From the catalogs of babes











{July 14, 2010}   post-ALA travel

After ALA was over, my sweetie and I decided to visit New York for a few days, since we were over on the east coast and all, and since I had never been. Of course we made the obligatory stop at the New York Public Library.

me making a thumbs-up in front of the NYPL lions

Here I am, showing what I think about libraries.

Of course the library is overwhelmingly beautiful, with all that old-fashioned library reverence and ambiance of Serious Library Building. But when I found this room (after getting lost several times looking for the bathroom), I was blown away:

Catalog Room

from askpang, on Flickr

It’s the Bill Blass Public Catalog Room at NYPL. Imagine: a whole room, devoted to the catalog! There are so many things about this that just make my heart sing:

1. A whole room dedicated to the library catalog(s). Not just OPACs, but all the general and specialty print catalogs constructed over the years. All in one place. The fact that the catalog(s) are given their own room accords them importance in my eyes, and makes me think that the library sees them similarly.

2. This is where you start your search. This is where the reference desk is. It’s obvious that if you’re looking for something, this is the place to go, the place to be. I like the fact that reference service is but one of the many tools offered in the catalog room; that the room offers many different ways to help people with their quest.

3. The fact that it’s not just called the “catalog room,” but the “public catalog room.” I love that such a title expresses and encourages availability and access to all.

I know most libraries don’t have the dedicated space it would take for a catalog room; such a cordoning off at most places might likely actually have the opposite effect and deter public use, especially if the size were very small, or if it were off in some obscure location. And I still advocate for catalog access everywhere–in the stacks, at desks, on mobile phones and other interfaces–rather than containing and limiting it to one central space. But I still can’t help but appreciate the value accorded to the catalog through NYPL’s strategy. Thumbs up to that.

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{May 20, 2010}   SOS: save our stacks

Man, I had a great segue of posts lined up for this week, with ideas that flowed into and built on one another, and then Donald A. Barclay had to go and write this.

It’s an article from American Libraries magazine (the online edition–I didn’t see it in the print issue) called “The Myth of Browsing,” and it purports that browsing the physical stacks  should not be a priority in the contemporary academic library. And with all due respect, I say “bull sh*t.”

Barclay offers a number of reasons why browsing need not be supported. First off, he claims that the physical stack browsing that current scholars feel is a historical precedent is actually false–public access to physically browse stacks is a relatively recent (20th century) concept. To this I say: so what? So what if it’s a new idea? Should we always do things the way they were done in the past? Should we take away OPACs and return to card catalogs–OPACs have even less historical precedence than shelf browsing. Oh, and let’s do away with full-text access in scholarly databases, too–that’s only been around, what, maybe 20 years? Just because something wasn’t done throughout the entirely of library history does not mean it’s incorrect or wrong–in fact, it’s quite possibly a positive innovation, and, in the case of public browsing, I think it’s been wildly successful.

Barclay also tries to shoot holes in the ‘serendipitous discovery’ valued by some researchers (especially in the humanities, and, near and dear to my heart, the arts). He tries to claim that because every resource in existence in the entire world cannot physically be on a shelf in a library to browse, that patrons are missing out, like “hitting the sale tables on day three of a three day sale.” Again, I must disagree. Of course we cannot offer every existing resource on a shelf at any given time, and yes, this will reduce some discovery possibilities. But aren’t our collections tailored to best serve our patron groups? Do not arts libraries acquire what they feel to be the best selection of books and resources for their clientele, while law libraries choose the best resources for their patrons, and so on? Yes, we must make choices, and yes, that mean perhaps choosing one resource over another and only offering selected books on the shelf. But isn’t that our job as librarians? Isn’t that what we are supposed to do, and what people rely on us for? Collection development and management are key components of professional librarianship, and to offer a collection of every resource in the known universe rather than a carefully tailored collection targeting user group needs, would be unsuccessful, and in my opinion, unprofessional. And at least with some resources on the shelves, something can be found, even if it’s only selected from a few dozen titles rather than every book in the world.  If resources are removed completely (say, to off-site storage as mentioned in the article) then nothing can be selected by browsing, and I personally think something is better than nothing at all. He also tries to claim that browsing is counterproductive due to issues with classification schema, but to me that reflects more on the appropriateness of the schema to the particular library. Regular readers of my blog know that I may be biased in this area, but I think such issues should motivate research into the library’s classification success (or lack thereof), even the success of the furniture design (as Barclay notes, books are more likely to be browsed at eye-level than on the top or bottom shelves out of view).

