From the catalogs of babes











{April 28, 2010}   all catalog queries are reference questions, but not all reference questions are catalog queries

So what if libraries did take a page post from the Illinois Poison Control Center and chronicle every single reference query in a day, or a week?

Now, I’m not a reference librarian (although 20-25% of my job is, in fact, reference). But  I do feel like from my personal experience, discussions with other reference and non-reference librarians and staff, and reading articles and blogs, I can make some general assumptions about what types of inquiries might be included in such a list.

You’d get some “where are the bathrooms?” questions and requests for tech support. You’d get questions like “do you have this book…?” and “Where are your books about…?” You’d get some weird questions you’d never thought people would ask. You’d also get more informational-needs questions: the Internet Public Library has compiled a list of some examples here. There are lots of different types of reference questions.

It then occurred to me that every catalog query is a reference question. Asking for books by title or subject is certainly a reference inquiry. Catalogs are designed for holdings inquiries. The purpose of the catalog is to enable a user to find what materials a library holds by  title, author, and/or subject :

Charles Ammi Cutter, Rules for a Dictionary Catalog, 1904

But aren’t holdings questions reference questions? And–more importantly– does a patron know the difference? Do they know that a catalog only retrieves holdings, and not the answers to all of their different types of reference questions? And can they be expected to, in this day and age of Google, which does not return holdings, but rather information and data, the kind that reference questions are built on?

All of a sudden it hit me. I’d thought about it for a long time, but hadn’t yet be able to articulate the idea in words: the catalog has always been a holdings interface.Yet, many people expect it to be a reference interface. Patrons sit down at (or log in to) the catalog expecting it to be like a reference librarian or like Google and provide information to help answer all their questions. But it’s not. It returns bibliographic records, which are barebones representations of resources that may or may not contain the information that will help answer their question.

Should the catalog become more of a reference interface? Is that even possible? Evolving the catalog into a such a design would certain help move the catalog beyond the “find” and into the  “identify,” “select”  and “obtain” aspects called for by IFLA. As evolution of the catalog progressed, it might even lead into AI interfaces (anyone remember Ms. Dewey?) that could react and respond to each patron’s personal search queries and information needs. I can see a more interactive interface like this especially important/applicable to arts users, who generally tend to prefer human interaction over self-guided traditional catalog navigation.

If these lofty ideas are not possible (or should I say “feasible”, because I have no doubts that such things are possible, but perhaps not for libraries) then how can we bridge that gap? If catalogs truly aren’t designed to work like reference librarians or Google information searches, then it’s not fair to patrons who have that impression and expectation. It should be on us to make it clear that the catalog is a list of what the library holds and nothing more. Maybe we need to start referring to it as an “inventory” rather than a catalog? I don’t know. What I do know is that as long as patrons continue to expect reference answers from their catalog queries, they will continue to be disappointed.

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Interesting post. A little quote from my cataloging text that I am still writing but which I think addresses a little about what you are saying “…where once the librarian interpreted search results for the user, or at the very least with the user, this seems to be happening less and less, if at all. Users search alone within the catalog system and the only voice the librarian may have, and thus the only guidance they can give, is the catalog record itself.” The context of this is a short section on value of cataloging practices.



Ivy says:

Shawne, very much so. Have you seen Barbara Prior’s piece from Art Documentation (Fall 2004), “Library Catalog as Reader’s Guide”? She really makes the case for annotating bibliographic records so as to include that sort of “librarian voice” and further guidance. Her article was a big influence on my thinking.



Tom says:

Relevant to this discussion is James Weinheimer’s recent post to NGC4LIB, hosted at his blog “First thus” (http://catalogingmatters.blogspot.com/) – an excerpt:

‘But on a broader level, if we define a catalog as an “aid for finding different resources that exist within a local collection,” I think this needs to change because now with the web, where people can see a lot more than ever before, the “local collection” is necessarily limiting from the very beginning. And our users see it clearly. Much more useful for our patrons would be for everyone who feeds into the catalog (i.e. those who select materials for cataloging, plus those who do the actual cataloging itself) to think in broader terms than a “local catalog,” envisioning something more akin to a “bibliography.”

In this way, selection turns into something other than, “what is being paid for and/or housed in my individual collection and other institutions where I have a special relationship” into “what are the useful materials available to the members of my local community no matter where they happen to be and if they are free or not.”

