From the catalogs of babes

{May 12, 2009}   blink for just a second…

So last week I moved into a new place. What does this have to do with a blog about cataloging? Nothing. But I did find it interesting that in the few days I was jonesing for my internet crack fix, several very interesting things popped up:

It never fails that all the good, juicy stuff happens while I’m gone. I haven’t had much time yet to investigate details on any of these, but I’m pretty sure I’ll have some strong opinions once I do…

{February 14, 2009}   parable #13

Once upon a time, there was a girl (who you may have already surmised is me) who needed to buy a new cell phone. I was nearing the end of my two-year ball-and-chain contract and my phone had ceased to be useful months earlier.

However, I was on a family share phone plan. This meant that not only would I need a new phone, but my parents, with whom I shared the plan, would need new phones as well.

So the three of us went down to the local phone store, where my mother proceeded to sample every phone in a 5 mile radius and then some. (It’s not polite to tell a lady’s age, but let’s just say that my mom is the sort of person that grew up with technology.) Her main criteria for the new phone included not having any buttons on the sides (so as not to push them by mistake when grabbing it from her purse) as well as large, easy-to-read buttons. So you can imagine how blown away I was when my mother picked up an iPhone on her own and immediately logged in and navigated to Google.

I’ve had my new iPhone for about 24 hours now and I’m still amazed at how easy and intutive it is to use.* It made me wonder: why aren’t library catalogs more like iPhones?

Actually, my first thought was about  the possibility of building iPhone applications for library catalogs. Which was immediately followed by the thought that such a possibility would likely be impossible, at least for our library’s catalog, just due to constraints of the software that we use. Maybe other software systems could support the building of a catalog iPhone app, I don’t know. WorldCat has an iPhone app, but I haven’t tried it yet, and I confess I’m slightly skeptical, since  itself doesn’t seem all that functional and user-friendly to me (and I’m a librarian–I can’t imagine what the everyday patron user thinks of it).

But I can’t help but think: wouldn’t it be cool if I could use my library’s catalog the same way I use my iPhone? Not an application on my phone, but the actual library catalog, designed to function the way the iPhone does. Not just the customization and those bells and whistles, but the sheer, simple, user-friendly, intuitive interface that allows someone like my mom to pick it up and instantly be able to use it, without training or instruction or a thick reference book or user’s manual. Without needing to know any specialized vocabulary–you push “email” to get to your email, and “phone” to use your phone. Without any special search training, bibliographic instruction, Boolean operators, MARC indicators… heaven forbid if that usability extended to the back-end for catalogers!

I did my research and testing and I consider my purchase to not only buy me a new phone, but also voting with my dollar in favor of good, user-friendly design. I would do the same for my library in a heartbeat if I knew of a product out there along these lines worth supporting.

What do you think it would take to convince Apple to start designing library software…?


*author’s note: this post is in no way meant to advertise iPhones or any other products, despite how much the author thoroughly enjoys playing with her new toy.

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