But what about digital access and browsing? Surely if we remove all those books off-site, people will be able to search and browse the library catalog digitally and find materials that way, right? This is Barclay’s claim–except he doesn’t mention libraries. He’s certainly keen to cite Amazon.com‘s “rich browsing experience” and how “so many of today’s academic library users routinely start by looking up books via bookstore websites.” He himself is saying it right here–library catalogs currently cannot and do not support the browsing needs of library users. Until we can offer the same sort of browsing and findability experiences digitally that library users can get from browsing the stacks, we are in no position to be removing stacks browsing access from our libraries. Now, I may be delusional, but I have optimistic hopes that the day will come when library catalogs are more robust and user-friendly than commercial book websites. But until that happens, we should not be putting our eggs in the basket of Amazon and other external sites and vendors over whose fate we have no control.

Finally, Barclay claims that large physical book collections have become an “unsustainable luxury.” I don’t inherently disagree with this. But why are the unsustainable? Because we’ve made them so. Perhaps better management and strategic planning, with a focus on sustaining physical collections, would alleviate this issue. As for luxuries–indeed, large book collections are luxuries. That’s what attracts people to them–it’s a luxury that most people cannot afford on their own. Libraries are luxury, that’s part of what they’re designed for. They are a luxury of civilized, educated societies, which we need to offer if that’s what we purport to be. And again, from the way I see it from behind my rose-colored glasses, if it’s a luxury people want, they will say so. Which is exactly what they did at Syracuse, and what prompted Barclay’s article. Which brings me to my final (and biggest) beef with Barclay’s piece: here are library users stepping up and saying what they want and value about the library–in this case, physical stacks to browse and a hallowed environment in which to study–and yet Barclay throws everything in his arsenal against it. He sees library users saying in no uncertain terms what they want, and yet he argues against it. No wonder librarians get a bad rap; no wonder people sometimes see us as snooty, uptight traditionalists who push our ways on people because we assume that we know better. Now, I understand that users may not always know what they want, or even what might work best for them, but we’re certainly not doing anyone any favors by shoving that down their throats and blatantly arguing against supporting their needs and wants.

I don’t know much, but I do know this: people want physical spaces to browse print materials and immerse themselves in the traditional atmosphere that occurs only when in the presence of a large number of books. I believe they want it so much, that someday, when all these libraries have taken it away from them in favor of digital access and offsite bunker storage, I will open a space for them where they can come and browse and smell and take in the atmosphere. Maybe if I’m nice I won’t even charge them for it. On certain holidays and every fifth Tuesday of the month.

ps> Way to go, American Libraries, for not allowing comments on the article.



{September 24, 2009}   an OPAC by any other name

So it’s quarter break here in our library. We usually have 2-3 weeks between each quarter when the library is closed to patrons, but we still come in to work. We’re actually pretty lucky in this regard, as we get a lot of tasks done that we couldn’t ordinarily accomplish with the library full of students. I’m grateful for this opportunity; I know most other libraries don’t have a time like this.

One of the many things we do over quarter break is to change out all the library displays. I’m not involved much with this process, being on the tech services side of things, but a while back when asked for ideas, I suggested using one of the displays to highlight “how to” aspects of the library: how to find a book, how to search the catalog, etc. I’m pleased to say that the idea was well-recieved and one of our bulletin boards is now dedicated to that topic.

I am, however, slightly less than pleased with the actual manifestation of the concept. I know that I can’t have my finger in everything, and goodness knows I don’t want to be saddled with yat another task each quarter on top of all the work I already do. But it was my idea and I do have graphic design and retail merchandising experience. I confess I’ve been counting the hours waiting for this display to come down:

opacdisplay3

 opacdisplay1

 What’s so bad about it, you ask? Well, I’ll skip the diatribe about the design and get straight to my point. Pretend you’re an 18-yearold design student in your first quarter of college with little-to-no library experience. You see this display entitled “how to find a library book” and step one is some fingers pointing at a computer that says “opac.” What does that mean? What do I do? What the heck is opac? It sounds like some sort of air-conditioning duct system, or a rodent-type animal from Peru.

