Cataloging Matters Podcast #12: A Conversation Between a Patron and the Library Catalog

Cataloging Matters Podcast #12: A Conversation Between
a Patron
and the
Library Catalog

Hello everyone. My name is Jim Weinheimer and welcome to Cataloging Matters, a series of podcasts about the future of libraries and cataloging, coming to you from the most beautiful, and the most romantic city in the world, Rome, Italy.

In this episode, I have decided to embark upon a little experiment. I found a tool on the internet and decided to use it for an imaginary conversation that takes place between a library patron and the library catalog, who appears in the guise of a generic librarian. What does the average person think about the library catalog? What goes through their minds as they work with it?

By the way, there are a few limitations with file sizes using this tool, so some of the audio may be of a slighly lower quality than I would like and I think there may be a few bizarre animations.

Patron: Hello. I would like a copy of Huckleberry Finn.

Librarian: Of course! Which one would you like?

Patron: What do you mean?

Librarian: We have many items of many manifestations of the various expressions of the work of Huckleberry Finn. Which would you prefer: an audiofile, a video, or something else?

Patron: I just want a copy of the book.

Librarian: Certainly, which expression do you want? In Arabic or Russian or Greek?

Patron: I just want a copy in English.

Librarian: Sure. Which manifestation would you like?

Patron: What do you mean?

Librarian: We have many manifestations published in different years and by different publishers. Which one would you like?

Patron: What are the differences?

Librarian: Well, here’s one published by American Publishing Company in 1899 with 375 pages, and here’s another published by Modern Library with a copyright date of opening bracket nineteen fifty hyphen question mark closing bracket with 591 pages. Here’s one published by Harcourt Brace and World in 1962 with 247 pages. Here is another one published by Harper and Brothers in 1918 with paging, xix pages, 1 page, 3 leaves, 404 pages, 1 page. Another one was published…

Patron: Wait! I don’t care about that. You are telling me about the publication details. What are the differences in the novel itself from one published in 1962 and the one in 1918?

Librarian: What do you mean?

Patron: What are the differences from the one in 1962 from the one in 1918?

Librarian: Well, the one published by Harcourt Brace and World in 1962 had 247 pages. The other published by Harper and Brothers in 1918 had paging, xix pages, 1 page, 3 leaves, 404 pages, 1 page.

Patron: But you’re still talking about the differences in the physical books when I am interested in the novel that Mark Twain wrote, not the differences in the physical books. What are the differences in the text from one to the other?

Librarian: This one has 247 pages while in this other one it is 325 pages and in this book the paging is, xix pages, 1 page, 3 leaves, 404…

Patron: Stop! Differences like these can be from type size or margins or chapter illustrations, or lots of other things could explain those differences. The texts may be exactly the same. What are the differences in the texts?

Librarian: You mean in the words themselves?

Patron: Yes.

Librarian: I don’t know. That isn’t recorded. Is that information important to you?

Patron: No, not really. But it’s more important than what you are telling me. I just want a copy of the novel.

Librarian: Certainly. Which one would you like? We have many items of many manifestations…

Patron: I don’t care. Just a copy in English. Any one will do. Just pick one for me.

Librarian: But I am a librarian and it would be unethical for me to select someone else’s reading material. We believe in freedom of choice, freedom of conscience, freedom of thought, freedom of expression, freedom of…

Patron: OK. OK. I’ll take the one published by Harper’s in 1918.

Librarian: Certainly, Which copy would you like? We have two copies.

Patron: What are the differences?

Librarian: There are no differences. These are duplicates of each other. One has a different barcode from the other.

Patron: So, are you telling me that the text in both of these is exactly the same? How do you know that the text is the same here, but not in the other books with different dates and paging?

Librarian: Well, it’s the publication information that is the same. We assume that the rest is the same too. We don’t compare the copies word for word, so we don’t know if the actual text is exactly the same or not. Does it matter to you?

Patron: No, not right now. Still, you have some strange ideas about what is or is not a copy, it is all based on the differences in the books and not differences in the text, which is what interests me. I have a question–

Librarian: Certainly.

Patron: Why does the catalog work this way?

Librarian: Because these are the tasks that users want and they need to be able to do them.

Patron: Which users?

Librarian: All users.

Patron: Who determined that this is what users want?

Librarian: Those needs were determined long ago and were codified by Charles Cutter in a sacred document from 1876 where he listed the objectives of the catalog. His declarations were later transferred into the world of the internet through another sacred document called the Functional Requirements for Bibliographic Records, or ferber, although I personally find that word repulsive and prefer FRBR. It was declared that the tasks of the users are to find, identify, select and obtain, works, expressions, manifestations, and items, by their authors, titles, and subjects.

