In case you’ve been wondering what I’ve been doing lately, here it is:
Bye, Bye Catalog, You’ve Been Googled
University of South Florida
With the advent of the internet, and its capabilities of high-speed information storage and retrieval, the future of library catalogs as they exist today is uncertain. The library catalog’s structure is in flux and will likely remain so for some time to come. The viability and necessity of the library catalog comes into question particularly since some collections of whole libraries are in the process of being digitized. At the same time, users are reluctant to explore the intricacies of library catalogs. The lack of preference for the library catalog as an online resource is being influenced by the desires of its users rather than its creators. More and more users are reaching for internet search engines or Web portals first and only to the library catalog as a secondary choice, if then. To reclaim users from internet search engines and Web portals, the library catalog must offer both better search results and ease of use to its users or risk losing them permanently. Whatever the final outcome, the library catalog of today must change with technology or face desuetude.
The Catalog That Was
In the not-too distant past, the library catalog was the first and foremost source of information. Libraries focused their resources on their chosen mission of being a source of continuing education after citizens graduated from their formal schooling (Levy, 2000). In the past, seekers of information and further education could only look to the library catalog to begin their research. The library catalog provided important surrogate records, empowering users to locate information sources through shelf lists, indexes and card catalogs. Prior to the development of the Web, and except for specialized libraries, most libraries held similar collections to their compatriots. These similar collections were the foundations of past information retrieval studies (Arms & Arms, 2004).
Dramatic changes came into being with the advent of the internet. Libraries developed online catalogs and library cooperatives. Patrons could now search the collections of other libraries within the cooperative. This change reduced costs to individual libraries by eliminating excessive duplication of information. The new online catalogs also offered enhanced services to patrons through expanded information sources inside and outside of library cooperatives and opened up a whole new world of flexibility for information access to the library patrons. This expansion of available information was particularly noticeable as more and more information sources, such as journals, were digitalized. Patrons could request any item from within the entire cooperative and have that item delivered to their local branch for the patron’s retrieval or just use the source as presented to them on their personal computers. Online catalogs were very valuable to both patrons and the libraries, but according to Calhoun, “with the increasing use of search engines and the flexibility of the Web, the online catalog is reaching the ‘ends of its lifecycle’” (as cited in Rubin, 2010).
The Catalog That Is
Let’s face it, if you can type, even if only by using the two-finger method, you can use Google, Yahoo! or any number of other internet search engines or Web portals; searching has become child’s play. Finding information on the internet from the comfort of your home, on your own computer is simple and convenient. Marcum explains that publishers and libraries are trying to make online searching and access to high-quality researches even more accessible by digitizing their entire collections (Marcum, 2006). Studies indicate that users are attracted to Google instead of the library catalog because it’s easy to use and provides some answer, even if the user is not trained or the answer if wrong (Novotny, 2004). Unlike the library catalog, internet searching requires little training or experience. Markey notes that Google “ranks the most basic, elementary, and easy-to-understand information at or near the top of the heap” (Markey, 2007, p. 5). While the searcher need not go through extensive training, past problems with search responses have resulted in ever-increasing Web portal/search engine enhancements. Searching the Web using internet search systems has become smarter. The data obtained through internet searching is more flexible and more focused since most search engines employ the “most relevant on top” response style preferred by users.
The advantages offered by internet search engines allow untrained users to get what they want, such as full text searching without having to understand Metadata. Users also receive the simple satisfaction of getting answers to their queries, no matter how clumsy the query. Library catalogs, on the other hand, sometimes produce no information for an untrained searcher. Haya, Nygren and Widmark note that “the complexity of the tool offsets the benefits of metasearching, particularly for beginning students” (Haya et al., 2007, p. 372). Google always gives the user something. It may be wrong, but the user is still psychologically rewarded with a response. Marcum asks us to consider if it is “any surprise that many students just go Googling instead of the library, virtual or physical, and use whatever turns up first in the keyword search?” (Marcum, 2006, p. 6). It is possible to do a keyword search on a catalog and get nothing, not even a hint or further query in response. Eric Novotny reports that “users showed minimal curiosity about the inner working of the catalog” (Novotny, 2004, p. 529). Users just did not care how the catalog worked. They simply expected it to work like a search engine or Web portal. The catalog’s inability to provide the type and style of information provided through internet searching is a source of frustration, and sometime anger, for the user. Because users find Google searching easier and believe that the information provided by Google when compared to the library catalog is just as reliable, users generally start with, and often end with, an internet search engine or Web portal (Marcum, 2006). By making internet searching simple and responsive, the internet encourages the user to continue using the internet and discourages library catalog use. Delsey explains that “there is a growing gap between the conventions reflected in cataloguing rules and formats and the technological environment within which the catalogue currently operates” (Delsey, 2000, p. 6).
Librarians recognize the disparity between library catalogs and online search engines. In most cases, however, they would prefer the user learn to use the catalog correctly and offer training as often as requested. Unfortunately, as noted above, catalog users do not care how the catalog works, only that it does. Librarians understand that catalog users, especially new catalog users expect the library catalog to react similarly to an internet search engine or Web portal. This ideology on the part of users leave librarians with few options but to consider changing how catalogs are used in favor of the more familiar pattern of use found on the internet. Calhoun explains that people expect the library catalog to provide information in the same manner as found on the internet, “as a result, many online library catalogs in public libraries are being redesigned in an attempt to offer the same flexibility and convenience as the Web environment” (as cited in Rubin, 2010).
