The Library Reloaded: The Catalog

[In previous editions of the Library Reloaded series, there has been discussion about what materials make up a collection, different ways to approach fines, and alternate forms of library cards. Unlike those previous posts, in writing and thinking about the catalog, I have found that my thoughts have lingered on what the catalog of the future should do and look like rather than offer alternatives to the catalog. So, this post will have more of a sandbox feel to it in listing what I’d like in the next generation of library automation. Also, since I’m vastly unfamiliar with cataloging, I am hoping that any cataloger reading this will write their own blog post to fill in that aspect so that I can link to it. –A ]

There’s a quote that is attributed to astronaut John Glenn, remarking on his space flight:

“As I hurtled through space, one thought kept crossing my mind: Every part of this capsule was supplied by the lowest bidder.”

There are times when I can’t help but think that when I’m navigating through my library system’s automation program. As a public entity, I understand that there are limitations; there is the balance of funding versus the options available and the degree of competitiveness that vendors will undertake to land a deal. And certainly, on the average, this is no different when it comes to selecting an automation system.

When I’m on the reference desk, every time I turn the monitor to show someone their record or a listing in the collection, I always refer to it as “the ugly backend”. This is only a partially truth; I find the front end (the side that patrons see) to be equally ugly and perhaps worse in terms of misleading people as to what we have the library system. I sometimes cringe on the inside when I see how results are displayed since any variation from the exact title, subject, or author will send people off with the impression that we don’t carry it.

While I could go on and on about the shortfalls, I’d rather shift the attention to what the next generation of library automation should look and act like. As I really only interact with it on a reference (and sometimes circulation) capacity, my commentary will be more focused on that aspect.

Without further ado, some of the things that the next generation system should have (please bear in mind that my thoughts are based entirely on my experience with my system’s automation program):

Front end:

  • Display, display, display – Any query into the catalog should create an explosion of possibilities with the most likely front and center & at the top. To cover all the bases, I’d like to see other potential results as a link on the side. “(“Do you mean titles with John Doe? Authors with the name of John Doe? Subjects with the term John Doe?” as a series of side links.) In addition, offer close alternatives as another list. (“Do you mean the author Jon Doe? John Doh?”) Make the display as interactive as possible; consider how much you can look, touch, and move at the shelf level and

This is not a call to reinvent the Google or Bing display. This is a call to make the resulting search more intuitive to the patron’s eye and offer easy suggestions as to other possibilities. A ten line text output laying bare on the screen is pretty damn stark and relentlessly unforgiving. It can be made to reflect both people who know exactly what they are looking for and those who have an idea of what they are looking for. Put exact matches right where people are looking and the “close” results nearby.

  • Holds & Requests – An interface that would allow for a patron and drag & drop materials into a request bucket would be a nice step up from tiny boxes, especially those stupid little check boxes. Think of it akin to moving icons on a desktop. That’s how easy it should be. There isn’t much that can be done for logging in and logging out, save for making that box bigger so people aren’t wrecking their eyesight squinting at the screen.

When people are in their accounts, it really needs to be a command center. Show them a summary of everything with tabs that go into specifics such as items out, requests, fines, and messages. As to this last bit, having a simple message system in which general library reminders, news, and announcements would be a good way of creating interaction with the patron. Also, the ability to send and receive messages between staff and patrons creates a new point of contact.

  • “I NEED HELP” box – Both at the location and offsite, there will arise a time when people simply need help. The ability to page a librarian onsite to the catalog computer for additional assistance would be a giant plus; it saves time for the patron walking around looking for help. Offsite, an ability for someone to get a person to chat, call, or email with the option of sharing a screenshot and the list of last couple of actions within the catalog so as to give a responding librarian an idea of what has been attempted so far. (I’d also say screensharing, but I would have concerns about the logistics as well as the privacy.)

Of course, these capabilities can be tailored to staff ability and availability. I wouldn’t want to create an expectation of instant service if the possibility doesn’t exist.

  • A variety of methods of contact – In addition to calling or emailing, I’d like to give patrons the option of receiving texts. While this brings up other issues (such as how many per week), allow them to choose which alerts would generate a text message and the maximum number they would get in a week (with overflow messages going to email or a call).

Hell, while we’re at it, why not have the capability to send a Facebook message or send you a tweet (either @reply or a direct message)? More options for how people are contacted would be a major bonus.

  • Mobile display – The capability of navigating the catalog through the screen of a smartphone should be included. And (since this is a wishlist) the ability to import some of that functionality into an mobile app would be a major bonus. While not every library would consider creating an app, the option is always an attractive one.

Alternatively, to offer an app as an additional option for an automation package could be another viable service. I’m not sure what the mobile or tablet market will look like in five years, but I’m going to take a wild guess and say that it will be more sophisticated.

Back end:

  • Better patron data manipulation options – If someone misses a hold, I’d like to be able to put the hold back on in a few clicks. I’d like to be able to identify the patrons that haven’t been to the library in the last couple of months and send them an email saying, “Hey, what’s up?” (Someone was tweeting something about this the other day, but I can’t find the tweet to attribute it to. I will add that once I find out; I think it was you, David Lee King. -A) I’d like to be able to queue up multiple holds and place them all at once rather than the tedious cycle of placing each hold one at a time. And, while I’m holding the brass ring, I’d like some more intuitive menus for those operations that I don’t do on a regular basis (such as suspending a hold, changing the delivery destination of a hold, or adding particular notes to a patron’s file.)