I hate the term “OPAC.” Hate it hate it hate it. It’s probably one of my biggest pet peeves and it pushes all my buttons. No one but librarians knows what an OPAC is or what it stands for, and at this point an acronym for “Online Public Access Catalog”  is outdated anyway. But most of all, our patrons have no idea what it is, and so the image included in the wall display is prohibitively unhelpful.

I personally make it point to say “OPAC” as rarely as possible, and never around patrons. (It’s even driving me nuts just to keep typing it in this entry.) I know a lot of people equally as appalled as I am about the term “OPAC” who now just say “the catalog.” Which is fine, to a certain extent, and I do it too. But it got me thinking–the word “catalog” (as a noun) implies a list. Traditionally, a library catalog is a list of all the materials a library holds.

But what we have now is not a list. An OPAC is not even a list. We have long surpassed tallying our holdings as simple lists, and believe me, I’m grateful for that. So if we don’t have a list or a catalog, what do we have? We have a database. We have a collection. Those are the words I choose to use during reference interviews and instruction. I’m not sure they’re the ideal choices, but I think they’re miles better than “OPAC.”

We’re a profession not just steeped in terminology, but based in it. Vocabularies are some of the underlying tools of our trade, especially cataloging. We lobby to change and update vocabulary terms to be more current and patron-accessible, why shouldn’t we do the same for our services? Catalogers complain that “no one understands what we do”–maybe that’s becuase we’re using outdated terms and descriptions that those people don’t understand and can’t relate to. I’m left wondering about the marketability and “rebranding” opportunities that might be possible–might reach more of our patrons–if we stopped using outdated, unfamiliar terminology not only in our job titles and subject headings, but in our services as well.



{August 4, 2009}   I hate our catalog.

It’s pretty rare that I see a student searching for a specific title, but tonight a student came in looking for A Consumer’s Directory of Cosmetic Ingredients. I suggested using the catalog to see if we had the book.  I watched her type “a consumer’s dictionary of cosmetic ingredients” into the title search field, which gave the following results:

A contentious fraternity — The origins of American photography : from daguerreotype to dry-plate, 1839-1885. Davis, Keith F. Hall Family Foundation : In Association with the Nelson-Atkins Muse

A conversation with a designer and a photographer / Ted Muehling : a portrait. Freeman, Don. Rizzoli, 2008.

A crack in time / The downtown book : the New York art scene, 1974-1984. Princeton University Press, c2006.

Etc., etc. Nothing remotely close to the title she was seeking. The title was listed on a handout from her teacher, and the student said the teacher told her the book was in the library. Now I know that our teachers aren’t always the most accurate when transcribing titles or remembering where they found books, but it certainly seemed like a title we should have in our collection, since we buy just about everything in existence about cosmetic ingredients to support our beauty curriculum.

Even if we didn’t have that exact title, I thought another book with cosmetics ingredients might help the student. So I entered “cosmetics” and “ingredients” into the keyword search boxes (don’t even get me started on the rant about how it only works if each keyword is entered into a disparate box) and lo and behold, the second result in the list is

A consumer’s dictionary of cosmetic ingredients : complete information about the harmful and desirable ingredients found in cosmetics and cosmeceuticals. Winter, Ruth. Three Rivers Press, c2005.

I think maybe my eyes are crossing because it’s late so I check the title search again: entering “a consumer’s dictionary of cosmetic ingredients” gets me nothing. Entering “consumer’s dictionary of cosmetic ingredients” turns up the title. I figure maybe it’s a problem with the 245 second indicator, but I check it and it’s 2 just like it should be. So it’s not an indicator problem, but a stopword problem. A problem that’s been going on for who knows how long–probably the entire time this catalog has been in use. Which means that anyone who has ever searched for “The Fairchild Dictionary of Fashion” or “A History of Interior Design” must think we are one sad & pathetic library that we don’t have two of the most popular, highly used resources in the school. And I’ll check tomorrow, but I’m not even sure anything can be done to change it.

Maybe you’re saying, why not just teach the student to drop the initial article when searching, like you and I were probably taught in school? Maybe I should have. But to be honest, I can’t see the point. A person should be able to enter the name of the book–as it appears on the resource–and return the correct result.

