My Catalog Conundrum

Today I helped a person who had called about a book they had placed on hold. They had placed the hold a month ago and were wondering why it was taking so long since (1) it was a title just coming out of popularity and (2) we have a ton of copies in the system. Since she had done it online, this is what the catalog looked like from her perspective:


She had clicked on the first option and made the request on that copy. Unbeknownst to her, since there is only one copy of that edition in the system and it has holds on it, she was placed on the wait list. If she had selected the next one down, she would have hit the checked-in jackpot for her request. I brought up one of the other editions, grabbed it off the shelf for her, and left it where she could come pick it up later.

I can understand why there are multiple entries in the screenshot above; they represent different editions of the book that may have their own unique characteristics and properties. (I’m not talking about the large print or audio book ones; I’m talking about entries 3, 4, 7 and 8.) That makes sense to the librarian part of me. I’m just wondering why the hell we don’t make it easier for our patrons. Something more in lines like Amazon:


It gives you the title and then shows you the format options. Hardback, paperback, mass market, and so forth along with additional options underneath them. It could work as to whether someone wanted just the first book available regardless of the format, a particular kind, or in the case of certain books a particular edition. As the need gets specific, so do the pop-out menus on the item.

I did a little poking around in catalogs from local libraries around me before I wrote this post. From what I can tell, it looks like it depends on the automation software. To me, it begs the question of why anyone would make it harder for people to borrow things from the collection.

To be honest, I’m totally prepared to be told that this is an outdated way of doing things and that the new software handles it better or that it really needs to be addressed. So, please leave a comment and drop me a clue as to where I am in this situation.

29 thoughts on “My Catalog Conundrum

  1. That’s interesting, and a discussion I’ve had at other libraries where Ive worked. A lot of systems only allow you to make a title level hold, so no matter which copy comes up, the next person in the hold line gets it. This is why title level holds – the one your patron got stuck with – is an issue. ILS-es I’ve seen only allow you to activate one or the other – copy level or item level, and because of the issue your patron had, most libraries use the title level hold. I havent seen a good patron-side alternative.

    • It feels like one of those times when librarians get caught up in the technical stuff to the detriment of the regular user. It’s great for us, but not so great for people attempting to find stuff.

  2. Ugh! This is so frustrating for patrons and I agree with you that it would be much better to show the different formats/edition like Amazon does. I am not familiar with any system that does it differently but I’m adding that to the list of items to add to the RFP we’ll most likely be writing later this year.

  3. The sound you hear is me screaming from frustration.

    Why make customers adjust to what makes sense to us (or rather a computer program), not them? Especially when, in so many other areas, libraries pride themselves on being customer-centric, giving the customer what they want, saying “yes.”

    It’s as if we don’t want to give them the books!

    • I don’t get it either. I asked a cataloger once why two items that are identical (as in, I had them in my hand and they were the same) were cataloged as their own entries and was told that they did not come out in the same year. [blink blink] Ok, yeah, that’s good for us to know, but our patrons really won’t care.

      • Yes! I understand why we need to know; and sometimes it does matter which edition.

        But why not have it that it doesn’t matter to the customer, unless they want it to matter?

      • You say the patrons don’t care that one was book was published later than the other, but what if they do? What if the later published one had an extra epilogue or an extended preface and you gave them the one without it becase they were both cataloged on the same record? I agree, this might be a unlikely case. But there are instances where it would matter if all “issuances” were simply cataloged together. That said, I agree, the display you showed is not helpful to patrons. I mostly blame the ILS vendors for that. Our ILS software should be able to take our wonderfully detailed records and present them in a way that is useful and helpful to patrons.

  4. It seems to me that we went literally from the card catalog to the virtual catalog without thinking how records/items could be different or changed or grouped together. In my system (from the librarian’s side) you can put in record or copy requests … as long as the book is under the same record you get whichever pops up first. Customers can also do this, but sometimes they end up accidentally putting an item request versus the title/record request. For being in customer service, we don’t always think of what is easiest for them. 😉

    One problem I’ve come up lately with the all titles under one record (for some titles, not all) is that if an item is a different publication (completely different publisher, unabridged, etc.) it sometimes gets stuck with the one record so that all copies (illustrated, abridged, unabridged, etc.) are described the same way. This is super difficult making sure students get the unabridged copy when the copy described in the record is abridged. I wonder if the Amazon way of organization would help with this also?

