The Future of the Libraries' Catalog:


An Initial Exploration by the Cataloging Policy Committee


July 2000



There is increasing interest in the future of the Libraries’ online catalog that has been sparked by a number of factors.  The creation of the Digital Registry and the Information Gateway provided a new means of access to Web resources.  The migration of the library catalog to Innovative’s Web product has done the same.  In addition, new consortial possibilities and sets of electronic records available for purchase have expanded the range of materials that can be added to the catalog.  All of these developments, on top of the explosion in the number of electronic texts, have raised the question of how the library catalog best fits into our plans for providing information to users.


As a beginning point for a broader discussion within the Libraries, the Cataloging Policy Committee met to talk about this on two occasions earlier in the year.  The following is a summary of the topics that were raised.  By no means were any conclusions reached, but a number of issues were explored and some focal points of agreement were outlined.


Inventory v. Gateway


There was general agreement that the catalog should go beyond the traditional "inventory" function and provide access as a "gateway" to information in the form of full text, electronic journals, etc.  Several problems with this were noted, however.  How will URLs be maintained when they change?  How will an electronic version of the text be preserved, so that it does not go away at some point in the future?  How can navigation be improved, so users do not get so lost?  For example, can links be opened in another window, so that the catalog can be easily found again?  Or can there be a warning when users leave library webspace?  Questions about access for various categories of users were raised, in particular, whether online access for non-affiliated users will not be as available as access to the print collection, or whether some affiliated users may have less access online than for print.


Differing User Needs


One problem is the differing needs of users, e.g. undergraduate vs. researcher.  A configurable catalog that allowed various groupings of functionality would be desirable.  Even better is one that would identify the individual user and provide the proper level (My Catalog).


Holdings:  Whose Should They Be?


Concerning whether the catalog should focus solely on our holdings, or include those of cooperating institutions, it was noted that initiatives to include other libraries are already underway.  Of course, the inventory function for our own holdings will continue, but the question is how many other things will be added.  Currently, holdings for the Miller Library at the Center for Urban Horticulture are being input, Cascadia Community College is in the planning stages, and the UW Rome Center Library is under consideration.  Interest in having the holdings of the UW Law Library in our catalog was expressed because users do not always find that catalog.  There was also substantial interest in the Center for Research Libraries (CRL), although a number of technical questions were raised concerning the de-duping of records, authority control and the ongoing costs of maintenance.  It would need to be clear that CRL materials are not held on campus and there should be an obvious link to a request form in the catalog.  The question of how our catalog relates to the statewide union catalog with regard to Law and CRL holdings was raised.


Depth of Cataloging


In some areas the catalog provides the same access to titles within sets as A&I services that we purchase (e.g. Congressional Universe and some microform analytics).  Library staff keep cheat sheets to remind themselves where things are indexed, and users may easily come to expect more from the catalog than is really there.  Another example of this question is a collection of 500 photographs of Mt. St. Helens.  Should the catalog contain one record for the collection, or 500 records, one for each photograph?  A super search engine that spans the catalog and all of our databases would be nice, so users could see the full range of materials that are available.  This would have its own problems, though, since retrieval sets may easily be too large to be usable.


Relation to Information Gateway and Digital Registry


It was suggested that we look at the functionality that cannot be provided by the catalog, and then decide whether we want these features enough to develop them ourselves.  A distinction was drawn between the pathfinder, as a selection of the most important materials on a subject, and the catalog as a means to find all materials in the collection.  Each serves a different and valid purpose, and we need tools to support both.  The cost of maintaining hand-built pathfinders, especially as the number of e-resources grows, was noted.


Relation to Interlibrary Loan


It was noted that the lines are blurring between the catalog and other access mechanisms such as interlibrary loan.  As more materials are not held locally, and requested through the catalog, ILL policies affect what can actually be retrieved, in particular, practices concerning what is "research" material and what is not.


Relation to Commercial Suppliers


There was a lively discussion of whether it is good to link from the library catalog to a commercial supplier, such as, as some libraries are beginning to do.  An Amazon affiliate program allows libraries to make a small commission on sales when the user enters from the catalog.  Feelings ran strongly against links to Amazon for a number of reasons.  There was concern about linking to any single commercial source because it is just one point of view.  Also, a link to a vendor could be seen as an endorsement, which we would not want to make: it would be better instead to have a choice or list of vendors.  Questions were raised about the ethics of earning money from our users.  Staff time used to create and maintain such links would take away from other valuable activities.  The Internet is commercial, and the library should hold out against commerce driving intellectual freedom.  Finally, students will think of Amazon by themselves.  We don’t need to lead them to it, but rather to things they would not find on their own, and to teach them to evaluate sources.


Links to Review Sources and Related Materials


A related topic is what links to review sources should be in the catalog.  While reviews are a useful feature of sites such as Amazon, they are often not scholarly or simply not available for many valuable titles.  It would be more useful to explore providing better review sources, or a list of sources.  Reviews are also available online for videos.  For books, tables of contents can be very useful.  There is also interest in links to biographies for authors.


Final Thoughts


Several questions recurred throughout CPC’s discussion.  One is that we need to know our users and what they want.  For example, do they turn to us for “better” information, or is convenience (quick and dirty) what we need to provide.  One approach is to use focus groups or surveys in order to better understand their needs.  Also, we in the library need to be clear on our own values and to not lose sight of what we do best.