Are catalogues more than an inventory? Or, more than just a place to query library holdings?

Yesterday, Ivy from The Catalogs of Babes, posted a great piece called All catalog queries are reference questions, but not all reference questions are catalog queries.

Ivy’s post goes to the heart of what I’ve been exploring for the past year. In fact, the book I’m currently writing explores the idea that catalogues can be much more than inventories. In fact, if we are willing to redefine and explore the potential of catalogues through the new technologies available to us, they can play a vital role in enhancing not only local “core” library services within the physical branch, but create a remote “all-in-one” branch that includes interaction with reference staff and readers’ advisors.

What struck a chord in this post is Ivy’s exploration of the following:

If catalogs truly aren’t designed to work like reference librarians or Google information searches, then it’s not fair to patrons who have that impression and expectation. It should be on us to make it clear that the catalog is a list of what the library holds and nothing more. Maybe we need to start referring to it as an “inventory” rather than a catalog?

Exploration, acceptance or even the concession that library catalogues can never be more than an inventory should give us all pause; given the technology at our fingertips and the continual growth and maturation of “social” (what I have recently been calling “Collaborative”) catalogues.

The shift has only recently occurred that we no longer compare ourselves to Amazon or Wikipedia, but now to the grander and all-encompassing Google. It is fair to assume that many of our patrons may not understand how the search box in Google differs from our library catalogue and the ranking of results. However, is it safe to assume that users who find themselves on the library website or catalogue believe that the catalogue is another Google? If they do assume we are just another Google search engine on a local scale, why do they believe this and why do they continue to believe this? Does some of the fault lie with us, trying to be all things to all people?

Rather than comparing ourselves to Google, I’d rather look at what the library offers (can offer, doesn’t yet offer, etc.) and the expectations from users as to what they want from us (where does our value lie in community?) and then look at if we are successful at doing this. And, as a result, how to carry out these expectations to meet the mandate and needs set by our users, and our profession.

One of the primary topics I am interested in focuses on the catalogue being MORE than an inventory, rather than just an inventory. If we use the technology at our fingertips, a library catalogue can incorporate reference and readers services into it. There are chat widgets for reference and RA staff that can be placed not only on the catalogue interface, but within the catalogue. There are add-ons to catalogues that includes faceted navigation as well as reading recommendations (NoveList Select).

In that way, catalogues can be more than just an inventory. In fact, catalogues can offer remote patrons access to reference staff, reading recommendations, access to readers’ advisors and access to all of the holdings in the library (including “virtual” holdings like our downloadable collections and subscription databases). In fact, with the genius of Youtube, author readings and other programs that occur at the library (and are recorded) can now be catalogued so that they, too, can be accessed. I’ve even seen libraries work together with local museums, community groups and cultural groups to incorporate museum exhibits, events, courses, organizations and so on in search results within the library catalogue.

As a result, the library catalogue has now become a gateway to numerous core branch services, as well as a wealth of other information not housed within the library.

It is only our own definition of the limitations of what the catalogue can and can not do that hinders the potential of the library catalogue. Will everything work that I suggest? No. Do I want professionals to disagree? Absolutely. It is only through discussion and exploration of these issues that we can truly see the catalogue mature and grow. However, I don’t think that I can accept that the catalogue is only an inventory. Not when I see the wealth of opportunities and creative ways we can use the catalogue now and in the future.

I think Ivy’s post should get us all thinking about the limitations of the catalogue – limitations we place on it, technology and resources place on it and then, we need to explore how many of those limitations we can eliminate.



Filed under Discovery tool platforms, future of cataloguing, Social catalogue, The Library Catalogue

15 responses to “Are catalogues more than an inventory? Or, more than just a place to query library holdings?

  1. Gerald

    For as long as I can remember (and I can remember back at least into the 1960s) and evidence suggests for even much longer, library catalogs have never been “just an inventory” of what the library has. Library catalogs have long been access tools and content summaries (with subject headings and more). is similar except that they charge for access. The only thing you are suggesting that hasn’t already been done is that users of the catalog be allowed to “pencil” in what they know and think about the resource (collaborate). Even in the 1960s, though, some people did this, likely to the annoyance of the library staff. We are attempting to do little than has been done in the past: making an effort to use everything available to us to make the library experience as full and complete as possible. We have never perfectly attained that goal, for various reasons, and it is likely we never will perfectly attain that goal. Of course, we should try. And I laud librarians and others who work selflessly toward that goal.

  2. Laurel Tarulli

    Hi Gerald,
    You confirm what many of us (primarily cataloguers) believe and that is that library catalogues are more than just an inventory. But how much more?…how? why? And, while it’s been written about (primarily in theory) for more than 40, 50, 60+ years…if patrons and frontline staff (or even cataloguers) are still questioning the use of a catalogue beyond a basic inventory, it’s important to continue to discuss it.

    Little of what anyone writes is necessarily “new” but does offer perspectives, ideas, insights and hopefully, thoughtful reflection on issues that need to be explored, examined and revisited.

  3. I support the idea that the catalog should expand its role, that is, making it more attractive their deployments, use the social web alternatives that add value to allow direct communication with users, to incorporate the contribution of of them, this include tags and customer reviews.