For all the steps taken to smooth out the patron/collection interface, that’s more time I can spend providing service to patrons and (in a seemingly paradoxical way) patrons can spend less time with me waiting while I navigate the system. Personally, I’d rather be smiling and chatting than furrowing my brow as I reach through the computer labyrinth that resides on the screen in front of me.

  • Complete collection integration – The ability to look at the entire holding of a library in one go. Databases, magazines, serials, physical holdings, and subscription services all on one search. It doesn’t have to give me the specific results from each source, but I would like to be able to say to a patron, “Ok, under that subject heading, we have 20 books, 5 ebooks, and 400 database articles. Which format should we examine first?” People want to know all their options and I, as a librarian, want to be able to show them all their options. Integration of all the subscriptions and purchases into one central display is the only way to achieve that.

I realize that what I am asking in this particular bullet point is pretty much proprietary and against the nature of current material providers. But my job, as I see it, is to provide the richest and greatest amount of access and materials to the community that I serve. This option is for them, the end user; it is for the people who ultimately benefit the most from such an integration. My interest is their interest: to be able to survey all possibilities and make the best information decisions. Only through a complete collection integration will one get an immediate sense of the possible results from all connected resources.

The catalog. It’s our method of organization, our means to carry out the work of the library, and the ultimate source of the knowledge contained in a library. It should be working for us, not against us.

(If there are any vendors or open source developers out there, feel free to add your comments to the mix. And if you take something away from this post, please at least attribute either myself or the commentator who made it. And if you do take it from me, I look forward to some swag love at conferences.)

Previous Library Reloaded entries: Collections, Library Cards, Fines.

12 thoughts on “The Library Reloaded: The Catalog

  1. I’d like materials to be labelled (call it whatever you want, tagging, cataloging, the name doesn’t matter) but it to be done in such a way that the person can find what they are looking for, using plain language.

    Add options for those of us who don’t like a cluttered screen to show what we want, not all the other bells and whistles.

    Make it fully accessible. Will it work with for people who need larger print? Who use text-to-speech programs? Who use devices like zoom text?

    • Tags! Yes! Would it be fair to use a bookstore subject adoption for these tags? (As in, where you would find it in a bookstore) That would be good for serendipitous browsing on a more graphic interface. I can imagine a series of results that look like the iBook shelf, showing covers and authors for people to pick and get a closer look at.

      Totally agree on accessibility and interface clutter. A simple basic interface that people can trick out to have whatever additional information that they want.

  2. I thought when we got AquaBrowser we would be getting all these things you described. But often it is impossible to look up a book unless you’re me, the librarian, on the “ugly backend.”

    The catalog needs help.

    • Yeah, it has to be a presentation piece. You can’t go from a beautifully crafted website to a clunky interface that makes you go, “Did I leave the site? How come the rest of the site is nice and this is so cruddy?” It has to be graphical, easy to use, and something that doesn’t make people feel stupid for using.

      Presentation is such a critical aspect and people have expectations for how searching and results are shown.

  3. Well, you’re certainly dreaming big, and nothing wrong with that. :)

    I think open-source cataloging is the way to go. Release the work to the smart masses and improvements will be made. Libraries, and librarians, being at the mercy of vendors is the biggest obstacle to improving cataloging, so it needs to be the first thing to go.

    • Oh, yes! Open source is a good one. I didn’t want to address whether this should originate from a proprietary vendor or an open source developer because, just like our patrons, I’m not super interested in how it gets done. I just want it to do some of those things. And I know that there is a long road to reality in terms of development, so I have patience for things moving along.

      But it’s not infinite patience. Something has to be done.

  4. Preach it! Also:

    I want an API, so we can develop the functionality that our customers want instead of waiting for service enhancements that may never come.

    Free the data! If we (or our customers) put data into the system, we should be able to get it out. Not selected bits of it – ALL of it! We want to be able to create reports and export our data in a variety of formats.

    Take “inside baseball” out of the customer interface – they shouldn’t have to know what boolean logic is in order to produce an effective search string, and they shouldn’t have to see information that is only relevant or useful to library staff.

    • Ah, yes, the API. The new Holy Grail of web development. I totally agreeing with the freeing of the information; you built it, you oughta own it.

      I don’t think natural language searching is really that far out of reach, but I’m not exactly up to date on that.

      • You’re right – natural language searching isn’t really out of reach, it’s just that the implementations I’ve seen so far for libraries don’t work as well as they should. Seems simple enough – why can’t library vendors duplicate what’s being done elsewhere?

        • I have a feeling that there are proprietary reasons for that. I also have a feeling that there are business ones for it (no need to offer it if libraries aren’t demanding it).

  5. It may just be me, but I cannot think of anything creepier than my library emailing me asking “What’s up? You haven’t checked anything out in a few weeks.”

    There is some information it would be nice to have, but we shouldn’t have.

    Also, my library is part of a consortium. They still haven’t gotten around to putting help links in the catalog, much less a means to summon a librarian out of thin air.

    • I don’t think it’s any creepier than retailers sending me a similar email. At least the library is not trying to entice people to spend money!

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