Sunday, February 03, 2008

The library catalogue

I mentioned in an earlier post that one of the big things I get to do at work this year is be involved in the migration of our library catalogue to a new LMS. Perhaps I'm a masochist, but this just seems to me like heaps of fun - it gives us the opportunity to rethink what we're doing, get new toys, and it's also a project - and I love projects. I love planning them and seeing them unfold and I really love ticking them off at the end!

First up, a bit of background. In my old job we were using a LMS called C2, which was entirely unsuitable for our needs. On my list of things that needed to be done to the library was "get a new LMS", but when you're the only full time staff member, big things like that take a long time to get done, so I was never able to actually do that. I tell you this to illustrate that a) I'd already fantasised about the idea of getting a new LMS in a different context, and also b) that I don't have much experience with LMSs.

That last point is important. It's also relevant that I'm not a cataloguer. Oh sure, I know the principles behind cataloguing, and it was covered in my library degree (unlike some others, something that I believe ALIA is starting to get a bit concerned about). But having worked with what one might refer to in an understated manner as a special collection, I'm aware that cataloguing is a particular skill, and those that are good at it need more than one semester of training 4 years ago. I can catalogue a simple book, but I'm not a cataloguer.

So, back to work. We are at the stage in the new LMS project where we are thinking about the structure of the catalogue records. We are asking ourselves which fields we want, what the characteristics of those fields should be, and which would be viewable by our customers. Oh lordy, I do love a good argument, and we're having some doosies.

What is the purpose of a library catalogue? Is it for the staff or the customers? It's obvious that in the past it was for the staff - the entire structure of traditional catalogues is so insanely arcane that one needed a library degree to understand them. But nowadays I think we really need to change.

I went to Information Online in 2007 and attended a fantastic presentation on the future of library catalogues - I would love to link to it here but it seems the ALIA website isn't playing nice today. The speaker was asking all the same questions we're asking now - what's the point of this, what do customers want, and can we adapt what we have or do we need to rethink the catalogue entirely?

Personally, I lean towards the latter, but then I'm not actually in the position to create a new catalogue. The speaker at this session had a wonderful illustration of his point - it seems librarians tend to argue that they need all the information that is currently shown in catalogues. The speaker showed on screen the information that a customer would receive if they looked for a book in the British Library, in the Library of Congress, in Libraries Australia (I think that was the third example), and in Amazon.

Amazon had by far the most information about a given book, but what was really interesting was the way that information was arranged. On first viewing (without even needing to scroll down the page) the customer could see what the book was and whether it was available. It would be hard not to argue that, in general, this is what people want to know. Further scrolling or linking gave all the other information about the book - bibliographic details, customer and published reviews, links to other items people have purchased. It was all there, and more.

The other examples varied, but in each example information such as the ISBN was presented before information on holdings and availability. This is all wrong, people! Our users don't give a stuff about the ISBN! They want to know whether we have the book - that's usually about it! I can think of some examples from my own use where it can take click after click after click to find out whether the book is on the shelf (I'm looking at you, Sydney City Library).

To tie this in to my earlier points - I've met too many cataloguers who say that a field has to be there and filled in a certain way because that's what the AACR say. I'm all for standardisation, but this is the tail wagging the dog. If the AACR don't match your customer need, either don't use them or move to change them. Don't assume that the external rules are more important than your internal needs - and this especially applied in private special libraries like my current workplace. This seems to be one of those situations where a lack of experience is working in my favour - not knowing how things are meant to work stops me from assuming that the traditional way is the best way.

Now, if only the ALIA website would come back to life so I could direct you all to that wonderful presentation that has stuck with me so much...