Catalogs of the future

In order to keep up with our user's expectations, library catalogs of the future will be more interactive and provide value added services against their contents. This column elaborates on this idea and uses the Alex Catalogue of Electronic Texts as an example.

Some history

The history of librarianship can be traced by examining the profession's technology, specifically its catalogs. For the longest time, milenia in fact, the catalogs of libraries where simple lists ordered by dates, authors, and titles. Until Mr. Dewey, dictionary catalogs were the norm. The advent of the subject catalog and its introduction into the public spaces of libraries was seen as a progressive step in the history of library service.

In many ways the card catalog was quite an innovation. First of all, since it was located in a public space the catalog was now a tool available to anybody, not just librarians. Second, by organizing its contents by subject as well as organizing the collection by subject, the catalog, in many ways, mirrored the contents of a library's shelves. If a person knew how to follow the tracings found at the bottom of every set of cards, then a person could figuratively hyperlink themselves from one part of a library's collection to another part without moving but a few feet to another of the catalog's drawers. At the same time, those catalog cards certainly weren't small and their size limited the amount of information they could report as well as the information's format. Despite the diminutive size of the cards, the catalogs themselves took up quit a lot of floor space. Entire rooms were devoted to just the card catalog. Furthermore, if the cards were misfiled or removed from the catalog because somebody was too lazy to write down call numbers, then it was nearly impossible to discover and fix.

Electronic card catalogs removed some of the problems of physical card catalogs and introduced a few on its own. It was now possible to search a library's collection from a distance beyond the walls of the library. Keyword and freetext searching functions reduced the need to know (or discover) controlled vocabulary terms used to describe a catalog's content. With "webbed" catalogs, now called online public access catalogs (OPAC) and not card catalogs, not only was the display of the screen freed from it's 3x5 inch size but it was even easier to follow the tracings associated with each record. Instead of entire rooms for the catalog, we had entire rooms for the computers hosting the catalog as well as an extra set of people tending the hardware. The problems of misfiled or missing cards translated into unindexed fields or data entry errors. Similarly, there were (are) numerous search syntaxes used by the OPACs and I truly believe few of our users ever got comfortable with Boolean logic and idea of sets.

Business and catalogs

Mail order businesses have been using catalogs for decades and decades. Sears and Roebuck come to mind. When you look at the typical mail order catalog you regularly get these days it is the size of a small magazine. Each item for sale includes a picture, a description, a price, and a product code. The catalog includes hundreds of items and variations on many of them. Every page of the catalog includes a 1-800 telephone number or a URL making it easier to order your desired item(s). When you do call to place an order your call is usually answered very promptly and items are usually shipped the next business day. The whole transaction is often times brief and hassle free.

How unlike libraries this is. Yet the livlihoods of both libraries and mail order business depends on effective catalogs and friendly, knowledgeable customer service representatives. When made available on the Web, the differences between the catalogs are even more striking. The catalogs of business remember you. Their search interfaces are simple. Navigation is, generally speaking, straight-forward. And again, customer service representatives are only a telephone call away.

True, the motivations behind libraries and mail order companies differ. The number of items in a library catalog (hundreds of thousands of items) is usually much higher than the number of items of mail order businesses. On the other hand, business has to manage a highly dynamic inventory, and customer service representatives of mail order companies are usually handling "known item queries" unlike libraries where patrons are looking for particular facts or lists of resources on a particular subject.

Despite these differences, I believe librarians can learn something from mail order businesses. We can make our catalogs more interactive, user-centered, customizable, proactive, and provide value added services against its content.

The Alex Catalogue of Electronic Texts

Off and on again, over the past five years I have been maintaining a collection of digital documents called the Alex Catalogue of Electronic Texts. [1] Alex is an archive of public domain American and English literature as well as Western philosophy. The archive is small, just less than 700 items, but the archive provides a number of services against the collection distinguishing it from other electronic text catalogs across the 'Net.

