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Inside Annoyed Librarian

Dumping the Catalog

Over the years there have been a large number of news and opinion articles about libraries to which Betteridge’s Law of Headlines applies.

“Is the library doomed?” No. “Are books dead?” No. “Should I write about libraries even if I know nothing about libraries?” Please don’t.

This week’s example comes from a website called Research Information, which is a nice vague title that allows for almost anything. The headline: Time to call time on the library catalogue?

No.

The motivating factor was a presentation by “a PhD student at the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology” who talked about how he found his research material. What was missing from the list was the library OPAC.

So a scientist at a research institute doesn’t look for books in the library he doesn’t really have.

But wait, there’s more!

Someone from the University of Utrecht “noted in her presentation how, while traffic to the library’s journal holdings had grown, the proportion of access to these holdings via the library catalogue had dropped dramatically.”

Notice there’s no talk of books, and no indication that the actual use of the library catalog had dropped, just the proportion of access to the library’s journal holdings.

I suspect that’s true of a lot of libraries. However, this trend doesn’t give enough information to decide to abandon library catalogs because it’s not saying anything about the people who do use library catalogs, just the people who don’t.

Nevertheless, the University of Utrecht got rid of its catalog. The explanation of this process might be my favorite bit:

Before phasing the catalogue out we had to prepare users because the statistics showed that it was still used by many and we knew there would be disappointed users,’ she explained. Steps to help the transition included removing information about the catalogue from the library homepage beforehand and providing support and information about alternative routes to the content.

So the stats showed a lot of people still used the catalog, but they got rid of it anyway. Always good for librarians to ignore the people who use the library in ways the librarians have decided they don’t like anymore. How dare those patrons not do research the way we want them to!

And I’m sure that transition was “helped” by removing information about the catalog from the website. Catalogs are like Band-Aids, it seems, best removed quickly.

The article ends with the vague conclusion that whatever libraries do they should pay attention to people who don’t use library catalogs, and presumably ignore the people who actually do.

It’s as if I’d written an article about a historian who said at a conference that she used the library catalog a lot, and also the archives, and concluded that libraries should mainly focus on OPACs and archives.

I’m assuming every library in Europe has gotten rid of its printed book collection. That’s the only relevant information that might justify getting rid of OPACs. I’m sure the person writing this article thought heavily about all the relevant information but failed to mention it.

Maybe the Bibliothèque Nationale de France should get rid of its catalogue général and organize everything like a bookstore might.

Of course, this is an article written for scientists claiming “the way that researchers find information is changing and libraries need to change with it.”

So maybe some of the scientific researchers at the University of Cambridge should start a movement to get rid of their Newton Library Catalogue because the scientists don’t need it anymore.

Meanwhile they could probably get rid of a lot of the scientific research because it’s just too darn expensive. Wait, that’s what the British government is already trying to do.

Gosh, it’s almost as if people who never use a thing think that thing should go away because they get no direct benefit. Lots of people don’t use libraries. Scientists don’t use OPACs. Politicians don’t use science labs.

Usually libraries and governments supply things some people need. Car drivers need roads. Children need education. People who look for books need OPACs. Society needs scientists.

Going about things this way, a lot of people get the things they need. But going by the backwards logic of “Research Information,” you’re pretty much guaranteed that no one will get anything they need, because unless everyone needs it no one gets it.

You’d think scientists would be more logical than that, but science journalists maybe not so much.

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Comments

  1. Rachel says:

    The librarian from Utrecht gave a webinar last week explaining that it wasn’t the catalogue they dumped at all, but the discovery layer. They’re relying on things like Google Scholar instead. They haven’t dumped their catalogue, but they are trying to get records out in Worldcat etc so people can find them without having to come to the OPAC. She said they will always need the catalogue internally.

  2. Not only does Utrecht have a catalog for the moment at least, but it also has one of my books in it. So I tried to find the Utrecht copy with Google Scholar/Google Books by setting the Find in a Library location for Netherlands. No copy listing for Utrecht. Both Google Books and WorlCat (which I also checked) use OCLC. I guess Utrecht doesn’t use OCLC. I guess Utrecht doesn’t have my book, if they are now planning to remove their OPAC and depend on Google Scholar. Sign me, “Baffled beyond words.”

  3. Sarah says:

    So they basically exchanged one “discovery layer” for another? So that people have to wade through even more things they don’t want, generated by an additional search engine which may or may not provide the wanted information? And they have to know the location code? Sounds like an “upgrade” to me . . .

  4. Roger Read says:

    It’s funny, my comment started with a simple sentence but quickly turned into the below, reflecting the complexity of the challenges raised by this article and reader contribution.

