Burn the Catalog!

madcow writes "An academic at Swarthmore gives a pretty succinct critique of the problems of information overload and the library catalog. "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...""


This article is good in that it points out that the ways that academics do research is very different that the way catalogs work: they have a sense of of who is doing what in their field.It may be possible to create an information retrieval system that takes advantage of the intellectual and academic circles that people really use (by indexing acknowledgements, for starters),but this will not much help the undergraduates who are not yet part of those academic circles.One sysetm can't meet all the needs of all the people (and purposes) an academic catalog serves to function.One of the problems that he has with the catalog, though, really can't be blamed on the catalog. He wants to use it to find out what is new in a certain field, and concludes it is better just to look to the publishers. Well, yeah. The library catalog is not the tool to use to see what's new in the world. There are other tools for that. The catalog is a catalog of what the library owns. On the other hand, his confidence in the budgets and acq. staff is endearing...

Good points. Nothing like the voice of experience!

The Swarthmore professor tells librarians nothing that we didn't already know. As an instruction librarian in the trenches for more than 25 years (gee, it's strange how the card catalog has been idealized now that it's gone!), I'd like to clue him in: good books and especially articles have never been easy to find and the "heuristics" of research can still be boiled down to a simple mantra: keep at it.

What needs to be burned is the traditional term paper assignment. I don't blame students for a single minute for completing it at 2am and with whatever full-text articles come up most readily. And even that is more than today's faculty and librarians deserve!

The typical 50- or 75-min instruction session is the equivalent of a news sound bite and only students with photographic --no, make that multi-media-- memories could come away remembering any of the "process" they were taught.

Faculty, I'm throwing down the gauntlet: reconfigure the term paper assignment. Break it down into manageable steps and involve a librarian (quelle idée!) each step of the way. Have the students record those paths that led to deadends and sources they discarded and reward them for the time they spent, because theirs is valuable, too. In other words, teach them to interact with the current information retrieval "system" --imperfect thought it is-- and extract the best from it.

And set the example yourself first.

Working through Tripod’s article and specialized subject indices, in a relatively small collection, you still have to navigate at least five completely different interfaces for searching.

Why is it that when libraries had only print-based sources, people weren't constantly bitterly complaining about different reference sources using different fonts, that the page number was sometimes on the upper corner and sometimes on the lower corner of the page, that different print indexes used different citation formats, that tables of contents in journals weren't all formatted exactly the same way, and that all subject indexes didn't use exactly the same terminology and heirarchies?

Ok, sometimes they did complain about those things. I believe the difference now is that they somehow expect that everything will become unified magically because they have what looks like a single point of access (a computer) for these sources. Sure, we're working on federated searching, but smoothing out the edges often takes time and money, something libraries often don't have in great supply. It's difficult for libraries to afford development costs that vendors need to make Amazonlike products.

I don't fault people for wanting things to be easier, but it's never solely a technology issue.
As my beloved says, "Some days, some times, people just need to learn to suck it up and deal."


Here here! Must say I'm with Blake FWIW.

We have a user, presumably intelligent, who says it ain't working, and looky here, Amazon does this that and t'other. We can't dismiss such critique and let's face it, amazon is winning the battle of hearts and minds.

I don't know that faculty really much care about the features vendors add. The do demand granularity but the goal is to know in advance if the book/etc. is going to be worth looking at.

Vendors are driven by money, educational institutions usually are not. Usually. :)

Fair enough.

I will name a vendor that squeezes its customers. III.

My concern is for MARC. Amazon is sexy but are we comparing like animals here?

Having read the Swarthmore article again, I think our colleague may be confusing his online catalog with periodical indexes.

He mentions >>Working through Tripod’s article and specialized subject indices, in a relatively small collection, you still have to navigate at least five completely different interfaces. This sentenced is sandwiched between one that speaks of "electronic catalogs" and another about "Library of Congress Subject Headings". In other words, this may be a case of our colleague confusing his online catalog with subject periodical databases?

Not to worry about the low blow reference. It too was meant for fun. I should be the last to accuse someone of a stinging retort.

There are OPAC vendors I hate. While at a previous job I was continually amazed at how they treated us as customers, and how they completely ignored our users.They build their products for librarians, which I think is a mistake. Not only do they build it for librarians, but they build it for the librarians that are most familiar with it. They charge a ridiculous amount of money for the stupidest little changes, and for changes that are obviously problems with the crappy software they are already over charging us for to begin with. I can't possibly go on enough about how much they suck.Worse yet, the attitude at work was always, well, there's nothing we can do about it. Arg. Putting on a good spread for users groups is just part of a huge problem with some vendors.If people are saying it's too hard, then it's too hard. You and I may think it's not, and it's what's best for them, but if they disagree, well, they go elsewhere. I think that those who are complaining, and leaving, are not complaining to you, and that's why you don't hear them. And that's not at all a swipe at you, but that's just my impression of how people normally behave. Getting user feedback is hard.I am a big believer in working for our patrons, and not going to them with the "I know what's best for you" attitude I see around a lot. Now, more than ever, if we are not providing easy to use and effective tools they will just go somewhere else (Questia, etc...). I think we can have both ease of use and granularity, but we're not getting it from vendors, everyone is a "customer of Amazon" and should have the option to let the software for some work for them if they wish. Very few people really want to search, they just want answers. Calling it dumbimg down is probably accurate, but for most people, most of the time, it'll work just fine. As long as we have power tools available, I see nothing wrong with doing that. Balance.I am not really disagreeing with you, I know you are making some good points, but I like my software open, I like to know I can make changes on my own, I like some level of control.And yes, that was a below the Everlast waistband shot, I dunno why I didn't get modded down as flamebait, though it was really meant to be funnier more than anything, sorry 'bout that.And I won't go on record about what vendors I have problems with. Let's just say an unnamed vendor from a previous place of employment.

