From the catalogs of babes

{May 4, 2010}   these are not new ideas.

You know, these things I talk about in my blog, they’re not new ideas. They’re not even always my ideas. Sometimes I think they’re my ideas, when I’m thinking about them and writing them, but then later I stumble across an old blog post or an article in a back issue of a journal, I realize that, no, I’m not the first person to think of things like online catalogs as reference interfaces or using user-supplied tags as literary warrant for new subject headings. These aren’t revolutionary ideas. These concepts are not new to the library world; in fact, people have been suggesting and talking about them for years.

So what? I’m not bothered that my ideas aren’t new or original. I’m not trying to tout these things as my own. Mostly I’m using this blog as a way of sharing ideas and “thinking aloud.”  Heck, sometimes I’m excited to think that I thought of the same things in the same way as great famous names in the cataloging world.

What does bother me is that we’ve been talking about these things in the library world for years–decades, even–and we’re still talking about the same things. I remember a time in graduate school in 2007 when I thought of an idea where hierarchical record structures might be beneficial in reducing excessive record duplication and also assisting patrons in identifying, selecting, and disambiguating records and resources. Then earlier this week I sat down and read an article by Martha Yee  from almost 15 years ago proposing a near-identical concept. I have to wonder: why haven’t we done it yet? Perhaps the idea was tried and failed, but then wouldn’t we have heard about it? The fact that we’re still coming up with the same ideas over and over again yet never seeming to implement them is, I think, a troubling sign. I know progress doesn’t happen overnight, but it can’t really be this slow, can it? What’s stopping us from trying these ideas? Budget limitations? Lack of administrative support? Complicated processes? Inertia? I’m sure it’s a combination of all of the above, and more. But I’m tired of those reasons, and these excuses. I’m ready to try these new things. Some of them will fail, and that’s okay. Some of them will work, but only locally, and that’s okay, too, so long as they don’t break or otherwise interfere with others’ systems. Some of them will work, and catch on, and other libraries will start to implement them because they’re easier, more efficient, and work better. Maybe we can’t get to the latter without the former, but after all this time suggesting and talking about it, isn’t it time we started to try?

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.”

et cetera