Competent catalog use requires exposure and training. Some universities devote whole classes to train students on the use of the library catalog. With a Google search, the time and effort to understand how to navigate through a somewhat complicated library catalog design is eliminated. The user just types a keyword or two reflecting their search parameters, and presto, they get an answer. The answer may not be correct, but there is an answer. Instead of puzzling or frustrating the user, Google encourages the user and leads them further, if necessary.
The Catalog That Will Be
In order to survive, libraries will have to rely on more computer technology, allowing the computer to do the behind-the-scenes work that the user neither wants to do or cares about, and less on user knowledge of the functionality of the catalog to fulfill the needs and wants of users. Taylor and Joudrey explain, “If your systems do not provide logical displays, the fault lies with the system design” (Taylor & Joudrey, 2009, p. 274). If libraries do not embrace the internet search engine style of information retrieval, users will shun library catalogs in favor of internet searching. Roy Tennant explains that “we must dramatically expand our understanding of what it means to have a modern bibliographic metadata infrastructure, which will clearly require sweeping professional learning and retooling” (Tenant, 2004, p. 179). Since users find internet search engines or Web portals both easier and now, more familiar, library catalogs can legitimately expect that users will do the minimum amount necessary through library catalog research to get by and forgo any further contact. Novotny explains that a large portion of library users don’t care about how a library catalog functions and suggests that “we can either abandon this population or design systems that do not require expert knowledge to be used effectively” (Novotny, 2002, p. 530). If libraries want their catalogs used and explored, they must upgrade with current technology in order to give users what they want. Novotny boils user desires down to five areas that need to be addressed. They are: (1) users want library catalogs to offer easy and fast searching, (2) to display summaries or abstracts right up front, (3) to emulate the most-relevant-on-top formatting of internet search engines, (4) to offer a quick help button and (5) to provide find-related options (Novotny, 2002). In other words, users do not want to learn to use library catalogs as they are designed but want library catalogs to function and emulate internet search engines or Web portals.
In addition to Novotny’s suggestions, Markey also explains that the library has the opportunity to recapture its premier position as the primary research tool, but changes to catalog style and abilities must the made to attract and keep users:
To regain the online catalog’s lofty status and win back its fair-weather fans, let’s redesign an online library catalog that embraces: (1) post-Boolean probabilistic searching, to ensure the precision of searches in online library catalogs bearing the full texts of digitized books, journal articles, encyclopedias, conference papers, etc., (2) subject cataloging, to take advantage of the user’s ability to recognize what they want or do not want during the course of the search, and (3) qualification cataloging, to enable users to customize retrievals that are in keeping with their level of understanding and expertise in a domain. (p. 5)
In conclusion, it is easy to see that library catalogs are not facing the question of if they should change but how to change and keep up with internet technology. While libraries are trying to keep up and compete, internet searchability is improving at accelerated speed, thus making the competition for users ever more difficult for library catalogs. Catalogs must be altered to match the internet’s search capabilities by today’s designers, or they will fade completely from use by upcoming generations. The catalog cannot afford to be out of touch with users, nor can catalog designers be too slow to catch up. The overwhelming need for catalog designers today is to understand how users want to search and bring the catalog in line with user desires. Designers must forgo past concerns with what librarians prefer and understand that the fulfillment of user needs and wants must be their primary focus. Catalogs must be redesigned to look and act more like internet search engines and Web portals or face fading into the annals of history as another unused and useless, albeit interesting, old technology.
Arms, C., & Arms, W. (2004). Mixed content and mixed metadata: information discovery in a messy world. Retrieved from: http://www.cs.corness.edu/wya/papers/ALA-2003.php
Delsey, T. (2000). The library catalogue in a networked environment. Retrieved from: http://lcweb.loc.gov/catdir/bibcontrol/delsey_paper.html
Haya, G., et al. (2007). Metalib and Google scholar: a user study. Online Information Review 31(3), 365-375.
Levy, David M. (2000). Digital libraries and the problem of purpose. D-Lib magazine, 6(1). Retrieved from: http://www.dlib.org/dlib/january00/01levy.html
Marcum, Deanna B. (2006). The future of cataloging. Library Resources & Technical Services. 50(1), 5-9
Markey, Karen. (2007). The online library catalog: paradise lost and paradise regained? D-lib magazine, 13(1/2). Retrieved from: http://www.dlib.org/dlib/january07/markey/01markey.html
Novotny, Eric. (2004). I don’t think I click: a protocol analysis study of use of a library online catalog in the internet age. College and Research Libraries. (November), 525-537.
Rubin, Richard E. (2010). Foundations of Library and Information Science (3rd ed.). New York NY: Neal-Schuman Publishers, Inc.
Taylor, A. G. & Joudrey, D. N. (2009). The Organization of Information (3rd. ed.). Westport, CT: Libraries Unlimited.
Tennant, Roy. (2004). A bibliographic metadata infrastructure for the 21st century. Library Hi Tech, 22(2), 175-181. Retrieved from: http://roytennant.com/metadad.pdf