[…] One major step further in this direction would be to create an “annotated bibliography,” and this could be done easily enough with Web2.0 tools.’



James and I have gone ’round on this issue before on that listserv. This whole issue is misunderstood. To focus on the local collection does not automatically mean the librarian or cataloger or whoever is thinking narrow-mindedly. It’s rather insulting and ignorant, in my opinion, to even suggest it.

Librarians clearly understand the uses’ desire for resources outside the parameters of the library’s own collection, but they also recognize the need to maintain the accurate record of their own collection. It is quite possible to provide multiple levels of access to resources that are local and non-local.

Tell me the logic in declaring a librarian isn’t thinking broadly just because they may still maintain and enhance a local catalog. I do not accept the argument that a library catalog has to be entirely redefined simply because we have a tool that allows access to resources outside the library. I do not say “re-engineered”, just redefined. It is always good to improve a useful tool to get the most efficient outcomes, but that does not mean we have to throw out the baby with the bathwater.



gina says:

Must be something in the water…Susan Berdinka has a recent related blog post entitled “A Solution to Subject Access of the Library OPAC” wherein she suggests ways to make a catalog search more like a reference interview.

http://susanrb.wordpress.com/2010/04/28/subject-access-the-opac/



Ivy, I enjoyed this post very much.

“…the catalog has always been a holdings interface. Yet, many people expect it to be a reference interface.”

This pretty much sums up why OPACs suck (to quote Karen Schneider at http://www.alatechsource.org/blog/2006/03/how-opacs-suck-part-1-relevance-rank-or-the-lack-of-it.html). The disconnect between patron expectations of the online catalog with the librarian’s is the problem– and as long as the gulf between “public services” vs. “technical services” remains, that problem won’t get resolved. I’ve always wondered why the holdings knowledge at which catalogers excel couldn’t be combined with the outside-of-collections knowledge that reference librarians formidably wield.

Some vendors have already tried to bridge that gap, with products like Summon from Serials Solutions or Encore from Innovative– my alma mater uses Summon (http://mulibraries.missouri.edu/), and while I’ve got problems with it from a technical standpoint, by and large the patron response has been positive.

In the meantime, I’ll just keep dreaming of the day when libraries can turn up search results that are a combined mishmash of a hyped-up discovery platform and Wolfram Alpha. (And even then, it won’t be perfect. Ah, well.)



Ivy says:

Jennifer said:

“…and as long as the gulf between “public services” vs. “technical services” remains, that problem won’t get resolved.”

I couldn’t agree more. This divide is one of my biggest pet peeves. It’s a very outdated and inaccurate model, and that it yet somehow continues so be so pervasive astounds me.

Cataloging *is* a public service.

I thought I’d written some posts about this before, but apparently I never finished/published them. Maybe I’ll do that this week, to keep with the theme. :)



I think Cutter’s MEANS:

1. Author-entry with the necessary references (for A and D).
2. Title-entry or title-reference (for B.)
3. Subject-entry, cross-references, and classed subject-table (for C and E).
4. Form-entry and language entry (for F).
5. Giving edition and imprint, with notes when necessary (for G).
6. Notes (for H).

reinforce the idea that the catalog is a public service as well. The means are a bit spare and can now be, are being, expanded, but they seem fundamentally sound.

Daniel



Ivy says:

Hi Dan,

I’m not clear on your comment. I’m not saying Cutter’s means are unsound. They do exactly what they set out to do, which is to offer what a collection holds by title, author and/or subject. What they can’t do is answer informational questions. I cannot use Cutter’s means to directly answer a question like “what is the fastest swimming fish?”, I can only use them to find books and other resources about fish, from which I they may or may not be able to determine the answer to my question.



The catalog was never meant to answer informational questions for you, nor should it ever. I shudder at the thought of seeing the day when people no longer have the ability to discover knowledge on their own. (I know, I know, very old fashioned, but I see more and more information retrieval laziness every day. Why does everyone want the computer to do the work for them?)

Part of the larger problem is that catalogs have been starved for too long—not enough subject analysis and subject representation being performed in order to give the records some meat. In my opinion, this is what drives user dissatisfaction more than anything. How can they make connections to resources when there isn’t anything to provide the connection in the first place?



