Posting to Autocat
On 9/20/2013 3:06 PM, Anderson, William wrote:
James Weinheimer wrote:
Of course, I am a complete 100% advocate of library catalogs but their utility to the public will have to be demonstrated sooner or later.
It is perhaps risking this falling into to one of those classic AUTOCAT Sturm und Drang list of posts, but it in all honesty begs the question. Is this advocacy based on faith or demonstration of utility (to the public or otherwise)?
That’s actually a good question. My own opinion is: the traditional library catalog, when correctly implemented and maintained, allows a type of access that people do not find anywhere else today. The method of search and retrieval people normally use today is based on algorithms: searching text in various ways, or an image search does it in another incredible way using algorithms, or music does it in yet another incredible way using algorithms. These methods have been supplemented by citation-type references and now, by friends, friends of friends and so on.
Traditional library catalogs work on a different principle: an intellectual arrangement of similar items, or in other words, a library catalog allows people to retrieve materials by concepts. As a result, when you go to the books in the stacks on a specific topic, you are not so much looking at a bunch of books, as much as you are looking what the library has within a certain concept. (Of course, within certain known parameters) The catalog extends this idea so that that library can offer additional conceptual arrangements without the need to buy duplicates of the books. But nevertheless, the catalog cards were arranged conceptually.
Contrast this when you do a search for WWI in the Googles. You are actually searching for all kinds of variations on that term that may be within the actual resources or not, correlating this result with links, perhaps Google+, with others from your local region, with others that have a similar profile as yours, and so on.
In a library catalog, it works completely differently. (I won’t explain it here since it should be known to each member of Autocat, but I did a podcast on it “Catalog Matters Podcast no. 18: Problems with Library Catalogs” http://blog.jweinheimer.net/2013/02/catalog-matters-podcast-no-18-problems-with-library-catalogs.html)
The problem today is that the methods that allow for conceptual access in library catalogs were worked out in the 19th century and have not transferred well into OPACs. That is a simple fact that should not be surprising and there are several reasons why. As a consequence, while I can demonstrate how this access is supposed to work, when I actually demonstrate it, I am forced to resort to primitive methods of searching (left-anchored browse) and when that fails–as it so often does–I am even reduced to using printed resources (as I did in my podcast). This is very off-putting to people I know, but they are the only tools we have. Unfortunately, I wind up looking as if I am advocating a return to using stone axes, when actually I am trying to demonstrate that a type of access exists that is completely different from the Googles, which can be demonstrated and what the final results are.
I confess that it is my belief that people would love this kind of access but I agree that it needs to be demonstrated. Our current tools have big problems and the very first step is to admit that those tools are broken–not broken beyond repair–but still admit they are broken and need to be fixed. The problem lies in the structure of the catalog itself and is not something that can be fixed by changing the cataloging rules (RDA) or updating the format (Bibframe) or musing on metaphysical fantasies such as FRBR.
What can be done? I suggest a few things in my podcasts and papers, but I am sure there are lots of other possibilities.