“Electronic catalogs, wherever you go in the academic world, have become a horrible crazy-quilt assemblage of incompatible interfaces and vendor-constrained listings… I’m to the point where I think we’d be better off to just utterly erase our existing academic catalogs and forget about backwards-compatibility, lock all the vendors and librarians and scholars together in a room, and make them hammer out electronic research tools that are Amazon-plus, Amazon without the intent to sell books but with the intent of guiding users of all kinds to the books and articles and materials that they ought to find, a catalog that is a partner rather than an obstacle in the making and tracking of knowledge. – Professor Timothy Burke, Swarthmore College, January 20, 2004
This is the first in a five part series where I examine the state of the modern library catalogue, mainly drawing on examples from public and academic library context as those are publicly accessible. Even though Professor Burke’s compliants may still be true in some institutions, catalogues (and search technology more generally) have come a long way in five years: faceted and visual search offer some pointers on where library searching is going. Despite this progress, librarians face an up hill battle in many cases. To quote Burke once more: “This is not just about availability, but about the near-impossibility of teaching undergraduates the kinds of search heuristics that will reliably produce useful material on most research subjects.” Burke mainly blames this on poorly design tools – technology and cataloguing standards and practice are in his crosshairs – and that’s something to keep in mind constantly. However, I also think that librarians can make the case that doing truly through research calls on complex skills that go beyond throwing a few words into the first search box you see.
In the next four posts of this series, I will investigate innovations in search tools, research on how people approach searching for information (a vast body of literature that I can only begin to assess here) and suggestions on hacking the catalogue. Oh, by hacking, I mean the old original sense of adjusting and modifying something to improve it, not anything disreputable. Stay tuned this week for the rest of the series.
My question for readers today is: Do you remember your first use of a library catalogue (or any other information searching tool like a search engine or card catalog)? What do you remember most about it? Good? Bad? Tell me.