October 12, 2009
The Problem With Online Catalogs Is....
The academic catalog wars are recently in the news. The Chronicle of Higher Education has two separate articles on the issue. One is the story, with comments, and the second is a follow-up that highlights the best of the comments. The problem, apparently, is how to find stuff in the library collection, whether in print or electronic. Depending on your point of view, the problems lie with a) catalogs, b) students, or c) librarians. Google lurks in the background as the level of practice and expectation for the average catalog searcher, so let's add them in as a potential d).
Let's start with Google. Google and other search engines are nothing but keyword searches. The closest thing to searching fields is Advanced Search that allows for searching within specific domains. The rest is a broad variation of searching with slight Boolean tendencies, if Boolean consisted of "and," "and not," and phrase search. Students all over the world live with Google searches because they are good enough. Librarians live with them as well because they offer useful results for finding very specific things.
Take, however, someone looking for a form settlement agreement in an employment discrimination case. A catalog search will likely yield few direct results, though such forms are likely in Title VII litigation practice guides. Even keyword searches in a catalog wouldn't clarify a likely source in that context unless terms appeared in a Table of Contents. One would have to know this, and that is where the librarian expertise comes in. However, search "title VII settlement form release" in Google and dozens of examples of actual settlement agreements come up. The problem with these results is that they are specific to the facts of their litigation and may not be appropriate to copy in for use in real life (though maybe in a trial advocacy class). Yet, these Google results may be exactly what the searcher wants. A catalog search may provide a context and no immediate results, and Google may provide results without a context.
From one perspective (the librarians?) it's the student's fault for not understanding how a catalog is organized and what are the best techniques for searching it. From the student's perspective it's the librarian's fault for creating a system that tracks library materials in a form that is more complicated than necessary (to them). There is practicality in MARC records. There is no doubt of that. However, most searchers who need help with using the catalog tend to use keyword searches rather than field searches. Is it a matter of educating people on the finer points of a catalog search even when they may not have much interest past finding their book? It seems often that someone simply wants to find an item in the collection and aren't interested in the rest of the details. Search "tax notes" as a title search and depending on the number of titles that pops up the record may show up on the second page of results. Why? Because the options in online catalogs tend to display results by oldest, newest, author, or title. Alphabetically, Tax Notes comes in at the 20th letter of the alphabet. There is never an option for display by relevance, something upon which Google and their algorithms base their success.
Maybe the answer is for Google to provide the front end for catalogs, combining their search expertise with catalog field searching. Conducting a search may not be too hard or too simple, but may be just right. [MG]
Posted by: Nolan Wright | Oct 13, 2009 9:40:43 AM
To address the last part of the article, not all integrated library systems are made the same. In our library OPAC you do have the option of a sort that includes "Rank," I just tested it using your Tax Notes example. The search returned nine titles in the results (as a private law firm we have a smaller catalog). In the first search the results were listed alphabetically by title. I then used the option to change the sort by Rank, which brought Tax notes to the top.
Our ILS is EOS.Web Enterprise.
Posted by: Bess Reynolds | Oct 13, 2009 7:18:01 AM