Re: Browse headings as an unused tool in library catalogs (WAS: [ACAT] AltaVista’s demise)

Posting to Autocat

On 08/07/2013 16:12, Frank Newton wrote:

In the context of describing heading browses, “unused” or “avoided” seems better than “dysfunctional” to me; “dysfunctional” is way too strong a word. When searching for subjects, classical music, and sacred works, I love the power of browsing an index of headings. But if many people avoid it, I would suggest that, instead of comparing it to a family where the father and the mother hurt each other over and over again, I would compare it to the stovetop in the break room in my library.

My library’s break room has a microwave and a stovetop with burners. But nobody uses the burners any more. People just pile plastic bags on top of the burners (which scares me). Like those burners, I would say that, if people aren’t taking advantage of the power of heading searches, the heading browse could be described as an avoided or unwanted tool.
But — here’s where you and I diverge — in my experience, the world is filled with people who are trying to encourage other people to use tools that they would not use, if left to their own devices. I do not see a problem with catalogers promoting the use of heading searches by other librarians, and encouraging other librarians to promote the use of heading searches by library users.

I see what you mean, but I think that “dysfunctional” is precisely the word to use and explains why the catalog doesn’t make much sense to people today. As I have asked many times, is it better to make a tool that is a pain in the you-know-what to use, or make a tool that is as easy as possible to use? And if you decide to make a tool of the first type and insist that everybody must use it, it shouldn’t be surprising when people ignore it–even if we believe our tools are better in every other way.

Bibliographic instruction has a long and very sad history. Students hate it and normally forget everything they have learned after a couple of years/months/weeks/days/hours/minutes, or however retentive their minds are. Catalogers should remember that while they use the catalog several times every day, 99% of the rest of the population do not and therefore they can’t be expected to retain all of that. The most we can expect is that maybe, people will ask a librarian for help when they have a problem, but now they just turn to Google (or Bing) where they will be guaranteed to find something. People have complained about how catalogs work since the early days–remember the “great debate” that took place over Panizzi’s catalog in the 1840s? Lots and lots and *lots* of people hated it and spoke out loudly. Instead of concluding that all those people were wrong and will forever remain so, the complaints should be something that catalogers accept and learn from.

Our current catalogs were designed as card catalogs. They still work that way. How can I say that? Because each and every record we make today could just as easily be printed out and placed in a card catalog from the 1870s. The headings have been updated, that’s all, but basically, nothing much has changed. I know this statement may make several out there roll their eyes or make them angry, but it remains a simple fact. Until that fact is accepted, I fear that nothing much can improve.

Yet, a couple of things have changed: 1) loss of the interaction of the authority records, along with the different types of “guide cards” that were so vital for people to use the catalog back then. And 2) the fact that the catalog was designed to operate like a printed, 19th-century dictionary. I discussed this in much more detail in “Catalog Matters Podcast no. 18: Problems with Library Catalogs” Apologies for citing myself yet again, but I worked hard to say what I believe.

In short, instead of expecting somebody else (reference librarians?) to train every person in the world to change everything they do so that they can search a library catalog “correctly” (so that catalogers don’t have to change what they do), we should be making a tool that adapts to the needs and practices of modern people.

To do anything else will be a lesson in futility. I don’t know if anything like this will happen, however.