GrokSurf's San Diego

Local observations on water, environment, technology, law & politics

Do we still need library catalogs?

Posted by George J Janczyn on April 29, 2010

I should say immediately that there’s nothing here about the controversy over a new public library for San Diego, but if you’re bugged by problems with online information retrieval, this may interest you.

I’d like to draw attention to a blog that has some very interesting discussions about library catalogs (it can sometimes be quite technical for casual readers). It’s called First thus: thoughts about the future of libraries and the catalog and is hosted by James Weinheimer, Director of Library and Information Services at the American University of Rome.

A recent series of posts looks at differences between doing research with online tools like Google (which entails typing keywords into a box to retrieve large quantities of results arranged to suit Google’s business needs), compared to using card catalogs (which allow navigation of information that has been conceptually organized). This excerpt from one post illustrates:

Research has shown that some 80% or more people rate their searching abilities as “very good” or “expert”. And they may be, for a mundane task such as finding the height of Mt. Everest, getting somebody’s email address, or finding and buying a new Ipod on (More or less what librarians term “ready reference”) But once they are confronted with the task of finding information for a class paper–even on extremely simple topics such as the one I gave you–they discover they are helpless and don’t know anything at all. They don’t know where to begin; they don’t know how to end; they don’t know anything except to type different words into a box and it’s not working. This is when they come to the reference librarian for help, and in my experience, they are more or less in a state of shock and totally panicked.

Something has been lost with keyword searching as a replacement for the card catalog. Another part of the discussion expands:

During the time of the card catalog and before, people never searched “text” like they do today because it wasn’t possible. They browsed cards that were arranged in a conceptual manner. You could arrange these concepts primarily in two ways. First was a classified way as they did in many European libraries, and so you would search for “dogs” under animals–vertebrates–mammals… (whatever the classification is). In the US, they opted for the “Dictionary catalog” which used alphabetical order (and then some classified arrangements after that) so that you searched for “dogs” by going to “D” and browsing to “dogs” and perhaps finding a cross-reference to “Canines.”

This is still what we do. Isn’t that freaky?! This is why I say that taking a record outside of the catalog it belongs to is a bit like taking a fish out of water: it can’t really exist on its own because it is so reliant on so many other things. It becomes more or less senseless and will die on its own.

And an example from this post:

Library catalogs aim for reliable search results and not the “best” results. If I am interested in “love” and search in a library catalog with full cross-references, and I do it correctly, that is, following the methods laid down in the 19th-century for using card and printed catalogs (please keep reading!), I look under “L” browse to “Love” and find:

Narrower Term: Attachment behavior.
Narrower Term: Communism and love.
Narrower Term: Courtly love
Narrower Term: Courtship.
Narrower Term: God (Christianity)–Love.
Narrower Term: God (Christianity)–Worship and love.
Narrower Term: God (Hinduism)–Worship and love
Narrower Term: God (Islam)–Love [proposed]
Narrower Term: God (Islam)–Worship and love.
Narrower Term: God (Islam)–Worship and love [proposed update]
Narrower Term: God (Judaism)–Love.
Narrower Term: God (Judaism)–Worship and love.
Narrower Term: God–Love.
Narrower Term: God–Worship and love.
Narrower Term: Love, Maternal.
Narrower Term: Love, Paternal.
Narrower Term: Marriage.
Narrower Term: Platonic love.
Narrower Term: Summer romance
Narrower Term: Unrequited love.
Narrower Term: Yoga, Bhakti.
See Also: First loves
See Also: Friendship.
See Also: Intimacy (Psychology)

I think this is a provocative display that actually opens my mind to new possibilities that otherwise…

And as summary:

Google has done an excellent job of making it seem to be simple, and they have done this by designing a tool to make people happy, but we should not confuse this with providing results that are reliable and comprehensible, which is what people really want. And it has serious consequences, as students will tell you.

This problem is why there are so many ongoing experiments in semantic searching and artificial intelligence techniques — they’re trying to recover what the effective use of card catalogs could accomplish. Mr. Weinheimer writes that attempts such as Aquabrowser and Vivisimo are worthy projects but nothing really as effective has yet been developed.

The blog is First thus. It’s worth keeping an eye on.

This Tomes and Talismans episode (first in a series) seems appropriate to include here (thanks for the tip, @starwed):


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