From the catalogs of babes











{March 2, 2010}   more about red tape, and more about starting from scratch

As some of you know, I’ve been lobbying for quite a while for new ILS/catalog software for our  library. Lobbying hard, considering our current state. I feel like we’ve made some successful progress: we had a great library staff committee to evaluate potential commercial software packages, and once we decided on our top choice and presented it to the director and the administration, the response was positive. However, at approximately the same time, the world decided to have some sort of Giant Economic Crisis, and despite the fact that it may truly be an unnecessary precaution for our institution, all software budgets were frozen until the beginning of FY2010. Not to worry though—I’ve been assured it’s our #1 top priority the minute the 2010 budget opens up. But I’m not exactly holding my breath here. What can I say? I’m frustrated that this project—in the works for several years now, since shortly after I first began working here—might be put off yet again, not just because I’m annoyed by delays or buget frustrations, but because I can’t understand why something so intrinsic to improving patron experience and access success seems to be so inconsequential to the powers that be. So it goes.

While I’m perfectly satisfied with the out-of-the-box product we’ve chosen and I have no doubts it will more than fulfill our current needs, some part of my mind can’t help wonder what a catalog for our patrons might be like if we could design it ourselves, from scratch, to specifically meet our patrons’ unique needs, rather than settling for the best pre-made system that addresses most of them in a traditional library way. Because I’ve never quite been sold on the idea that a traditional “library catalog” interface would be the best discovery tool for our students.

I’ve thought about this on and off ever since the RFP was but a twinkle in my eye, but Karen Schneider’s post about the shift from the “librarian-centric” to “developer-centric” model brought it back to mind:

Librarians do bring terrific skills to the table. We have a strong service orientation. We are practical. We understand what these products must do, and we have a firm grasp on timelines and calendars. We also have an appreciation for order, governance, and transparency. But we simply don’t (yet) have the core competencies to do what we did one hundred years ago — design, build, and manage our own tools.  We lost our way several decades ago, and we need to acknowledge that we can’t get out of this forest on our own.

If I could sit down today and start from scratch, and not base the design on previous library catalogs, I have an idea for how I’d like our catalog to function. Instead of title/author/subject based searches and entries, I imagine a browseable subject hierarchy. The opening screen displays visual representations (i.e. images instead of and/or in addition to text) of maybe the top ten or so popular research subjects that hour, day, etc. There might be a Google-esque search box, not the focus of the screen but certainly available for those with more specific needs or interest in topics not readily apparent. But overall, a simple, clean, un-cluttered, uncomplicated design.

pencil sketch of an idea of a new catalog interface

Please excuse the poor quality of my sketches—just because I work at an arts-related library doesn’t make me an artist. :) My original plan was to jerryrig some screenshots and do some fancy Photoshop work, but I kept running out of time and putting if off, and finally decided that my crappy sketches got the idea across and were better than nothing. Sorry about the bleed-through, but I'm a proponent of recycled paper.

Clicking on a subject (either from the home screen or after a search) does not take the user directly to a list of materials, but rather an authority page for the subject. Not a library-jargoned authority file like an LC authority record, but more like a Wikipedia-esque page with some basic info about the subject. A basic biography, birth/death dates, what they are famous or known for if a personal subject (like, say, Christian Dior);  a brief definition or explanatory information for a topical subject, such as Art Deco. Beneath this brief info, the screen would offer materials results: books, articles, DVDs, images, and other references (links to designers’ websites, contact information for design companies, etc.).

sketch of new catalog interface--second level screen

I think the subject focus would appeal to our students, and a page design reminiscent of a familiar site like Wikipedia would ease use. I think it would be more in touch with our patron demographic, both in their information-seeking behavior and their technology literacy.

Apparently other people agree with me, too, because while I was spending time writing this entry and putting off sketching, I happened across this fantastic blog post about concept-oriented catalogs which shares some of the same ideas (right down to the Wikipedia analogy) as this post I’m writing now.

So why isn’t our library’s catalog like this?

Because I can’t build it. I’m a librarian, not a computer programmer. As many of us are, and, as Karen Schneider notes, to our own disadvantage. I can understand my patrons’ information needs and behavior, and I can figure out how to organize and present that information to them in a findable way. I know what to do, I just don’t know how to manifest it. How, then, can we take the next step, from concept to creation?

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abigail says:

I love your posts because they are so creative and thoughtful and make me think. I really like your catalog from scratch idea. Often times I feel like “traditional” OPACs cover up all the good stuff (e.g. subject headings) and the users miss so much of what it has to offer.



Booker says:

How large do you think your topic tree would be? How many top-level topics, how many second level, and so on? How many levels do you think you’d need to fully characterize your collection? I’m thinking at least four levels, but you’d know better obviously.

And how many resources would you want to link per each subject page? Attention span gets stretched in a hurry as you add links.

I don’t think it’s an either-or choice between search and an interface built on a category hierarchy like this. For one example, the search results page could be structured to surface the subject headings for the top results, linking users into your topic tree. Some would welcome that browsing help, while some might want to stick with search. I see no reason not to provide both.



gina says:

Have you seen Open Library’s subject pages? I couldn’t figure out how to see them on the main Open Library site (maybe they’re just playing around with this), but it looks cool. I wish our catalogs would do this now by default.

Example: http://upstream.openlibrary.org/subjects/space_flight



Ivy says:

@gina:

I was thinking a little bit of my past knowledge of Open Library when I was brainstorming this idea. When I last looked at it (over a year ago, at least), it wasn’t yet to the point of the page example you linked. It’s looking pretty wonky to me right now(in IE), but the concept is certainly similar to what I’m aiming for.



kgschneider says:

I agree on the “from scratch” model, though I wouldn’t start at the local level. I would start by thinking much bigger, and also by thinking about the data architecture that we need going forward.



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