and in any case, everyone more or less realized that the catalog was a necessary evil that they needed to get into the materials they wanted. It was clear that the public did not like it at all, however. Yet they were realistic and they quickly saw that their only option was to browse the shelves, that is, in the collections where there were open stacks. In Panizzi’s collection, it was closed stacks and several people mentioned they would have been very happy to be able to browse the areas they wanted, but they knew that could never work for the general public. Consequently in closed stacks, the catalog was the only option and people could either use it or just do without. Complaints were irrelevant and people just had to continue to use the clumsy catalogs.

Of course, nobody knew precisely how clumsy the catalogs were until the computerized ones came out where searching was much freer than ever before. Nothing is perfect and a lot was lost in the transition, especially when keyword came out. I have tried to show some of what has been lost in my podcasts and postings because it turns out that many people, including catalogers, do not understand this. At the time of the transition, many catalogers saw what was being lost but workloads were always increasing so they just kept working and kept their mouths shut.

Today, the public has real choices to getting information that they find very attractive. Increasingly, they can access and work with the information itself, completely bypassing catalogs (or they *think* they are bypassing them, but that is another matter). The fact is, more information is readily available to more people now than ever before in the history of civilization. That should be seen as not only a good thing, but as a great thing. When I can take a class virtually on almost any topic I want e.g. “Dynamics of Ocean Structures” or I can listen to the latest Reith Lectures from the BBC (or earlier ones too) or I can listen to the audio recordings of Studs Terkel when he was interviewing people for his book “Hard Times” This is incredible. But you can’t find any of that in Worldcat or any library catalog (or clone) that I know of. I can find these things because I have spent many years working on these matters and I know these materials are so hard to find that only the tiniest percentage of the populace ever could. What is the purpose of the library catalog today?

So, it is clear to me that we are now living in the halcyon days. The question is: how badly do libraries want to be a part of those halcyon days? There is a lot they can do, and should do (at least in my opinion), but they are choosing other paths.