Thursday, July 30, 2015

All My Daydreams are Disasters

Erin talked recently (and all the time) about how catalogers and technologists need to include public services professionals and patrons in their discussions of the library future. It got me thinking, again, about The Problem With The Catalog. This isn't a "the OPAC is dead" post, and I have to admit that I don't even know what "the OPAC is dead" discussion is about because I've avoided it because it seems entirely off-base to me. However, I think that a return to basic principles is in order when we think about the post-MARC world and how library catalogs have worked (or not worked) for us in the past.

The basic question I like to start with is "what are we trying to do here?" It is a question that gets overlooked far more than we're aware and way more than we should be comfortable with. I have some theories as to why that is, but we'll leave that for another day. What are we trying to do with a library catalog? What are our purposes?

Let's take a look at the many and varied things that we try to do with the library catalog, based on the audience.

Library Staff
Library staff use the catalog as inventory control, a complete and comprehensive list of items in the building at any time, a complete and comprehensive list of items that the library owns. Most systems also use the integrated library system (I'll note that it isn't necessarily the catalog, but the linkages are essential to how we function these days) as a customer management system, tracking interactions with users including lending, money owed, renewal dates for borrowing privileges, and a host of other things. Many libraries also use the integrated library system as an accounting system which encumbrances, expenditures, budgets, renewal dates for continuing commitments, and an archive of fiscal functions.

Other Libraries
We use library catalogs as a means of communicating with other libraries, an extension of the inventory control function of the catalog. In communicating with other libraries, the need for complete and comprehensive coverage of the exact physical item is reiterated. We communicate with other libraries through both our catalogs (through Z39.50 as well as union lists) and through union listing of serials holdings in places like the OCLC database. All of this facilitates interlibrary lending to the end of providing more and better materials to our users and to the users of other libraries.

Library Users

I put this last because it often seems to come last in how we think about our catalog. We, naturally, think of our professional needs before our service needs. Our thinking seems to be along these lines:
Well we obviously need to have a catalog that has a well designed inventory control and a good accounting system and that will work to talk to other libraries. Doing that obviously gives the users the information they need -- a comprehensive and complete listing of library items here and at other libraries and a way to get access to them. We've been taking care of users all along!
But library users aren't using the catalog in the same way we are, they're generally looking for things. Looking for things takes on a number of guises, but I don't know that any of those guises is exactly inventory control.

An important wrinkle in the story of the library catalog is shared cataloging. I would argue that shared cataloging helps library staff and communicating with other libraries, but is of questionable value to the library patron. After all, I really am not sure that a librarian at Harvard or Duke or even the Library of Congress knows best the description of the item that is both accurate and facilitates my users at Rural State University or Large Public Library or Tinest Library Ever looking for a thing. (this same discussion could be happening about subject cataloging, for instance).

I'm not sure that's a complete list of the things that we're doing or at least trying to do, but those are the main things I see. Let me know in the comments if I've left anything out.  This look at what we're doing start the conversation.

My original question is what are we trying to do here?
Let's break that down into an examination of what's already going on:
  • does it make sense for us do each of these things?
  • does it make sense to us to try to do all of these things together?
 From there, we can expand the scope:
  • are we trying to do the same thing that we were trying to do when we set all this up?
  • are there things that we're trying to do that are wholly unaddressed?
To me, this seems like the basis to start a discussion that involves everyone and aims at building a common understanding based on our collective goals instead of what is going wrong with what's happening right now. What do you think? What questions would you add to the discussion? Let me know in the comments.

& Keep Rockin'

1 comment:

Susan Wynne said...

Thanks for another great post! I think the value of shared cataloging to the user is somewhat indirect, but still an important consideration. Accepting other libraries' cataloging with minimal oversight allows us more time to catalog unique or less commonly collected resources.