What is the catalog?

I agreed with the comment Larry Campbell left about the catalog below:

… I was particularly interested in your final paragraph above. I think your difficulty with the word “catalogue” reflects only a portion of the difficulty that our users are having with it. The apparently naive question, “what is ‘the catalogue’ anyway?” (with or without the “ue”) seems surprisingly difficult to answer — and saying that it’s the database for, or index into, our “collection” may only worsen the problem, since it opens up the question of what exactly “our collection” is supposed to be any longer (e.g., does or should “our collection” include anything to which we have access? But clearly “our catalogue” doesn’t and can’t include all that. Etc.) [Lorcan Dempsey’s weblog: Discovery and disclosure again]

I had been saying that I had had difficulty using the word catalog in a recent article – largely because the catalog represents a particular bundle of functionality, which may be reconfigured as we move forward.
Flowing from this confusion about the catalog, you might expect it to be offered in a variety of ways alongside the growing array of other services on the library website. And I think we can indeed see some of this. Here are two examples I was looking at recently.
The University of Birmingham lists the following under a heading ‘Online Catalogues’:

[Information Services: Online Catalogues]

On its library home page, the University of Bristol presents the catalog under a label “Metalib: your resource gateway”. You can go straight to the catalog or search at the Metalib level. This type of integration is likely to become more common.
Of course, one of the potential confusions for the user is if practices diverge between institutions. In some cases, materials may be available in the catalog, in others as separate resources. In some cases, the catalog may be absorbed into metasearch and resolution environments, in other cases not.
Incidentally, the reports by Overdue Ideas on the International Group of Ex-Libris Users presentations have much of interest to say about catalogs and other library systems issues.
Related entry:

Update: edited for sense and spelling. As some folks have observed there were a couple of hiccups with this entry. I hope things are back to normal.

5 thoughts on “What is the catalog?”

  1. Just a quick note to say that the gremlins have got into the 7th Sept entry (entries)
    Enjoy your blog very much, thanks Lorcan.
    best regards from down under

  2. It is a strange thing that “catalogue” in the context of a business (eg. Victoria’s Secret catalogue) makes total sense, but the context does not cross over into library use, even though they are close to the same thing.
    I am in no way being sarcastic. This is a phenomenon that I recognize in my own experience. I have no confusion when I look in a department store catalogue, but I get all befuddled when we have our discussions about “the” catalogue.
    I think we have killed the word mostly because we positioned “catalogue” as “the thing the librarians know how to use” — as if it was an EKG machine or CAT Scan. It speaks to librarians’ struggle to attain and keep a professional status (formally and in the eyes of our users).
    In the business context, the catalogue is positioned as something everyone should have and use for their own purposes. In Canada, a department store chain called Sears has a catalogue called the “Wish book” (it comes out before Christmas).
    “The Wish Page” — Sounds like the ideal library catalogue to me.

  3. So about that listing of 11 (11!) “catalogs” in the list of “Online Catalogues” from the University of Birmingham…
    What did the definition of the catalog used to be, in the old days, from a _user centered_ perspective? Perhaps it was the place where you could discover what met your needs from the library collection.
    The problem is that we now have ELEVEN places the user has to look to discover what they need from what the library has. They need to figure out which place to look before they actually look. This is a big problem. This to me indicates that ‘the catalog’ is still needed.
    Sure, it’s one thing that the boundaries of ‘our collection’ or ‘what the library has’ are vague. The entire internet can not be in ‘the catalog’. But I don’t think that’s the real problem here. Books, journals, e-resources, insitutional archives—if the library is responsible for describing and providing intellectual access to these things AT ALL, shouldn’t it be possible to give our users access to them through a single interface, so they don’t need to look in eleven different places? To me, that single interface is ‘the catalog’.

  4. I think it would be a great liberation for us as a profession if we could manage to free ourselves from our traditional focus on, not to say obsession with, “the catalog”. We really are about much more than that, and increasingly so. Certainly it’s possible to redefine “catalog” to mean “that single interface” or search box, or whatever — but doing so only perpetuates the risk of confusion, both for our users (for whom the word is largely inscrutable) and for ourselves, especially if achieving “that single interface” means trying to force everything into the somewhat antique format of the MARC record.

    This is not to say that the “single interface” isn’t a very desirable goal — it is. But it would be nice if we could begin to imagine such a goal without always having to invoke the hallowed name of The Catalog.

  5. Jonathan, library users have always needed to look in multiple places to discover what they need from what the library has. Name me a library that had one unified card catalogue for published books and serials, journal articles, offprints, individual images, individual titles in microform sets, clippings, gray literature, components of archival collections, etc.

    Some set of these are in separate listings, both for ease of administration and because their descriptions and/or uses were different from each other in meaningful ways. Libraries still need one or more catalogs to track those things for which they exercise custodial responsibility, but they may do it at a different level of granularity (say, journal vs article) than a user might need.

    In the online public access catalogs, we find that both stovepipes and what? reservoirs? are useful. Different materials continue to remain in separate discovery environments not only because of inertia, but also because people need to search for them, view search results, preview the content, or interact with the content in distinctive ways. Images and GIS data sets is a simple example; cultural images vs astrophysical images vs medical images is even more fun. Searching by Style and Culture is a far cry from searching by Right Ascension and Declination.

    The closest thing to the Holy Grail of the single search box might be “Show me everything I have access to by virtue of my affiliation with this institution.” Affiliation seems to be even more fundamental in the library of the future, when Everything will need to be available Right Now from Anywhere on my Phone. (ERNAP? :-)) But granularity of description will still be a problem, and magic is still needed to handle format- or discipline-specific functional requirements for metadata, searching, result display, and previewing content, and up to now it has been easier (possible, at least) to meet those needs in a series of stovepipes.

    P.S. The MARC format is, I think, a red herring in this discussion. The point is that there are diverse descriptive traditions to be reconciled and different functional requirements to be met.

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