Probably the most salient segment of this ramble against library catalogs is when he states that faculty should be the ones who teach students information literacy skills - but that they can't because many of them will not take the time or make the effort to learn the basics of electronic information retrieval. It's gotten very clear that students don't pay attention to what librarians are teaching in information literacy programs - at least not until they are desparate to find some needed information a few hours before a deadline - and whatever they learn then isn't retained. True information literacy - learned deeply - will likely only occur when faculty integrate it into their curriculum and make it transparent to students. It needs to be as elemental to the course as the subject knowledge is.

Proofread first, then post.

>>but as an academic library director I don't hear this...

Ouch! (below the Everlast waistband shot)

Blake, you (I assume) and I have worked with ILS vendors. III, Sirsi, Geac, Endeavor, heck I even remember Winnebago. (III puts out the best users groups spread out in Emeryville, CA) I liken these to cars. Some prefer Chevy, some Ford, you get the idea.

So, I ask, what is it about these vendors today that has pushed searching in reverse?? Faculty like 856 links, so we put them in. Faculty like authority control. Fine, we do that to. Faculty like an electronic reserves module. Nada problem. Faculty like notes and TOC that are searchable. Here we have the 505 field. They also prefer searching by format, date, collection, etc.. Our consortium of 65 academics allow our faculty and staff to generate their requests. They love it. Now this guy from Swarthmore says it's too hard???

Blake, my friend, what is the problem? Perhaps my previous position as a systems librarian distorts my perspective, but as an academic library director I don't here this lamenting from my faculty. (and they probably ain't as sharp as those Swarthmore folks)

Seriously, what systems, vendors, issues do you have problems with?

To me, it seems our LISNewscolleague has fallen victim to a condition we ascribe to many of our librarian friends. We Know What's Best.

To me, it seems our Swarthmore colleague has fallen victim to a condition we ascribe to many of our Gen X'ers. Attention deficit disorder.

Amazon is now the paragon for bibliographic record retrieval? Do we know if Amazon's knowledge of MARC extends further then his gospel writing or famous story about a river kid?

"Card" catalogs were easy. Suppose we bring these out of mothballs and Ebay?

I took a peek at the Swarthmore catalog. It looks like a Dynix/Epixtech system. Finding the holdings info for a serial title to me all of 25 seconds. (No, my current system is not Dynix).

Academics, good ones at least, demand "granularity". Customers of Amazon demand "ease".

Federated searching promises "one stop shopping" with "ease" too. It also relieves the searcher of that annoying tool of "controlled vocabulary". I can hear the carnival barker now, "Step right up and pick a word, any word, spin the wheel and win a semi-relevant Kewpie serial, map, dissertation, monograph, sound recording, DVD, serial, thesis, journal article, newspaper article, scientific calculator, fishing pole, lamp, etc.....

Humble suggestion to Swarthmore academic. Take that match intended for the catalog and place it directly under your tush. Learning doesn't stop with a PhD.

I'd hate to lump together "why it takes so long to catalog a book" and "why it costs so much to buy crap software," but I'd say you're right on, Administrators and faculty are likely to see them as very similiar issues, though I wouldn't agree.It takes so long to catalog a book for a number of good reasons, and costs so much to buy crap software for an entirely different set of rather stupid reasons.How i see it:Cataloging: Manual labor takes a long time, budgets cuts mean fewer people, fewer people mean it takes even longer.Software: People who make the decisions aren't made aware of OSS, people who work with vendors don't push the vendors to make changes.I'm probably over simplifying things here, but that's the big things as I see them at this point.

Right on. The amazon critiques are really starting to sting! But they're stinging for the vendors really. Administrators and faculty are starting to want to know why it costs so much to buy crap software and why it takes so long to catalog a book.

Glad you put this onto web4lib Blake.

There's so much good stuff in this one!"on some papers, you don’t see students necessarily choosing the best work or data for their project, but preferring instead by default the resources that are available in full-text form. I don’t really blame them. 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"Oh heck, I could just cut and paste this entire thing as a good quote. This should be required reading for anyone working as a web/systems/whatever-you-call-it librarian.Until libraries stop throwing 10s of thousands of dollars at unresponsive vendors who prative user-hostile design practices, and who's idea of usability testing is holding an annual users conference, nothing will change.Most catalogs are built for librarians, and not users.

Right on.My concern is that too many librarians want to "own" information literacy and refuse to let faculty teach it. They'd rather integrate IL into curricula by having librarians teach a full credit unit. Sheer madness. It is undermining the entire concept.