Saskia says:

“It returns bibliographic records, which are barebones representations of resources that may or may not contain the information that will help answer their question.” Here we go, the difference between the container (book) and the thing contained (information). Or more broadly, between the book and knowledge. It has to be thought through very clearly what the catalog is supposed to be, an inventory or a more immediate gateway to knowledge?

Traditionally, the library catalog is based on the notion of the shelf (see Clay Shiry, http://www.shirky.com/writings/ontology_overrated.html#of_cards_and_catalogs). But with the web and all the information so dispersed, there is no shelf anymore, and knowledge is not bound to the book anymore either. Certainly I’m aware of the catalog opening up to other resources etc. One possibility of transforming the catalog into a knowledge management system is organizing it around concepts (as you mentioned in one of your previous posts, and which Shirky says is not possible), but I’m skeptical that that will increase the relevance of the library catalog. There are a host of other tools that *right now* are more intelligent and do a much better job as reference sources. I think the catalog is just too far behind already to become an all-encompassing reference tool. So far it has by and large failed to adapt to a knowledge world without shelves.



Saskia says:

Sorry, I should have been clearer about Clay Shirky’s idea concerning concepts in library catalogs – he actually says that “Thinking that library catalogs exist to organize concepts confuses the container for the thing contained”, not that it’s impossible to construct such a catalog.



Tom says:

Ivy/Jennifer – spot on with the technical services/public services issue.

Cataloguers surely know the technical details of the catalogue best and thus how best to search it on behalf of patrons; reference librarians surely know best what information ought to be going into the catalogue to help find material in response to real queries; would it not be a good thing for people doing either to at least have substantial experience of the other, or even simply do both?



Daniel CannCasciato says:

I was agreeing, that the catalog is a public service, etc. I’m not sure it’s meant to be a encyclopedia, though, nor that it should be. I think, though, that by expanding on the means of fulfilling the objectives, by adding TOCs, summaries, links to reviews when appropriate, we better fulfill the objectives.

I think full-text access does take you to the answer – – but a catalog isn’t a collection of facts, it’s a guide to resources which contain many things, some of them facts.



[…] Are catalogues more than an inventory? Or, more than just a place to query library holdings? Jump to Comments Yesterday, Ivy from The Catalogs of Babes, posted a great piece called All catalog queries are reference questions, but not all reference questions are catalog queries. […]



Ivy says:

All: I do agree that more fleshed-out bibliographic records are a *huge* step in the right direction. I hate to sound like I’m pimping myself (but hey, it’s my blog and I can do that!), but it’s a big part of what I talk about in my forthcoming chapter on cataloging for arts and design libraries. (Also part of what I gleaned from Prior’s writing, cited earlier in the comments.) I always thought of it in terms of helping more specialized users/collections like arts, but it seems like it would be beneficial to be applied broadly as well.

As far as the question of whether the catalog should or should not be more of an ‘information-answer’ service or more of an ‘inventory’ service, I can certainly see both sides of the issue. I’m not entirely sold on the idea that the catalog should be the end-all, be-all replacement for reference interactions, but I also don’t think trying to make it more along those lines is due to laziness or making the computer do the work. Finding good results on Google can still be difficult, but the data is more accessible since there’s not a level of surrogacy inserted between the query and the data. I don’t think that’s an issue of laziness but rather effiency.
Regardless of which way libraries choose to go (catalog as inventory or catalog as reference inquiry) I think the most important thing, and the point I was exploring here, was that we need to clarify patron expecations regarding which of these they expect the catalog to be.



Booker says:

I see no reason to give a user access to resources beyond the specific catalog currently in use. If that catalog does not exist specifically to help a user answer questions, then what is its purpose? Users can’t be expected to limit their questions to works with a specific title or author, they will always need topical resources, so the catalog is letting them down if it doesn’t try to help. Nor can it suddenly ignore them the instant their query reaches beyond the one particular collection. The analogy to a reference librarian doing the same is apt, and the mental picture of that interview illustrates vividly the deficiency of an implementation that tries only that hard.

