Professional Development

Catalog Debate at ALA

Thursday, July 10, 2008 9:05 am

At ALA, I attended several sessions on cataloging and the future of the catalog. The liveliest session was a debate titled “There’s No Catalog Like No Catalog: The Ultimate Debate on the Future of the Library Catalog.” Below are some of the questions Roy Tennant, Senior Program Officer for OCLC Programs and Research, posed to debaters, Stephen Abram, Karen Coyle, Joseph Janes, and Karen G. Schneider as well as the debaters’ responses. The debate has been made available as a podcast on LITA’s blog.

1. What are library catalogs good for and not good for? As expected, views and responses varied. Negative comments included library catalogs are rotten for patrons, they don’t enhance learning, they don’t create good user experiences, and there is no sense of community. The catalog is a dead end repository; it is the beginning of where data starts, but it shouldn’t be the end. One person used the analogy of the old Raid bug spray commercials that it’s a roach motel, lots of easy ways in, but no way out.
One person posed the question with the catalog as an inventory manager, should it be helpful to users as a tool? It is this for library staff, but maybe something else is needed for our users. We should be trying to figure new ways to get users what they really want, not what we have in our collection that may or may not meet their information needs.
Another comment made was that we were better off with the card catalog. If one failed, one could turn around and get help. If one’s in the middle of nowhere using a digital library, getting help is not necessarily an option; there maybe nowhere obvious to go.
Start with Wikipedia or Google even though libraries have these enshrinements of what they own.
The catalog is an 18th century metaphor. How can it be stretched to fit the 21st century meaning.
2. Could one big catalog do it for everyone (i.e. World Cat)? Some of the comments generated by this question included that’s nonsense to libraries shouldn’t be place oriented, but information oriented. Making a catalog bigger doesn’t necessarily make it more desirable. Libraries have to let people do things with data even though we may not like it. Free the data; stop locking it up in arcane proprietors. There was two opinions about World Cat expressed; one, it is not a catalog, but a registry file for data, and two, it is so a catalog.
Google is taking catalogers and they’re making information usable as opposed to catalogers taking information and making it useful for OPACs. A new set of ideas is needed to connect people in a thoughtful way with the resources they want, and the MARC record may be incapable of doing this. Librarians should ask themselves is what they are doing serve us today? Give up the idea of a system and sameness; look towards experimentation. We need to bust data out of silo and move seamlessly across a data network. The usability and value of local enhancements added to a catalog record, are they worth the time and cost?
Any transition must make sense to librarians and our users. Some of our users are proficient at using our systems. Because we are hemmed in by past traditions, change may annoy some of our users/supporters and thrill others.
Two questions were posed by one debater; how does a book get better every time it’s read and how does a library get better every time it’s used? This somehow should be traceable without compromising users’ privacy concerns. Catalogs should have something like Netflix cues in them; people add value with personal comments and reviews. Libraries need research on where does metadata help users be better discoverers. We are behind in approaches with collecting and using data.
3. Do open source solutions offer a compelling option, either now or in the near-future? Libraries should be helping to design systems they use. Librarians need to look at what open source software does and its quality; it must be good and needs to be auditable.
4. What changes do you see coming in the library software market and how will those changes affect options for libraries? Mergers with ILS vendors was one response.
One person mentioned the economy and budgets. These two factors will affect how people get books in our libraries. With gas at an all time high, purchasing a book on Google for $.99 may become an alternative option for some. With times being tight, this is also when people turn to libraries as an alternative for entertainment; it’s a good opportunity for libraries to shine. Are we going to have a marketing campaign? We should be clear that we’re not the choice for bad times only, but for good times as well.
Print on demand. With the many options of technology, what is the cost in relation to the benefit must be determined. Can libraries quantify the benefit of cataloging? Cost will ultimately show things need to work differently. If ILL costs $30, why not purchase the book on Amazon used books for $5 and ship to the patron?
Libraries need to be statistically literate and evidence-based as opposed to barking dogma said one debater.
5. If you could snap your fingers and do one thing to the current library software market, what would it be? Everything will be open source. Get on cycle of normal technology profession; don’t get behind six generations by not upgrading software.
Separate library management systems without hindering good user services.
Larger library software market; a sense of greater demand may merit major software companies wanting to develop software products for libraries.
Libraries can provide people the intelligence of other users.
Everybody gets their own personal Nancy Pearl.

Some final thoughts expressed included:
1. A tremendous amount of information can be learned by new graduates and the expertise and tradition of those working in trenches.
2. Give up dogma, reanalyze our practices. Some are based on older technologies. If you don’t want to kill dogma at least put it in a kennel long enough to reanalyze practices.
3. Engage with non-librarians who are creating bibliographic records; let them into our environment.
4. Trust our users and make use of them.
5. Marriage of traditional metadata and tagging.
6. Take advantage of leaner times to market what libraries do.

One Response to “Catalog Debate at ALA”

  1. What a great session! I wish I had been there!


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