Rethink the role of the library catalog

It is time to rethink the role of the library catalog.


The library catalog is not sacred. At its root it just an index -- a list of the things found in a library. Is is and was important to maintain an inventory list because the things -- mostly books -- found in libraries are valuable, and one wants to control one's valuable assets. The provision of such a list to the public makes it easier for larger numbers of people to see what is available from a library. Hence, the shelf-list made its way out of back room into the public area, but from the beginning the catalog was (and to a great degree still is) a librarian's tool.

The present-day library catalog is good for addressing known item searches. "Does this particular library own this particular book?" Unfortunately it pales in comparison when it comes to answering similar questions regarding journal articles. Catalogs do not contain information about articles, only information about journals and magazines, and that information is typically not very straight-forward.

With the advent of globally networked computers, information is increasingly manifested in digital form. This has dramatically changed users expectations regarding the ways they find, acquire, and use data and information. For better or for worse, people want to access the majority of their content from a computer rather than go to a library. They don't want to use many search engines either. People are driven by convenience despite the fact that they know libraries contain vast amounts of freely accessible and authoritative information.

Information architecture

What is the utility of the traditional library catalog is such an environment? To answer that question I put on my information architecture hat and address the three core issues of any information system: users, context, and content.

A new and improved library catalog

Library catalogs are at a cross-roads, and it is time to consider a new and improved vision for these tools. If the library catalog and its utility do not evolve, then the utility of a library will increasingly become irrelevant. Libraries and librarians bring a certain expertise to the acquisition, evaluation, and dissemination information. This expertise is not limited to books, journals, and videos, so why should the most significant electronic public face to a library -- its catalog -- be limited in such a way?

First, consider adding full text books to the library catalog. Metadata is nice and serves a useful purpose but surrogates (MARC records) also have their limitations. If your catalog were to implement full text indexing, then a person would be able to find Shakespeare's Hamlet with a query like "to be or not to be". Fun! The content of Project Gutenberg would be a nice place to start. Your special collections content is the next thing to consider.

Second, consider adding articles to your catalog. The numbers of open access journals is growing daily. This free and scholarly content will more than be sufficient for high school and college students writing papers where they "only need a few good articles." If the full text of journal articles is not available because it is licensed from commercial sources, then lobby those sources to provide you with the metadata describing the articles or make this metadata available for harvesting via the OAI-PMH. Let the market make the decisions. You are the market.

Similarly, insert definitions, biographies, and encyclopedia articles into your catalog. This information can readily be acquired from Wikipedia. When people search your catalog not only can you show them books by the Bard but you can display information describing his life and times in the same interface. Remember, the new and improved catalog does not necessarily have to be inventory list, but rather a tool enabling your patrons to get their work done more quickly and efficiently.

Third, consider adding Internet sites to your catalog. Acquire the content from the Open Directory Project, extract the desired metadata, and selectively enhance your collection. On a regular basis run a report against your catalog listing and checking the status of your Internet links. As they break fix them or delete them. Call it shelf reading and collection maintenance.

Finally, and probably most radically, consider incorporating more useful services into the catalog. Allow people to do more than identify and acquire content. Allow them to use the content, evaluate it, and manipulate it. Figure out ways to allow them to create their own organizational systems through folksonomies and tagging. Faciliate reviewing and annotating. Allow patrons to identify ideas in your content and trace it forward and backwards. Allow them to download, pretty-print, save, email, and share content. As more and more content becomes available in digital form libraries will be less and less about collections and more about services. The catalog will be the conduit for such services.

How to build the new and improved catalog

Creating this new and improved catalog will not be easy, but you are in control of your own destiny. You are not limited to what the commercial sector has to offer. As a collective it is possible for the library profession to articulate a set of needs and desires that address the answers to the information architecture questions. While all libraries and other cultural heritage institutions are inherently individualistic, they have more similarities than differences. Just as the profession has agreed upon things like MARC, AACR II, sets of principles, and other best practices, it is possible to agree upon the underlying functionality of a library catalog -- or whatever we are going to call this thing.

Pool your resources together with other libraries. Work within your consortiums to discuss the issues. Bring together all the people involved: patrons, administrators, all types of librarians, computer experts, graphic designers, marketers, and others. Listen to what everybody has to say. Articulate a goal and outline a plan. Set a time table. Allocate the resources and begin. Do your sincerest best to finish on time. Share your experiences with your peers. Repeat. This is a never-ending process. Sorry, but the only constant thing seems to be change.

Creator: Eric Lease Morgan <>
Source: This essay was originally published on TechEssence at
Date created: 2006-06-18
Date updated: 2007-12-28
Subject(s): next generation library catalogs; TechEssence;