  5. It’s not the automation software; it’s the cataloging standards. (I almost put quotes around the last word in that sentence. A library can own 13 different editions of The Christmas Carol and a patron can easily put a hold on the one copy that was checked out 9 months ago and never returned.
    In the consortium that my library is in, we are in the process of moving towards consolidating records using important points (but not ALL points – like centimeters, pagination, you get the idea). Not everyone in all the libraries is happy about it, but I think the patrons will benefit tremendously. FRBR forever! (pronounced “ferber” for those of you for whom it’s a new idea).

      • Well, catalogers are opposed to it (even support staff in T.S.)! And, some old school public service folk. Fortunately, we have forward thinking consortium staff.

        • I’m a cataloger, and I’m not opposed to it! I agree that this is the direction we must take in order to make our catalogs more user-friendly. (But then again, I am the anti-cataloger, cataloger.)

  6. This may sound too liberal, but why not ask the vendor to change? Shouldn’t libraries provide services that are accomodating to customers, rather than services accomodating to librarians? Call me crazy, but I would ask the vendor if you can make a change.

  7. This problem drives me crazy. I fairly regularly see a book come through transfered from another branch or even ILL when what would probably be a perfectly acceptable book is sitting on the shelf in the library where I work that happens to be attached to a bibliographic record that the patron [or staff member] did not pick. Sometimes it matters: the person wants a particular author of a forward, or a specific illustrator. Much of the time, it just doesn’t matter. And the catalog does nothing to solve this probem.

  8. As an elementary school “librarian” (library tech.), I add additional ISBN (020) tags to titles that I already hold in my collection, rather than create new MARC records for each edition. As a “cataloger,” I know that this is not the “perfect” (or traditional) way to catalog my collection–but it is the most practical/realistic way, especially when students are looking for a specific title.

  9. I am SO happy you wrote about this. I just finished my MLIS and I can’t even figure out how to work the catalog in my local system!! It’s really embarrassing. I have now requested the large print edition of a book 3 times! So if I have a bit of experience and education in this space, I can only imagine what the patron feels like. I guess I’m not really offering any sort of solution but more of a “yes, this needs some fixing”

  10. I grew up using academic catalogs so whenever I use the public library catalog there’s an adjustment period. While I am an academic librarian, I’ve picked up some side work at my local public library. I’ve run into the exact same problem, and had to fix the hold for the patron. Sirsi is not my friend.

    In the same vein, I wish that we could make the system smarter in regard to sequential holds. When I place a hold for a popular series of graphic novels, I hate it when the last volume is the one waiting for me at circ. Does me no good.

    I actually trained in cataloging, and while I agree with some standards I’m pro FRBR. It just makes more sense.

  11. This is a large problem and a source of much frustration and hair pulling in the world of cataloging/public services crossover. Mary R is onto an important solution: FRBR and, more practically, the use of RDA. When we are able to specify within our catalogs that we want to display searches on the Expression level (like, all the Romeo and Juliet written plays in the original language) instead of the Manifestation level (like, all of the Romeo and Juliet written plays in the original language published in 1978 by a certain press with a certain cover), this problem will be minimized. The biggest problem in most current cataloging is that resources that are strikingly similar to one another (such as edition to edition or novel to film adaptation) do not have the relationships built in to reflect these similarities.
    For an interesting idea of implementing RDA and its relationships between resources and people in a functioning catalog, see VTLS’s Virtua ILS. I believe there are other products as well, but this is the one I am most familiar with.

  12. I had to respond to this one — it keeps surprising me how antagonistic our cataloging, and therefore our cataloguers can be. Just last week, I had this interaction with a cataloging staff member about access to particular material:

    My question: A user was looking for the film “Society of the Spectacle.” [This is a French movie that does have a uniform translated title.] We do have this book in two different forms in English, thus with an English title to access it. However, our version of that item as a movie (the French movie) does not have the English title attached to it.

    Can you fix it so a search for “Society of the Spectacle” brings up the movie as well as the books?

    This was the response:

    “The reason for which you did not find the movie when searching by “Society of the spectacle” is because the movie is in French and produced in France, respectively its original language and country–per cataloging rules, it does not require an added title entry in English in the bibliographic record.”

    Ok, so it doesn’t require it, but I’m asking if we can add it.

