October 10, 2012
What Else Can An Online Catalog Do?
There is an article in Library Journal, Librarians As Booksellers, which promotes the idea of libraries partnering with publishers as a sales point for e-books. One mechanism would have catalogs include “buy” buttons in a bibliographic record. A borrower may be a buyer if the book is unavailable for loan, or alternatively may want to acquire a title after having borrowed it. I like the idea in that, as the article suggests, publishers and libraries could easily be partners rather than antagonists. One of the themes running through the Apple e-book pricing case is preserving the local bookstore as a place of literary discovery. The library could easily fill that role if the local bookseller went out of business. Comparatively, the local library is not likely going away no matter how much market share Amazon amasses.
This got me thinking on how libraries could further adapt their roles in modern times. The term “information center” is another common way libraries define themselves these days. The heart of the information center is, of course, its catalog. The traditional view of the catalog is Charles Cutter’s Objectives as published in his Rules For A Dictionary Catalog (see page 12):
1. To enable a person to fine a book of which either
(A.) the author)
(B.) the title) is known
(C.) the subject)
2. To show what the library has
(D.) by a given author
(E.) on a given subject
(F.) in a given kind of literature
3. To assist in the choice of a book
(G.) as to its edition (bibliographically)
(H.) as to its character (literary or topical)
Modern catalogs changed in the 1980s and later to include features such as linking to external electronic sources. Many of these will be electronic components of a library’s collection such as subscriptions to electronic journals and books, videos, or any legitimate external link with a stable URL. Those of us in academics promote the use of the online catalog typically during orientation. We want students to use it. The current trend is to overlay the catalog with discovery mechanisms such as WorldCat Local as a way of deep mining subscription information beyond bibliographic content.
I realize that a school’s web site typically contains information about the academic program such as class schedule, texts, faculty, and other details. Why not make some of this information available through the online catalog? It would certainly promote it as a source of institutional information. This may not comport with Cutter’s Objects for a catalog, but the Internet did not exist in 1904 and the way we access and consume information has expanded since then.
I’m well aware of past discussions as to whether libraries should catalog the web. I think that is impossible given the number of pages out there. If anything, that is the purpose of Google and other search sites. Nonetheless, there can be room for curated local information that is not bibliographic. We have research guides and other self-generated content that can be discoverable through the catalog.
Traditionalists may disagree and I understand that. Libraries, however, are doing more than collecting books these days. If the Library Journal article floats the idea of libraries taking on the some of the role performed by bookstores, why stop there? The examples I used may or may not be practical. The institution’s web site may be sufficient. But my real point is how else can the catalog be useful? What other information pointers can be included?
I think any adaptation of the online catalog to include other content is less a technological issue than a financial one. It comes down whether the money is there to buy the infrastructure and the people to manage it. Who knows? The future may be a discovery service partnered with a large Internet search company.Look at page 99 of The New Catalogue of Harvard College Library where Cutter describes the mechanisms of the card catalog drawer. He marveled at the utility of the rods that held the cards in place. They prevented accidental spills but allowed orderly rearrangement. I wonder what he would think of today’s catalogs. [MG]