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  5. Kathy Peters

    One issue I have is that we continue to use the word ‘catalogue’ for more than the inventory of our holdings. When we talk about all the additional functions we could add to our ‘catalogue’ we are really talking about the functions we could add to the public interface/’gateway’ we offer to patrons looking for information. Sometimes those functions require us to add data to our inventory database in order support the functions (e.g., adding tags, summaries, contents notes, etc.) but many times we should only be adding connections to data found elsewhere and providing the search tools that look at both our inventory and the rest of the data we’ve made connections to because someone (selection librarians, etc.) thought they had value for our patrons.

    For the longest time our tool set was very narrow – we had a catalogue database and an OPAC front end – so we’ve been used to thinking that we have to stuff everything into our ‘catalogue’ but I think we have to stop thinking that way.

    I agree that libraries have to offer more than the ‘catalogue’ but we don’t do it by making our inventory our portal. We do it by combining our inventory with many, many other things at the interface level.

    This means that some/all cataloguers become metadata specialists and start working on ways to describe and search multiple sources of data at the interface level.

  6. Laurel Tarulli

    Very well said. Terminology comes up a lot when discussing the catalogue. Your point that it’s really the interface – whether it’s the catalogue interface, website, a mash-up of the two or some other discover layer is really a major player in all of this – and always has been.

    Recognizing the new role cataloguers (and maybe it’s time for a name change!) are playing with respect to knowledge (both data and tech related) reinforces the changing nature of how we perceive “catalogues”. And, it emphasizes the need to collaborate with frontline staff (bridging that pesky divide!)

    Often reinforced on AUTOCAT, I always remind myself that patrons don’t distinguish between the catalogue and the website. It’s our job to pull it all together, into one seamless integrated interface.

  7. Ivy

    Laurel, thanks for your kind words and I love the depth you’ve added to my original post. You’ve added a lot of points that I felt in my head but couldn’t quite seem to articulate.

    I’d also be very interested to hear more about the book you’re working on, it sounds like something I’d like to read!

  8. Laurel Tarulli

    Ivy – your welcome. I always enjoy reading your blog and find that we have similar interests/ideas about cataloguing! It was a great post and started a very good conversation all around!

  9. Kathleen MacLeod

    Touché Gerald. I appreciate your clever parallel between catalogue users ‘penciling’ in their comments and modern-day tagging. You are right. The library catalogue as always been more than an inventory. Among other things, it is a compilation of thoughtful and creative collaboration. As with most everything else, technology has simply made this process easier and more accessible. Isn’t that what library catalogues should be?

  10. Saskia

    I’m totally with you and I’m all for expanding the catalog and highlighting the strengths of the library approach, but at the same time I think we should look closely at what Google does better and how and take inspiration from that (interface design, algorithms, displaying the results etc.). Because this is where user expectations are made and user experience is shaped, and we know that these tools (Amazon, Wikipedia, Google) are immensely popular. As you say, the technology is already there, we just need to act *now* and put it to use in the library world, not watch others be quicker and more risk-taking.

  11. Anne Christensen

    We have had quite a discussion on Ivy’s post here in Germany as well. I have started my career as a reference librarian and now ended up in the next generation catalog field. The research that accompanied my project showed that the catalog is actually regarded as a list of inventory and scarcely used for subject searching. Thinking about both your post what occured to me was that our catalogs justify the existence of reference librarians in the first place because obviously some sort of translation between the vocabularies used by users and librarians is needed.

    I agree that most librarians feel that the catalog is a discovery tool. It certainly is one if you know about controlled vocabulary, have an idea about core publishers in certain fields and can judge from the number of copies that your library owns of a certain textbook that this is probably a good introductory work. Users lack this experience to make this complex decisions, and I feel that we should share ours by offering lists of selected titles, introducing metadata that gives users an idea of the target audience of a title and using circulation data to give recommendations.

  12. Before library catalogs try to be more than an inventory (which they should!) how about first really being a a digital inventory that you can query? At the moment there is no way to automatically link to a specific record in a catalog and get back how many items are held by the library, whether it is available at the moment or not, what you can do with the book etc. I designed an API and query format called DAIA for this simple purpose – as long as catalogs keep being data silos it is pretty irrelevant what they might, should, or want to be.

  13. Laurel Tarulli

    Saskia and Anne – you both make very good points. There are many considerations, innovations and collaborative opportunities necessary to successfully grow catalogues into their full potential. Anne, your description of the need for reference as being more important is interesting. Many frontline staff question the new role they will take on with these new catalogues – and I’m pleased to see many saying that their role is growing, rather than being replaced.

    Jakob – would you be willing to go into more detail about your project and also catalogues not being able to link to a record and provide information regarding holdings and availability? I’m not quite clear, given that most catalogues do provide this information in their catalogues. Can you give me an example of your ideas or the shortcomings in this area that perhaps I’m missing? Thanks! I think your point of view is welcome and interesting, I’d just like to have more information.

  14. LynneW

    Congratulations Laurel this blog post made it into today’s AL Direct!

    Let’s hope it sparks further discussion.

  15. Laurel Tarulli

    Hi Lynne,
    Thanks for letting me know – I hadn’t had a chance to read AL Direct yet!

    I do hope it gets people talking! It’s an important conversation to have – especially if it sparks action and further ideas.

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