Patron: Well, I’m a user too and I need something else. In full-text databases, I can do all kinds of searches and analyze the texts themselves and make decisions. I guess I can understand that if you don’t have any full text and that you cannot examine the items immediately, somebody will need to make a choice among similar resources. But if I am to make a meaningful choice, I need meaningful information. Giving me publication dates and page numbers doesn’t help me make a decent decision. If I can look at a thing directly, I can decide which one I want, so if I am able to examine the versions, I can decide that one is easier to read or one has pages falling out, or I just choose any one I want. Otherwise, I am being forced to choose texts based on information that means nothing to me at all. How am I supposed to decide I want something published in 1923 or another from 1962 without knowing what the differences are? Why is this information supposed to have meaning for me?

Librarian: I don’t know. You can always browse the shelves and choose a text there.

Patron: But that’s not using the catalog records to select the items. It actually just points me to the right shelves to browse and that is where I select the actual item I want after examining what you have to offer. So, the questions you are asking me remind me of the question my little daughter constantly asks me: Would you rather die of thirst in the desert or freeze to death in the snow? How is anybody supposed to answer that kind of question? But my daughter keeps it up until I give her an answer, so I say, I’d rather freeze to death in the snow, and then she starts asking: Why!?

Librarian: Oh! But according to the library’s sacred documents, the library catalog is still designed to fulfill the needs of the users, which is to let them find, identify, select and obtain, works, expressions…

Patron: Stop! All I know is that with the information you are giving me, the answers are: I don’t care!

Librarian: All right. You can go into the stacks and make your own choice by browsing the books. Would you still like the one published by Harper’s in 1918?

Patron: Yes. Or no. I don’t care. That one is as good as any.

Librarian: Would you like copy 1?

Patron: OK.

Librarian: I’m sorry. That one is checked out and will be returned in a month. Would you like to place a hold on it?

Patron: I’ll take copy 2.

Librarian: Certainly. Here is the call number where you can find it in the stacks.

Patron goes into the stacks and returns 20 minutes later

Patron: I can’t find it.

Librarian: Let me take a look myself.

Library goes into the stacks and returns 20 minutes later

Librarian: I can’t find it either. It must either be misshelved or stolen. I’m terribly sorry. We will have to put a search on it and we may have to buy a new copy. If you leave your contact information, I can get back to you as soon as we have finished the search.

Patron: Maybe I’ll just go to Border’s.

Librarian: I’m sorry but they have gone bankrupt.

This is Jim Weinheimer. The man in this dialog pretty much embodies “the library catalog” instead of a generic librarian. Of course today, a librarian could tell the patron that there are lots of very nice free copies available at the click of the button: in the Internet Archive, Google Books, Project Gutenberg and many, many, many other places on the web. In fact, there are so many that our current catalogs and traditional methods break down when each library attempts to add—and just as important, to maintain—separate records in all of those library catalogs. It’s just too much duplicated work. As a result, people cannot use our catalogs to access the materials that are actually available to them, even including classic texts like Huckleberry Finn but the same goes for movies, maps, recordings and almost everything else.

If the purpose is to fulfill the needs of the users perhaps best would be for the catalog itself to tell the truth of what is actually available to people today by starting with tools such as Google Books, the Internet Archive, or even better: some kind of tool created by librarians, and only then point people into the materials on our own shelves.

This does not end the argument at all however, since the needs of librarians are just as important as the needs of the users. In a future Cataloging Matters, I will speak in more depth about the needs of librarians, who need highly specialized tools in order to do their jobs. I believe FRBR has confused librarian needs with the needs of users, but to be fair, this has been going on for a long time. 

The music for this episode really is genuine Italian music: this is the theme music from the movie The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, composed by Enrico Morricone. It seems that every Italian has at least one cell phone, and the music from Morricone is on a huge proportion of them, so some of his spaghetti western music is playing somewhere almost constantly. For those who have not seen this movie from the 1960’s, and you like westerns, I can recommend this movie and for those who haven’t seen it for awhile, I think you’ll enjoy it once again. It is one of my favorite westerns, and the music is a major part of the experience.

That’s it for now. I hope you enjoyed this episode and thank you for listening to Cataloging Matters with Jim Weinheimer, coming to you from Rome, Italy, the most beautiful, and the most romantic city in the world.