From the catalogs of babes

{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‘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.

Today I received the following email from the Long Beach Public Library. It’s a “pre-overdue notice,” which is apparently supposed to remind me that my materials are due soon.


For the love of Pete, can anyone tell me when my book is due, or are you really going to make me dig out my library card and log into my online account to look up the due date myself? I can’t even think of a remotely good reason not to include the actual due date in an automated “pre-overdue notice” reminder. I don’t know whether LBPL or Innovative are the ones to blame in this case, but it’s a serious FAIL.

This morning I happened upon a job posting from the Toledo Museum of Art that included the following as one of the “essential dutites and responsibilities” of a catalog librarian position:

• Enhance the usefulness of the library catalog by assisting users in applying cataloging principles to retrieve materials more efficiently.

I have to say, I’m a little disappointed. I can see what they’re getting at–basically, help users use the catalog–but they way they’ve written it sounds like they feel that the catalog librarian should be responsible for teaching patrons the inner detailed workings of AACR2r in order to successfully use the catalog, when I think it should be the other way around–the catalog librarian should be responsible for making it so the users don’t have to know a lick about AACR2r in order to find what they’re looking for.

It’s hard enough to teach librarians and library students the inner working of cataloging rules and standards, and here we’re talking about teaching them to patrons? That’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve read all day. (The fact that it’s from an arts library to boot is even more disappointing. They don’t seem to have done much reaserch about their user base.) Teaching cataloging standards to patrons would not only be an immense challenge, but it emphasizes the idea that patrons need to adapt to the catalog instead of the other way around. The catalog is a tool. The patron is not. If your tool doesn’t work for the purpose you need, you get another one that’s more appropriate to the task at hand. If your saw is dull and doesn’t cut, you replace it with a new, sharp blade. If you have a wall of screws, driving them in with a hammer will not be successful. We need to change the tools we’re using to suit patrons’ needs–not the other way around.

Too bad I wasn’t hired.

Rangeview Library District is “Breaking up with Dewey”

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?

{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…

{March 10, 2009}   your patrons, or yourself?

Last week (or was it the week before? I lose track) I attended an awesome webinar sponsored by Infopeople called “The Deweyless Library: An Innovative Approach.” Now, I’m not normally big on webinars. In my experience, they’re fairly one-sided, and often so dumbed down to a lowest-common-denominator level that I find I don’t get much out of them that I don’t already know. But heck, it was free, and I’ve been dying to hear about any follow up on Maricopa County’s migration to BISAC classification. The presenter, Marshall Shore, talked about the decisions and processes of implementing a non-Dewey classification system at a new public library branch.

Now, I’ve made a few anti-DDC posts in this blog. I won’t deny it. But, as I’ve said before: I like the Dewey Decimal System. I think it’s an example of brilliant design, with its repeating patterns and subdivisions. I admire it very much, despite its known flaws, and I fantasize about someday being smart enough to develop a classification system half as well-designed. However, I’ve been the recipent of a few comments (both on- and off-line) that seem to interpret my stance on this as being some sort of anti-DDC Nazi.

I’m not. What I am obessed about is using the right classification system for the job, whatever the job may be. And what I appreciated the most about Shore’s presentation was that he, too, was focused on finding the right system that would work for his patrons and his libraries. He wasn’t out to get rid of the DDC just to get rid of it–he was out to improve user experience in the library.

He talked a little bit about the library as a “third place,” and using that idea as a motivational factor to improve patron experience. I appreciated that he took a survey of the participants, asking them whether they thought their libraries were or should be considered “third places.” I was pleasantly surprised to see that not everyone thought they should be. The library where I work, for example, is part of a college, and rather than functioning as a community center, is designed to function more as a “second place”–where students come to get work done. Ideally, I’d love it if we could incorporate elements of the “third place,” but our first priority is to support the school’s curriculum and the information literacy of our patrons. (That’s straight out of our mission statement, btw.)

Basically, what I’m trying to say here is that there are all different types of libraries. Some are work centers, some are community centers, many are a mix of both, and more. Libraries have different missions, different needs, and different patrons, and so each library should evaluate its situation and determine how to best serve its users, classification systems included. If the DDC works for your library, great! If LCC works, awesome! If you work with the library collection of some random historical society and find that people respond best to filing the materials chronologically by date, then why not?  But if you’re using a classification system despite your patrons, then who are you really serving? Your patrons, or yourself?

I have to give props to this webinar, especially regarding attendee participation. There were about 75 people logged on to attend, and I was delighted to “see” some familar names, including some blog readers (hi Gina!), as well as co-workers.  Besides overwhelming the presenter with questions, I loved that spontaneous discussion broke out in the chat box among attendees–I’ve never had that happen in a webinar before. Another interactive survey by Shore asked people what they would do to improve patron experience at their libraries. Of course there were the standard copy-cat answers of “we’ll go Dewey-less just like you did!” which bothers me just as much as the resistance to doing away with Dewey. I mean, let’s think about it: if you’re moving away from DDC just because it’s the “hip & cool” new thing to do, it’s equally as problematic, imo. You’re still ignoring the potential needs and wants of your patrons.

One of the survey responses fascinated me so much that I had to inqure among the attendees who posted it. The contributor talked about designing a visual classification system for use in their library. It turns out she was the library manager of the new Home Gardens branch of the Riverside County Library System, and they are in the process of creating a classification system that relies on images rather than words. Of course I was instantly intrigued, as I think the use of a visual classification system in our arts-focused library has a great deal of potential. So I sent her an email and she was kind enough to respond with some more information about the project. I love the fact that she is actively seeking out potential ILS software that will actually display the image as the “call number” rather than substituting a word like [TRAVEL] or [FICTION]. She also pointed out that the visual symbols serve to eliminate language barriers when there is a large multi-lingual patron deomgraphic (which hadn’t even occurred to me but I think is brilliant). But my favoritest part: when they can’t decide what section a book should be classed in, they ask the patrons. That’s right. They take a survey of 3 or 4 average patrons and ask them what section they would look under if they were looking for that title. It doesn’t get much more user-centric than that! The classification system is still in the works, as they build a new branch, but I can’t wait to see it in action. I am totally trying to weasel a tour.

I talk a lot about the DDC because I know a lot about the DDC. I will always, always love it (wouldn’t get it tattooed on me otherwise) and I’d actually be pretty stoked to work on it (if I wouldn’t have to work for OCLC to make that happen…) But in the end, it doesn’t matter if that’s what I love, or what works best for me. It matters what my patrons love, and what works best for them.

I encountered this great post by Cliff Landis through this Wednesday’s workroom read-aloud rendition of American Libraries Direct. I agree with much of what he says about education, and especially about the symbiotic relationship between reference and cataloging. I did think his outright dismissal of folksonomy was a little too black-or-white, especially consider one of the things I found most interesting about the post was that one of the tags at the bottom was “user-centric service,” which is, after all, the whole point.

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