The Impact of the Digital World on Cataloging Systems

Submitted by sbowers on Mon, 08/03/2009 - 11:53

An Essay of the LISNews Summer Series

I was recently asked to speak to a class at the Wayne State University School of Library and Information Science about “The Impact of the Digital World on Cataloging Systems.”  I was excited to talk about a topic that connects all of “my library world” together so I thought I would also blog about what we covered in the class.
I work at the Detroit Area Library Network (DALNET), where our core service is running an integrated library system (ILS) for most of our member institutions.  Naturally I like to keep track of the ILS market and where library catalogs (OPACs in particular) are headed.  As we consider how the digital world has impacted (library) cataloging systems I would like to start with my perceptions of what environment we are currently in.
If you have followed any of the links I have provided above you will see that I have used as my resource.  I have obviously already been impacted by the Internet even though I work for libraries.  A few years ago most libraries and other academic institutions saw as an unsubstantiated information resource.  Many still do, but informally, it is a major source of information for the digital world’s inhabitants.  So, as I look to define the world we are in today, I think it is fitting to cite from
The Information Age (in which our digital world exists) provides “ . . . the ability of individuals to transfer information freely, and to have instant access to knowledge . . . ”
If only it were so easy!  Some of us well know that not all information is transferred freely, or freely accessible.  And contrary to popular belief, not all information can be found in digital form on the Internet (just a lot of it!).  Regardless of what “information professionals” may know, however, we are dealing with the above quoted perception (ideal?) that many library users (and non-users) may have.  This perception of information access is the environment that libraries are now operating in.
For the most part libraries currently do not have the large “Web Scale” presence that Internet search engines do, although is attempting to meet this challenge.  Post Z39.50 single search interfaces are starting to be replaced by catalogs that include indexing for multiple targets, including library catalog information, serial indexing and abstracting, and access to digital collections and content.   Importantly, library systems still provide organized access to information, unlike the often much more limited and/or non-existent taxonomies of Web search mechanism.  But library catalogs are still not as easy to use as they could be.  Do digital users care about taxonomy?  Even if I believe that they should we need to learn to meet the searchers where they are, in the world of “instant access.”
Another notable change we are seeing is the inclusion of social networking (Web 2.0) elements in our online catalogs.  The mobile (smart-phone) revolution is no longer the future (it is already upon us).  Mobility provides individual access to personal devices and applications.  This mobility has only increased the new interactive nature of information access, and has created a new form of information creation.  Library catalogs are transforming (slowly) to become a “place” for social interaction and a means for users to participate in information creation and organization, through reviews, tagging, and social bookmarking.  These tools can then be used for “discovery” of “relevant” information.  These interactive features are now integral part of the Internet and expected by many users as common place.
A couple of years ago open-source library systems were thought to be the future of the ILS.  Some projects have made notable progress, such as (Evergreen), and  Many individuals in the library science profession may still have their hopes set high.  Whether or not open-source systems are the future of library systems, their exploration has perhaps more importantly caused ILS vendors to consider more “open systems,” which may have the biggest impact on cataloging systems.  Open-source software allows anyone to have access to the source code of a software program whereas “open systems” may still have proprietary code but they are designed to be more interoperable with other systems.  The OLE Project recently finished a draft report on open-source and open systems for libraries.  Both open-source and open systems have allowed some cataloging systems to become more customizable.
These are some of the impacts that the digital world is having on library systems.  I am looking forward to the library systems of the future: interactive, mobile, and easy to use.  I am intrigued by the possibility of a new information profession that invites the user to participate in information creation, organization, and discovery.  If this is not where we are headed then we may be left behind.

Some Sites to Check Out

Topic: Developing “Web Scale” discovery tools for a large online presence.  The OPAC (online catalog) is as important as the underlying database.
Check out:,,
Topic: Library Catalogs and Web 2.0
Check out:,,,
Topic: Mobile Devices, Apps (Applications), Mashups (web app hybrids), and APIs (Application Program Interfaces), Widgets (mini apps), Amazon Web Services
Check out:,,,,
Topic: Open Source and Open Systems, OAI (Open Archives Initiative), The OLE Project
Check out:,, (Evergreen), (Equinox),,


Steven K. Bowers received his Master of Library and Information Science from Wayne State University. He presently is Executive Director of the Detroit Area Library Network (DALNET).  He was named a Library Journal Mover & Shaker in 2008.

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