    I think the point here is we need to be using systems that address two immediate challenges;

    User Functionality

    Systems that provide the experience patrons expect (check in and out workflow, full text article access, holds, custom automated searches, view/ join outreach programs, read and add reviews and pay fines all in the ONE place).

    It doesn’t really matter what is behind that single search box as long as it delivers relevance and reach. When I write “reach” I mean all relevant possibilities – electronic, print, archive, local and partner libraries and in an environment that provides Patron workflows.

    Growth with automation

    Systems that promote the increase usage of collections, be they paid for by local budgets or by consortia. Whilst centralising acquisition, renewal, analysis, existing and future workflows as vendors change and increase in number. If you can manage this, adding in a layer of patron self service is possible – adding further usability.

    There is only one system and type of vendor that is in a position (at the moment) to promise the ability to provide this journey and it is the LMS with it’s patron awareness. Not all of these vendors are aware of how to do it – but they know it needs to happen. The smart vendors aren’t making their own discovery layers – they are partnering with the best, it allows future development to not be hindered.

    The future is with open architectures with vendors that are willing to work one another, those that promise to deliver everything will be inferior in many of their promised capabilities, not to mention the risk of bias because of commercial pressures.

    Things will continue to change – and the rate will accelerate because many other more influential markets are convincing our users that their take on digitization is the right one – eg. Google, Apple, Facebook, eBay etc etc etc. These organizations craft the future expectations Libraries need to meet if they are to stay relevant.

    • Sorry, but I couldn’t possibly disagree more (hopefully respectably). Libraries have been working on patron access to collections for a very long time. Through the rise of the digital age, they have honed their tools and have produced amazing databases that enable very sophisticated searching. Google and company have emerged alongside the work of libraries, but none of these tools have much of an understanding of, or even recognition of, the needs of libraries and library patrons. Even Google Scholar is a disaster for discovery of academic resources.

      Libraries favor metadata. Search engines use keywords. Thus libraries enable narrowing of results to those that are most relevant to specific goals. Search engines let the algorithm make the selection and pay little attention to specific results that meet research goals.

      Going with the flow means abandoning everything that has worked and replacing it everything that doesn’t work nearly as well. If our patrons want to go with flow and choose search tools that serve them poorly, the answer is to educate them in the use of our better tools, not simply to set out boat in the river of technology and see where it takes us.

  5. Roger Read says:

    @William Badke I think we are both preaching to the converted here ☺

    I couldn’t agree with you more. My comment states that the core of the library (with respects to technology) should be the library system (LMS, ILS, URMS whatever you would like to call it). It has years of functional knowledge built in to it and is the foundation from which Patron services should evolve (including facilitated self service) .

    I mention Google as an influencer of the patrons we are trying to service because our patron is their “consumer”. Google, along with other vendors are offering new experiences and lifestyle choices in via their products, and are not interested in understanding or supporting libraries because there is no notable opportunity in the library market (when compared to other markets). Be that the case, these organizations are inadvertently defining the user expectation that all of us in the library world are trying to adapt to because it’s too difficult to compete against it.

    Unfortunately, I don’t think Libraries have the resources to educate all their users about best practice discovery, exploration and usage of resources. This challenge applies to both academic and public libraries although in varying degrees (I may be wrong).

    With this in mind, the present and future librarian needs to look at outsourcing functions that are not core, or are not sustainable in-house with partners that make it their purpose to be best of breed in these areas.

    I would think this (done right) will free up resources for outreach and specialist activity by the library and will also integrate new patron behaviors back into the library. This in my mind is a means of staying relevant and increasing usage of services and resources.

    With this direction toward partnering comes a note of caution, it can be tempting to partner with a vendor that promises everything, the management system, the discovery layer, the knowledge base, the database etc. To confirm – at this stage Google is FAR from a viable library partner:)

    • Great comment. I don’t think that the cause of educating students in library search tools is impossible or that their experience with Google-like tools defines their future. That is why, as you argue, libraries need to outsource what they can so that they can work on patron education. But on the following point, I think, rests the whole future of student discovery and use of academic resources: We are educators who, in most other areas of teaching, simply don’t go with the flow and let student education be driven by their interests. We introduce them to new and better things. Yet, in the area of discovery and use of resources, we assume that they will do what they do – use Google and Wikipedia, while they resist the better academic databases. We are educators. We can educate our students in facility with information if we make it a priority. Lack of resources is no excuse. We resource what we deem to be priorities. This issue, I argue, is a priority.

      Thanks for the clarification.

  6. LibrarIan says:

    I found this blog post through means other than libraryjournal.com. I think this means we need to get rid of the website and find other ways of directing readers to the blog. Or something.