    “If you searched by the uniform title “Société du spectacle” you could have displayed everything we have, regardless of format and language, i.e., three books and one video.”

    But that’s not how the user searched for it. We cannot define what the user searches for, right? The goal is to bring things out of the catalog that are appropriate for the search. What if the user didn’t even know that it was a French movie?

    “The movie in question is part of the larger DVD set “Oeuvres cinématographiques completes” and goes on disc no. 2 along with another 22 min. material titled “Réfutation de tous les jugements, tant élogieux qu’hostiles…,” which means that if I add the title “Society of the spectacle” in this record I need to add the English versions (if any) of all the other French titles included on the DVD set. Fortunately, there is a 2003 book “Complete cinematic works,” an English version of “Oeuvres cinématographiques completes” by Guy Debord published in California and that helps. Per your request, I locally enhanced the record to allow better discovery of these materials by our patrons. You may now search by either English or French versions of the title and get the same results.”

    Ok. So the answer was yes, I can add the English version of the title. The cataloguing rules really are so particular and don’t seem to actually relate to accessibility for the user, but are more about uniqueness of the item!

    • It seems to be that in an age of accessibility it is a matter of balancing an accurate item description against people being able to find it as they would expect to (a la search engines). That fancy explanation is fine for other librarians, but a detriment to regular folks who just want to find the damn movie.

  13. At least two issues. One, for the ILS to be able to identify things along these lines the data must be organized in a manner that will allow it to do so. In other words, if the data is not there or is not organized in a manner that the software can easily use, then it will be difficult to collocate the titles. It may be a little harsh, but there is an old saying GIGO — garbage in, garbage out. While it may be easy for a librarian (person) to see that the two titles are effectively the same, the ILS (computer / software) clearly has a much more difficult time. Uniform titles are one way to help, but they are probably not very common for these types of titles. FRBR / RDA will help, but I am not sure how backward translatable it will be (in other words, I am not sure how easy it will be to FRBRize old cataloging records). You might want to take a look at least this page to see some of the issues OCLC has run into — .

    Second, as someone else pointed out, some of this is up to the vendor. Clearly, Amazon has their data (and software) organized to be able to do this, but I seriously doubt they are using AACR2 / MARC. So, even if a library has the data organized in a manner that can help you with this issue (a *huge* if, IMO), the vendor must then be able to offer a software solution.

    Clearly this was a patron initiated hold. What we do in similar situations when a staff initiates the hold, is to put holds on several of the items. Then when the patron receives the item, they can have us cancel the remaining holds. Now that the patron is aware of the issue, they could do the same thing in the future or they could ask. Not ideal, but you try to do the best that you can with what you have while striving for those future improvements.

    • I guess what the next step would be is for a catalog that acts like Amazon on the front side and a regular catalog on the back end. I guess I’m still unclear as to why it can’t be both ways.

  14. I see that a few folks have mentioned RDA/FRBR already, so I don’t need to rehash that.

    After skimming through the comments, though, it seems like it might be helpful to point out some catalogers who are totally on board with simple, patron-oriented records. Christine Schwartz blogged about this two days ago (, and Saskia at All Things Cataloged wrote about it a month ago (, and each of them refer to other catalogers who are talking about the same issue.

    I’m a front-of-the-library sort of person at heart, but I was just hired to a tech services position, so I’ve been trying to find ways to see how catalogers and public services folks can work together to make the library a better place for patrons.

  15. I’m an accidental cataloger who is looking for the same sort of functionality. It annoys me to no end that we have three different records and thus three different displays for some of our titles. I understand the standards; I just don’t agree with them, especially in the era of the social Web.

    I’m skimming off some of the ideas mentioned here to figure out what would work best for our students (high school).

    • Good to skim! If you blog about it, please link it so I can check it out on the pingback. I’d be interested to see what is salvageable from these comments.

  16. Like LTWorth, I’ll add an ISBN to an existing MARC record rather than create a whole new record, especially when we get the trade paper edition of hardcovers. Audiobooks with the same number of discs and the same narrator go on the same record. All the large print versions of a particular titles are on the same records, even if pagination is different and one edition was published ten years after the original.

    Most of the people in our TS department also have desk duty, so we understand that accessability doesn’t always mesh with cataloging standards. In the past, I have found that catalogers who are behind the scenes all the time can be more concerned with properly following cataloging rules than considering how easy (or difficult) it will be for someone to find what he or she is looking for.

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