RE: all catalog queries are reference questions, but not all reference questions are catalog queries

Posting to From the Catalogs of Babes

I just saw this comment here from Shawne Miksa ( about one of my postings, where I stated that the “local collection” must be redefined:

“James and I have gone ’round on this issue before on that listserv. This whole issue is misunderstood. To focus on the local collection does not automatically mean the librarian or cataloger or whoever is thinking narrow-mindedly. It’s rather insulting and ignorant, in my opinion, to even suggest it.”

and later,
“Tell me the logic in declaring a librarian isn’t thinking broadly just because they may still maintain and enhance a local catalog. I do not accept the argument that a library catalog has to be entirely redefined simply because we have a tool that allows access to resources outside the library. I do not say “re-engineered”, just redefined. It is always good to improve a useful tool to get the most efficient outcomes, but that does not mean we have to throw out the baby with the bathwater.”

While I don’t want to be insulting, although I will be the first one to confess that I may be ignorant, to me, the “catalog” must give access into something, and that “something” has always been the local collection. When that collection has changed in fundamental ways, or technical improvements arose, the libraries and their catalogs have changed in reply. So, when photographs began, or later when computer files began to be created, the catalog changed. When a collection takes on a huge, other collection, the catalog changes as well to contain the contents of that other collection. For example, if a library takes on an entirely new collection, such as a children’s collection of 100,000 items, or if the manuscripts division takes on the entire archives of some defunct organization, creating the catalog, or working it into the collection somehow, can take a long, long time. Naturally, OPACs have had their impact as well.

With the world wide web materials, the very nature of a local collection has changed fundamentally, and it is out of our control in many ways. For example, if I am interested in Panizzi and his catalog at the British Museum, I probably want to see a copy of his catalog. Perhaps I can find it through my local catalog, but probably *only* if I am at one of the great research libraries (which most people are not). Several of these items probably would not be available through ILL because they are fragile, so I may have to pay for microfilming and/or scanning, plus pay for the shipping. My library would probably not pay for all the costs.

I would have to want this information very badly indeed, and would probably forget it because of the price. But today if we look beyond the local catalogs and Worldcat, I know that I can even download my own copy at, and not only that, there is this book that is critical: plus lots more out there. And it costs me, and the library, nothing. This demonstrates that the “collection of information” available “locally” to my users has changed, and changed irrevocably. And thus, we have a new type of “local collection”.

No library catalog does this now that I know of. So far as I am concerned, this is in everyone’s interest: certainly the users’, the reference librarians want this, the CFO would love it especially in this time of tight budgets. But for the cataloger, it would be a nightmare to add all of these resources (and Google books certainly does not represent everything) to each of the local catalogs would be an extraordinary amount of extra work for the catalogers, who would buckle under the strain.

If the only solution is to expect everyone to search multiple times in multiple catalogs, we must admit that this simply will not happen. Of course, these so-called solutions are not solutions but actually backward-thinking, and why? Mainly because we need to think in more global terms, instead of concentrating on the idea of multiple local catalogs with multiple records, there are all kinds of new options.