But one catalog need not extend itself to the far reaches of people’s curiosity. For example, the University of Washington catalog provides access to a number of tools for extending a query to a range of other catalogs and inquiry tools. It leaves the choice to push beyond the local boundaries to the user, who is the only person to determine whether the initial questions are answered or it’s worth the time and effort to follow the trail outward. That can require a significant investment, so it doesn’t make sense to force all users to wait for a huge range of queries to complete. Bonus points for interoperability to make that as easy for the user as possible, but a practical reference-driven concept could be to help the user to find what’s local with options to pursue further.



Booker says:

Um. That is: I see no reason NOT to give a user access . . .



Ivy says:

@Booker:

Heh. I was wondering about that…

>Users can’t be expected to limit their questions to works with a specific title or author,

This resonates strongly with me, as I’m you’re personally aware. In fact, I was just reading something last night that you might be interested in that emphasized this exact point and how prolific it is.

I agree that the catalog need not contain all the information a user might ever need (we’ll never be able to get a physical, 3D, hold-in-your-hands book out of an online catalog interface)–but we should always offer the access points to get them there. I do think the UW example you mention fulfills this by offering links to other catalogs and resources. Bonus points if there’s some sort of federated searching possible across some or all of them, imo.



Jim says:

I just saw this comment here from Shawne Miksa (https://catalogsofbabes.wordpress.com/2010/04/28/all-catalog-queries-are-reference-questions-but-not-all-reference-questions-are-catalog-queries/#comment-684) about one of my postings, where I stated that the “local collection” must be redefined:

“James and I have gone ’round on this issue before on that listserv. This whole issue is misunderstood. To focus on the local collection does not automatically mean the librarian or cataloger or whoever is thinking narrow-mindedly. It’s rather insulting and ignorant, in my opinion, to even suggest it.”

and later,
“Tell me the logic in declaring a librarian isn’t thinking broadly just because they may still maintain and enhance a local catalog. I do not accept the argument that a library catalog has to be entirely redefined simply because we have a tool that allows access to resources outside the library. I do not say “re-engineered”, just redefined. It is always good to improve a useful tool to get the most efficient outcomes, but that does not mean we have to throw out the baby with the bathwater.”

While I don’t want to be insulting, although I will be the first one to confess that I may be ignorant, to me, the “catalog” must give access into something, and that “something” has always been the local collection. When that collection has changed in fundamental ways, or technical improvements arose, the libraries and their catalogs have changed in reply. So, when photographs began, or later when computer files began to be created, the catalog changed. When a collection takes on a huge, other collection, the catalog changes as well to contain the contents of that other collection. For example, if a library takes on an entirely new collection, such as a children’s collection of 100,000 items, or if the manuscripts division takes on the entire archives of some defunct organization, creating the catalog, or working it into the collection somehow, can take a long, long time. Naturally, OPACs have had their impact as well.

With the world wide web materials, the very nature of a local collection has changed fundamentally, and it is out of our control in many ways. For example, if I am interested in Panizzi and his catalog at the British Museum, I probably want to see a copy of his catalog. Perhaps I can find it through my local catalog, but probably *only* if I am at one of the great research libraries (which most people are not). Several of these items probably would not be available through ILL because they are fragile, so I may have to pay for microfilming and/or scanning, plus pay for the shipping. My library would probably not pay for all the costs.

I would have to want this information very badly indeed, and would probably forget it because of the price. But today if we look beyond the local catalogs and Worldcat, I know that I can even download my own copy at http://books.google.it/books?id=cE0MAQAAMAAJ, and not only that, there is this book that is critical: http://books.google.it/books?id=hS_RgCVnUwQC plus lots more out there. And it costs me, and the library, nothing. This demonstrates that the “collection of information” available “locally” to my users has changed, and changed irrevocably. And thus, we have a new type of “local collection”.

No library catalog does this now that I know of. So far as I am concerned, this is in everyone’s interest: certainly the users’, the reference librarians want this, the CFO would love it especially in this time of tight budgets. But for the cataloger, it would be a nightmare to add all of these resources (and Google books certainly does not represent everything) to each of the local catalogs would be an extraordinary amount of extra work for the catalogers, who would buckle under the strain.

If the only solution is to expect everyone to search multiple times in multiple catalogs, we must admit that this simply will not happen. Of course, these so-called solutions are not solutions but actually backward-thinking, and why? Mainly because we need to think in more global terms, instead of concentrating on the idea of multiple local catalogs with multiple records, there are all kinds of new options.



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