Interesting Conversation: Great Catalogues, Poor Collections

Several weeks ago I had dinner with a lovely couple who have worked in the library profession for many years. While discussing social catalogues and the potential benefits they have for enhancing readers’ advisory services, the wife, a retired reference librarian, made an interesting comment. As an avid user of the library, she asked me how an outstanding catalogue will solve the problem of poor collections. I was stumped.

She explained that the thought of a social catalogue is exciting, with the level of participation and control at the user level. She also liked the idea of reading recommendations to assist while users are waiting in lists of 40 or 100+ for new titles, but she indicated that read-a-likes only assist to a point. In many cases, users wait 6 months to a year for a *new* title. She also indicated that many of the read-a-like titles often provided by librarians aren’t sufficient and don’t fulfull our users’ needs. In fact, many of the read-a-likes don’t even appear to be relevant.

This brings up a good point and supports my position on social catalogues advancing RA work. What do readers’ want and how can we fulfill read-a-like needs and recommendations if we’re basing our lists on what we, as professionals, think the users want, rather than actually looking at what the users want.

Is is true that while we’re creating interactive, dynamic catalogues, these catalogues only lead to poor, outdated collections that don’t fulfill our users’ needs?

My response (because I’m a cataloguing librarian and not an acquisitions librarian): Social catalogues will finally allow those hidden gems in our collection to be discovered so that users can find what is relevant to them. Imbedded read-a-likes based on user borrowing patterns and user-generated reading recommendations may, at least, satisfy users’ needs while they wait 6 months for (for example) that new James Patterson novel. These new catalogues will (or will in the near future) allow social interaction at the community level which will allow readers to recommend books to each other while they wait on the holds list. It will also allow aquisitions to examine where they need to grow the collection and what our readers want.

This is a point that I don’t think many of us have considered while so much attention is being placed on next generation catalogues – will these catalogues that allow for exploration and discovery reveal that our collections are not as good as we think they are? What happens when our catalogues grow in popularity and discoverability only to reveal that our collections can’t fulfill our users’ needs?


Filed under Access Issues, Social catalogue, The Library Catalogue

9 responses to “Interesting Conversation: Great Catalogues, Poor Collections

  1. Pingback: What’s the Point of a Having a Great User Interface If Your Collection Sucks?…08.10.09 « The Proverbial Lone Wolf Librarian’s Weblog

  2. I just saw a similar discussion on another blog. Very timely! This is my beef with getting too far out there with a slick catalog, but then not having the books or resources to back it up.

    I 100% agree about the read-a-likes. I had a favorite book (Shadow of the Wind) and I could not find something that had the same feel to it. I could find books about books, or thrillers, or speculative fiction, but they did not really read-a-like or satisfy me the same way Shadow did.

    Thanks for the post.

  3. Lynn

    It’s a very good point. I’m also not convinced that social catalogues will work at the library level because, frankly, we’re too small.

    User-generated content works for Amazon because Amazon is gigantic and has a large customer base. Even though most of the stuff they sell doesn’t actually have much user-generated content associated with it – enough does to encourage people to contribute. Most libraries just aren’t big enough.

  4. Laurel Tarulli

    Thanks for your comments. I actually think that social catalogues will help our collections, even if they initially expose gaps in it. Right now, a major complaint is that while readers are waiting for popular titles, they can’t find anything to read. With a social catalogue, they can discover books through local readers’ comments, book lists or reading suggestions. I would also like to see something where readers can actually rate the reading lists we’ve created. If what we’re creating isn’t relevant to readers, it would be nice to know it.

    And Lynn, you make a good point regarding your concern about user-generated information. It is a concern among many librarians. While some next generation catalogues (ex. BiblioCommons) rely solely on the local users’ generated information, other catalogues do allow you to use pre-existing content pulled from sources like LibraryThing. This provides a terrific foundation for social catalogues, allowing our local users to build onto it.

  5. Laurel, good and important questions. I agree with Lynn when she says that individual libraries are too small for fancy catalogues. The concept of “collection” is the crucial issue here: we no longer need local physical collections, but global virtual ones, like I argue in my post

  6. Laurel Tarulli

    Thanks for your comments. You’re right, it’s easy to lump all libraries together, indicating that all should have *fancy* catalogues. We need to look at each community’s individual needs and the users they serve. We also need to examine our collections, as you rightly point out. The type of catalogue should be based on a library’s collection and access to those collections.

    On the flipside, at my hometown library in western NY, most users don’t have computers and if they do, it’s with a dial-up connection. As far as I know, there are no virtual collections and they have no use for a next gen catalogue. However, cell phones are very popular and most users have one. Interesting that they would likely benefit from a barebones catalogue with a mobile interface over a catalogue with social or enriched features.

  7. Laurel, of course you have a point. Local communities and local public librairies are very different from large academic libraries, absolutely right.
    Mobile interfaces are indeed an important development in this case. The picture is much more complicated.

  8. Pingback: Bibliotheken en Google in September 2009 « Dee'tjes

  9. Ron M.

    This situation seems to lend itself to a partial solution in the Interlibrary Loan (or a “closest library”) mechanism. Assuming that readers’ interest in similar works can survive either waiting or going elsewhere, why not have the catalogue link a recommended book that way?

    Readers can either request the item Ye Olde ILL way, or if they are reasonably close (i.e., within the same library system), they can just go get the suggested item directly

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