The heart of Alex is a ROADS index of MARC-like records describing each item in the Catalogue. [2] These records, called WHOIS++ template records, have a defined structure but the type, number, and content definitions of these fields in each of these records is highly customizable allowing me to add new fields to each record according to my needs.

By default, queries applied against the items in the Catalogue are freetext but case-insensitive searches. Traditionally people seem to do known item searches when seeking literature, therefore this search type proves quite useful. Alex also provides a more full-featured search interface supporting Boolean logic, field searching, as well as right-hand truncation. All of these options are also available from the simple interface.

Once items are located brief records are displayed and you have the option to display the full-text of the electronic text from it's original location or locally from it's archived location, but here is where the similarity between Alex and other text archives (catalogs) ends. More than just an archive of electronic texts, Alex provides services against its collection. These services include the ability to search the content of items in the Catalogue, a traditional concordance feature, the ability to output electronic texts in PDF or various ebook formats, and finally, a "bookcase" feature allowing users to create sets of Alex Catalogue items for future reference, annotation, and publication. Each of these features will be described in turn.

Alex allows you to search the content of items in the Catalogue through two different interfaces. The first interface, a Wide Area Information Server (WAIS), allows you to select multiple items from the Catalogue and search across all of them for words or phrases. For example, a person could create a set of documents by Mark Twain and use a query like "love and becky" to get an idea of how Tom Sawyer feels. Similarly you can search something like Moby Dick for "love and whale" to get the same sorts of results. Because the interface uses WAIS, items are returned as a "relevance ranked" list. Alex also sports a traditional concordance feature. This allows you to supply the interface with a word and it will return a list of all the lines in a single text containing that word. The concordance was written by William A. Williams and was ported to Alex by myself. [3]

The texts in the catalogue are not necessarily intended to be read online. This is why the Catalogue allows you to convert items to Portable Document Format (PDF) documents as well as two ebook formats. When selecting PDF output you are asked to specify a font from a pop-up menu. You are also asked for font size and whether or not you want to the extra carriage returns removed from the text before processing. (This is good for prose, but bad for poetry.) Using this feature a person can create a large print book for the visually impaired or possibly a cute poetry book like the ones you find in gift stores. You can also create ebooks. Currently, Alex supports the Newton Paperback format and a Palm Pilot format. The interface to these services function similarly to the PDF service and simply provide other access points to the texts.

The Alex "bookcases" represent one of its more powerful features, but it does not seem to be quite understood. Using this feature a person can create a "bookcase", a virtual place where you can create and save sets of Alex Catalogue items. After Catalogue items are located they can be linked to "bookshelves" in your bookcase. Once in the bookcase you can annotate the links with pages of text, and the text can contain HTML markup. Consequently, a person can create a bookcase surrounding a particular theme (ie. love, adventure, epistemology, a particular author). The person could then annotate the bookcase explaining why items it contains are important to the theme. Finally, bookcases can be "locked" and "published" allowing other people to view the bookcase but not edit it. In short, bookcases can be used as personal book collections or supplements to academic papers.

OPACs, business, and Alex

The OPACs of libraries are not very exciting. They are pretty much static collections offering little interaction. They do very little to add value to their contents. Since they are such large collections of items and since the items are not assigned qualities, every item in these catalogues is seen as equally valid or important as every other item. Business has smaller catalogues to maintain, but those catalogue are easier to search and often times add value to their contents. Business also seems to have a higher person to customer ratio and certainly a higher person to catalog ratio. Alex has no people providing human interaction but it does provide a number of value added services against items in it's collection. Isn't there some way we can combine the strengths of all these models into a new type of library catalogue? I think so.


  1. Alex can be found at .
  2. ROADS is a well kept secret that shouldn't be. See .
  3. William A. Williams is the maintainer of Concordances of Great Books. See .

Creator: Eric Lease Morgan <>
Source: This is a pre-edited version of a column for Computers In Libraries.
Date created: 1999-07-09
Date updated: 2004-11-07
Subject(s): Alex Catalogue of Electronic Texts; OPAC (Online Public Access Catalogs);