From the catalogs of babes

{December 19, 2008}   The user-centered library and the user-centered catalog

My philosophy on librarianship is user-based. There’s a lot of talk these days about “the user-centered library.” Librarianship, as a service profession, should of course consider the users whom it serves. People are talking and writing about implementing new, user-friendly technologies, formulating instructional services to target user learning strategies, and designing web pages to to better help users navigate. These are all great things, and I support them all.

But if libraries are to truly respond to and serve the needs of their users, they must do so in all library areas and services. This includes cataloging.

In all this hype about user-centered library services, where is the talk about user-centered cataloging? I have yet to see it. I’ve heard dribs and drabs about making the “OPAC” (a user-unfriendly and non-user-centric term) more appealing and more “Web 2.0.” But this is only the facet of design, which, while I agree is important, is only one small part of cataloging and really not where our attention should rest.

I believe that cataloging is by far the least user-centric aspect of librarianship today.  I think we need to go back to the very beginning–what is the purpose of the library catalog, and cataloging? I think we can all pretty much agree that at its most basic an fundamental level, a library catalog provides a list of materials the library has and some way of finding those materials. Cutter, in his 1876 Rules for a Dictionary Catalog, suggested that the library catalog should provide access to materials by title, author and subject, and this tradition has carried through to the modern day. But are the needs of library users of 1876 the same as the needs of library users of 2008? While the need to find materials by title, author or subject may still be applicable, there are many other needs that have arisen in the past 130 years. Reference service strategies have changed. Childrens and young adult librarianship has changed. Library management has changed. Why hasn’t cataloging? Why are we still cataloging according to rules from 130 years ago?

MARC was revolutionary 60 years ago. I have nothing but the utmost respect for MARC and it’s influence not only in libraries but the computer science world at large. but that world has moved on, while libraries stubbornly stick to MARC. LCSH, though continually updated, was first published between 1910 and 1914, and has drawn much criticism for out-of-date, discriminatory and just plain difficult-to-use headings–possibly becuase it was designed for a particular group of users and not originally intended for widespead use by all patron bases. I still agree with the idea of standardization such as AACR provides, but even the attempts to bring it into the future such as RDA are more of a band-aid than a real hard look at the situation and a legitimate address of user needs.

I suggest we start at the very beginning. Where do other library services start their user-centered projects? With a user needs assesment, of course. For far too long we’ve been convinced that our way is the best way, and in the mean time, our world and our users changed around us. We need to look at how our catalogs and cataloging work (or not) for our users. And each library’s users will be different–the one-size-fits-all cataloging model may not serve the needs of the more specialized library user, either in subject focus, community needs, or demographics. We need to sit down and take a good hard look at the information-seeking behavior of our patrons: who are patrons are, what they are looking for, and how they are looking for it.

I wouldn’t drive a car that was 130 years old. I don’t follow societal rules from 130 years ago. My money is worth more than 130 years ago, I can vote now (when I couldn’t 130 years ago), clothes that are 130 years old are fragile and fall apart and cannot be worn. Management strategies from 130 years ago would not work well on the employees of today. Children are rasied diferently than 130 years ago, we eat different foods, we watch televsion and surf the internet. The world is not the same today as it was 130 years ago. It’s about time our library catalogs reflected that. I find it so hard to believe that with all the current focus on the user-centered library that there is so little focus on the “user-centered catalog.”


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