It was exciting to read Teresa's post about the North Carolina State University (NCSU) Libraries' catalog. This achievement represents a magnificent step forward for integrated library systems, and the NCSU Libraries catalog's rich combination of search and browse, combined with its powerful search engine, stand in silent rebuke to the piteously clunky library systems most libraries pay dearly for because we've never insisted that the catalog could be better than that.
We Bow Before Thee, Your Highness
It's appalling that most integrated library systems have not kept up with at least the rudiments of good search products: relevance ranking, spell-check, stemming (automated word truncation), and flexible sort options. The reason they get away with it: we haven't had the leaders in this profession to step up to the plate and insist the tools central to our mission function the way users expect them to. If only we could knight librarians! "Sir Andrew" has a nice ring to it. But—and I say this with trepidation, because Andrew's a really big guy, and I have to sit near him at many meetings—the NCSU Libraries' catalog, good as it is, still has some old-fashioned limitations.
The first limitation is the catalog's reliance on Library of Congress Subject Headings (LCSH) as the structure for the topic browse. They massage it in ways I like—using LCSH links like keyword searches—but it's still LCSH, and that means it's still an arcane language, expensively applied, and that is either too broad or too narrow for the item it's discussing. I think of LCSH as item-level language, whereas most thesauri for the Web—which is where library users encounter the catalog—are based on collection-level language. Your typical Flickr collection has more precision than most items grouped under LCSH, and as for the terminology of LCSH, let's just say I have never known a library patron to ask for a "cookery" book.
Here, Piggy Piggy
Now, the NCSU Libraries' online-catalog team is simply working with what it has, and it has included some adroit enhancements to improve the 'browse-by-LCSH' function, but as a browsing language, LCSH means that pig is still wearing that dress.
Another challenge for NCSU is that its libraries' online catalog is still an index, not a full-text search engine. Users—particularly younger users less familiar with the older technologies that predate them—come to library tools (such as search portals and online catalogs) with expectations honed by the luxury of full-text searching in Google, Amazon, A9, AskJeeves, Technorati, Google Book Search, and thousands of other full-text tools that quickly meet and satisfy their needs.
But library applications—the NCSU catalog included—remain wedded to a conceptual model of user behavior predicated on the card catalog of yesteryear. Users want full text, and we give them metadata. When they say our tools are broken, they're right.
This is not intended to undermine NCSU's dramatic achievements in improving the catalog. But it is intended to say that we are just beginning to understand what we need to do to rethink bibliographic access and control in the twenty-first century. And even when we do understand it—and I believe Andrew grasps the failings of library catalogs better than nearly anyone else in our profession—we need more tools, and fast, for creating change.
The Cavalry Arrives!
Fortunately, this week also heralds the arrival of a report [pdf] with breathtaking implications for librarianship. (In a hurry? Here's the executive summary [pdf].) My only gripe with UC's report—named, quite modestly, "FINAL REPORT: DECEMBER 2005 Bibliographic Services Task Force," and referred to simply as "BSTF" by some—is that it's issued as one humongous PDF, when to really be read and discussed online, a simple HTML alternative would be useful.
But I can't complain. This is a report that gives voice to issues, beliefs, and even evidence-driven data familiar to many of us who have been voices crying in the desert about the utter failure of library catalogs to meet user needs.
Of the early analyses of "BSTF," my favorite so far is from Lorcan Dempsey, whose engaging blog, the eponymous Lorcan Dempsey's weblog, has one long post (on which I have already commented twice—I'm a little keyed up about "BSTF"). But I am hoping to be the first to say of the UC report, that what is most significant in its recommendations, is how the sun finally resolves around the user and her needs, not the librarian and her longstanding practices and habits.
Fiddling with Em Dashes While Cyberspace Burns
"BSTF" is fairly radical and pulls no punches. "For the past ten years online searching has become simpler and more effective everywhere, except in library catalogs," it states, then cites the "BSTF" mantra: "Users want immediate satisfaction."
I blinked: did a report from an academic institution really refer to "user satisfaction"? I blinked a few more times as I kept reading.
"BSTF" states library systems "pale" next to Amazon, Google, and iTunes; is sharply critical of the practice of offering "fragmented set of systems to search for published information (catalogs, A&I databases, full text journal sites, institutional repositories, etc)"; makes the case for full-text searching; and states that traditional cataloging and acquisitions' workflows do not serve users well and are extremely expensive for their outcomes.
Sacred cows go heels-up in "BSTF." The report goes so far to recommend," Consider using controlled vocabularies only for name, uniform title, date, and place, and abandoning the use of controlled vocabularies [LCSH, MESH, etc] for topical subjects in bibliographic records."
"BSTF," at least by traditional academic standards, even has buttery warm things to say about tagging and folksonomies: "We should monitor current experiments in social bookmarking, folksonomies, and the like as applied to bibliographic data, and consider adding these features if they prove valuable."
As for all that time and money we spend creating metadata: "In addition to staff created resource descriptions, metadata can be obtained from vendors and publishers, derived automatically from data, or contributed by users. ... Given its prohibitive cost, staff created metadata should be applied only when there is proven value for current and future scholars."
The phrase "proven value" should be carved into stone and carried through the halls at ALA Midwinter. This phrase embodies UC's implicit acknowledgement that some of our most central library practices are neither evidence-driven nor have any logic in a networked environment.
There's much more in this report, from rethinking how serials are done to a call for FRBR-izing catalogs. (FRBR in a nutshell: a user shouldn't be confused by multiple records for the same item.) We should all be exposing our metadata—and no, we won't be arrested for that, either.
In a world as diverse as ours, catalogs should support all language sets (or, as some say, "non-Roman"). Consolidate your resources instead of dribbling finite funds across multiple, duplicated library systems. Spend your money on content and user outcomes, not on practices developed in the nineteenth century for dead-tree catalogs. Work toward a single-search-box approach. Most of all, though, the report infers, we must change, and change quickly. We can't afford our old practices.
I like "BSTF" most of all for acknowledging that the user is not broken. The user is quite smart, in fact, and is not to blame for the shortcomings of search in library applications. Library and information science has, for the most par, failed to address the limitations of its own tools with serious user-centric analyses and solutions. But the user has a hero in the team that wrote this brave report.
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