I know at this point, most catalogs can accommodate this, unlike our outdated software. We’re working on upgrading, but unfortunately those decisions aren’t entirely up to us. Maybe if the powers that be read this blog entry or saw this student–who did everything right and yet the library failed her–maybe they might be more inclined to help us move forward, instead of hobbling us with IT and budget issues like they have been for the past few years.

In the meantime, I find it incredibly hard to see the point in promoting the use of such a non-functional catalog at all. It makes me feel worthless, to waste my time inputting data into a tool that doesn’t even work. No wonder people don’t understand the point of my job–they can’t see the benefits of what I do if there are no benefits.



Today a student responded to a suggestion to search the library’s catalog with: “I know how to use the catalog. I’m just lazy.”

Welcome to our patron demographic. This is not the first time we’ve heard this sentiment (although not in such blatant terminology), and I doubt it will be the last. I once was reprimanded for referring to our patrons as “ignorant” (and not in a pejorative way), so I would never dare refer to them as lazy (at least not outright). But this came straight from the horse’s mouth!

I’ve mentioned it before, but patrons of art and design school libraries are known to prefer real, human reference interaction over searching via computer interface. But it makes me wonder: why do they prefer that? Are they really all just lazy, like that self-admitted student? Is it that the interface of the catalog is so unfriendly to artists and other visual types that it’s difficult for them to use? Are they in such a hurry and have such a short amount of time at their disposal between studio classes, jobs, homework, and other projects? Is it that a real, in-the-flesh person offers more authority and credibility in this age of Wikipedia and Google? Or maybe a human being is more sympathetic than an unfeeling computer screen, or better able to distill down to their actual information needs in a way the computer can’t? I’d guess that all of these things apply in one way or another, in some combination. And I confess, it baffles me personally, a girl who prefers to attempt to find things first on my own, only turning to actual people when other self-reliant methods are exhausted.

So what does it mean for cataloging, if patrons are “lazy”? Are we obligated to combat their laziness by directing them to use the catalog themselves? Or should we approach it from the customer service standpoint of fulfilling their information needs in the way that works best for them?



Once upon a time, late one night in the library, an instructor came in asking for “that book by Tony Duquette.”

Being the diligent reference desk staffer that I am, I dutifully type “Duquette, Tony,” into the author search field of our online catalog. The search returns one result, and so I answer affrimatively that indeed we do have a book by Tony Duquette, and write down the call number.

We walk to the section together and I pull the book for her. “No,” she says, “that’s not it. It’s a bigger book, and it’s sort of reddish, and it’s all about his life and work. It’s new. He just died, you know.”

Well, no, I didn’t know. Nor did I have any idea who Tony Duquette was, only that she asked me for a book by Tony Duquette. Since she had said it was a new book, I told her that we would of course look into ordering it and aquiring it as soon as possible.

Back at the desk, I look up Tony Duquette on Amazon. After reading the description of the first result, I learn that a) Tony Duquette died in 1999; and b) this retrospective was published in 2007; and c) despite those facts, it looks and sounds like the book the instructor was after.

The other interesting thing I learn is that the book is not in fact by Tony Duquette (not surprising, since he’s been dead for 10 years), but rather by a Wendy Goodman. It suddenly clicks, and I type “Tony Duquette” into the title search field of our OPAC, and lo and behold, there it is, it comes right up. Unfortunately, the instructor had already left the building.

So what’s the moral of this story? If our OPAC search fields were not limited to indexing specific fields like title, author, etc.–if the user didn’t know the difference between a book by Tony Duquette and about Tony Duquette (as was definitely the case here and certainly not limited to this example)–if the user could simply type in “Tony Duquette” and find books both by and about the artist–then maybe this debacle of unfulfillment wouldn’t have happened, and the instructor could have left with the book she wanted, instead of empty-handed.



{January 14, 2009}   it’s a miracle!

Our library catalog is finally publically available online. We have been advocating for this for at least 3 years (since I started working here), and probably before that.

Please don’t laugh at it. Now you understand what I work with everyday. Believe me, I am doing everything in my power to make it better–fixing records, cleaning data, adding subject headings, gerry-rigging a sort-of-pseudo-authority control, advocating for software migration…  People will probably wonder how someone with such a back-ass-wards catalog has any credibility at all to talk about innovation and user-centered cataloging, when it’s clear neither is in practice. But I honestly think it’s my direct experience with a catalog that so clearly doesn’t serve it’s users that motivates me to pursue something better.



et cetera