Archive for May, 2009

In my last post, I described the characteristics of libraries during the century before 1975. During that century, libraries faced no fundamental changes and were fully in control of how they presented themselves to patrons. That stability and control have now been shattered. Why?

The first crack came with the automation of library card catalogs in the 1970s and 1980s. Though a positive change on the whole, automation had three negative effects on libraries:

  • Most libraries no longer maintained their own finding aid, the catalog. They continued to provide the content, but the actual software was bought from vendors.
  • Most libraries no longer maintained the interface to their finding aid, the OPAC; that, too, was bought from vendors, most of which did not allow libraries sufficient ability to customize their OPACs.
  • The new OPACs did not work well with the old subject headings, which had been designed to be browsed in a card catalog. Even after 30 years of development, OPACs do not enable patrons to easily browse traditional subject headings, thus crippling one of librarianship’s three canonical means of bibliographic access (those being: by author, by title, by subject).

Automation of the card catalog had great benefits for libraries, but it was also the first crack in their century-old enjoyment of stability and control. There would soon be others.

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The old library

Until recently the online catalog continued to contain records only for items physically held by the library system. As libraries have entered into cooperative relationships, this principle of telling “what the library has” has eroded. In union catalogs that contain records from libraries of more than one institution, the concept was expanded to “what at least one of the cooperating libraries has.” More recently, the addition of Internet records has meant that a number of catalogs now contain records for “what the library can give access to,” including “what the library has.”

— Arlene G. Taylor, The Organization of Information (Westport, Conn. : Libraries Unlimited, 2004), pg. 8-9.

The library of (let’s say) 1875 to 1975 looked like this:

  • The library would buy discrete and unchanging physical items to become part of a coherent collection.
  • The library would catalog those items to identify their physical and intellectual characteristics and determine what library patrons would want from them.
  • The library maintained a finding aid for those items (the card catalog) and the interface to that finding aid (the layout of a catalog card).
  • The library would select every item in the library and controlled access to those items.

The bottom line for the libraries of 1875 to 1975:


That would change.

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[W]e have all kinds of tools that are organized to aid in the process of finding information that we need: telephone books, directories, dictionaries, encyclopedias, bibliographies, indexes, catalogs, museum registers, archival finding aids, and databases, among others.

— Arlene G. Taylor, The Organization of Information (Westport, Conn. : Libraries Unlimited, 2004), pg. 2.

Before reading this passage, I had never thought about how little of the organization in your average library is done in-house. Most of the information resources we provide have been structured by other people. The overall classification of the books comes from
OCLC or the Library of Congress. The records for the titles we buy are usually provided by OCLC or a vendor, and then edited to match local standards. The article and citation databases we subscribe to are designed by their vendors. Libraries do have some leeway to arrange their fiction and non-book collections, and can sometimes get creative with their websites, but the core of the organizing is brought in from somewhere else.

Libraries: The original mashups.

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Why we organize

We organize because we need to retrieve.

— Arlene G. Taylor, The Organization of Information (Westport, Conn. : Libraries Unlimited, 2004), pg. 1.

Leaving aside the folks who organize because of OCD

Is there a good study out there about the range of ways that library patrons use to retrieve? Librarians organize for patrons, yet it seems to me that we rarely talk about how those patrons approach the task of retrieving, and whether our methods of organizing serve their ways of retrieving.

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