Re: [ACAT] Future of our catalog

Posting to Autocat

On 12/12/2013 9:01 PM, Liz Fairman – LAWLIBX wrote:

At a meeting of law library staff yesterday, I heard…:
Library patrons don’t use the catalog. We should include only the items used by staff members.
Titles in databases shouldn’t be in the catalog because there are just too many. Patrons can go from database to database to figure things out.
IF we continue to have a catalog ….
We should consider this for a while and not make decisions.

It isn’t as is if isn’t already happening. For instance, there is this: “Thinking the unthinkable: a library without a catalogue — Reconsidering the future of discovery tools for Utrecht University library” by Simone Kortekaas
So it is happening and probably in other places too. The days of assuming the need for the catalog are over.

We must consider a few things. The first is perhaps the most important, is: What will happen when everything is digitized? Or at least enough that digitized materials answer the magic “Pareto principle” of 80% of all requests. I think we can all agree that, no matter whether we love the idea of digitization or hate it, it will happen sooner or later. It is amazing how quickly so much has been made available digitally already, and if (when) just a few publishers change their minds, others will have to follow suit or perish, and it could change almost overnight. The publishers can’t keep denying the public forever. We should be prepared.

It is very rare that someone needs access to the physical item itself. For instance, very few people (except those working with the paper, the vellum or binding) would really need access to a physical copy of the Gutenberg Bible now that this is available. What is the advantage to buying a facsimile (very expensive) when something like this is available for free, and there are other free versions online as well (Library of Congress, British Library and so on). Very few advantages that I can see. What has happened with many journals is that when they are in JSTOR (or another place), the physical copies are taken out of circulation or just eliminated, such as when subscriptions to the physical copy is cancelled. Very few scholars need access to the physical journals. The logical question is: why wouldn’t it be the same with other physical objects, like books?

The other major question is what Alex Kyrios asked a few days ago on RDA-L: “Is it wrong to hope that a catalog can do more than help someone locate an item on a shelf?” In other words, so long as libraries have physical items, a catalog will be mandatory for inventory purposes (when somebody says: I want this item, do you have a copy? You had better be able to say yes or no and where it is). I think there is little question of a need for an inventory tool that allows us to keep materials in order on the shelves for retrieval and monitors where it is at any specific moment.

But will the library catalog be important for information discovery? Apparently, the public considers it do be a marginal tool now. We are seeing more and more often that people find a book etc. using other tools, and then use only the inventory function of the catalog to find if they can get it for free. The information discovery features in the library catalog go unused and therefore go entirely unappreciated. Will the library catalog be useful for information discovery in the future when the information scientists are flying ahead, wearing the equivalent of seven-league boots? So, it seems as if we are fated to fall further and further behind.

Why is this happening? To repeat, the main reason is that the catalog does not work as it was designed to do and hasn’t for a long, long time. Computerization pulled out all of the structure of the catalog along with all of the tools that had been added originally to make it useful, and nothing ever replaced them except various types of relevance ranking, or sorts by date, author, title, and so on, which simply are not adequate.

I think if we managed to make the structures work again in today’s environment it would be a good first step. So, if someone is looking at a record such as (I found this at random):
Main title: Theatre in the Third Reich, the prewar years : essays on
theatre in Nazi Germany / edited by Glen W. Gadberry.
Published/Created: Westport, Conn. : Greenwood Press, 1995.
Description: viii, 187 p. ; 24 cm.
ISBN: 0313295166 (alk. paper)
Related names Gadberry, Glen W.
Subjects: Theater –Germany –History –20th century.
German drama –20th century –History and criticism.
National socialism and theater.

that “Theater” has lots of see also terms; that National socialism has see alsos as well; that in addition to German drama there is German drama (Comedy) and so on. The card catalogs were structured so that people would have seen many of those related terms, but everything was lost with computers. I am not glamorizing the card catalogs. There were zillions of problems with them and computers helped a lot. But they also made some things worse. That’s why I have said our catalogs are broken. The first step is to fix the catalogs for people who use them today.

Of course, easier said than done.