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TLA Conference – The Future of Catalogs April 23, 2008

Filed under: Conferences,TLA 2008 — ellie @ 3:03 pm
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What is the role of the library catalog in a world where users expect to find everything from one search box? Where does it belong in the value chain? How will it work and who will provide it? Explore a no-holds-barred look at the future of catalogs.
Roy Tennant, senior program officer, OCLC (Dublin, OH).

The Future of Catalogs was presented by Roy Tennant. He was introduced with a long and impressive list of accolades and broke straight into the agitation for which I’m sure he was invited.

“Future? What future? Catalogs ain’t got no stinking future?”

He explained that’s upsetting to us because we put so much time and energy into building them. He’s trying to slay the word OPAC – it’s an anachronistic word. Use catalog or ILS.

Roy explained that discovery increasingly happens elsewhere (e.g. Google). If libraries are not there, not reflected in sites like that, they’re going to miss us. OCLC is trying to make that happen. While I agree with much of what Roy had to say throughout the presentation it still came off a bit preachy and like an OCLC sales pitch and sat a little sour with me. But like I said, I’m sure he was brought in to stir the pot, and I think he did an excellent job at that.

He cited the OCLC report on where people start their search – search engine 98%, library website – 2%. [Frankly I’m impressed it reached 2%. How many librarians start their searches at the library website when not helping a constituent? For how many general searches is the library website even the appropriate place to start?]

He said that users have been trained to look for a search box and button. They don’t even see all the other stuff on the page. So even when they come to us we don’t meet their expectations. We give them what we have in our building, they expect the world of information. [I strongly disagree with this statement. Speaking as a community college librarian, a large number of my questions include a student who wants a book and wants it now. They don’t want what we have at another campus and can get here in 2 days. The paper is due tomorrow. Yes, I share electronic resources with them that are often very helpful, but just as often they’ve already gotten most of their research done, but the teacher is requiring that they cite at least one book. Or they just aren’t comfortable with ebooks or don’t have a computer at home and want something they are familiar with, can hold, and take home. Or thinking of public libraries, or anyone coming in for leisure reading – they’re not interested in the world of information, they’re interested in what you have in that building. I would wager that far more people who enter a library are actually more interested in what is physically in that building than the whole world of information.]

He talked about the management environment – the stuff we have to keep track of (our resources – bought, licensed, various authorizations) vs. the interface to the consumer environment. He said we’re not injecting ourselves into personal workflow, institutional workflow. He challenged us to syndicate out into the user environment. We have to surround them and not expect them to come to us. In the past the library has been an edifice that users come to. That world is gone. Now the user is the center of their own universe. They know they can find good info at their computer. We need to make sure they see us. That we’re there in usable ways.

Library imperatives – being where they are, services built for them, where and when they want them. E.g. – instructor’s course web page. [Love this idea.]

Understanding their needs and desires – convenience trumps quality. If you’re writing a 3 page paper your requirements are a lot less than a grad student doing a thesis. We need to help them get the best info before they give up.

Sharing trumps privacy – we have to consider allowing the user to drop that wall when they want to. E.g. allow info about books they checked out so they can get recommendations. Offering control, enabling personal collections and personal uses, mashups, repurposing. E.g. graduate students or faculty members. [I think this is where he mentioned that this demographic had no way to track citations/collect research materials currently, which is of course ridiculous since there are gobs of software alternatives for this kind of thing, Endnote being the first that comes to mind, but certainly not the only or the best. Should we make library records exportable to citation management software? Absolutely! Should we expect the next generation catalog to become citation management software? I think not.]

He also talked about disclosing content on the net in useful ways. He’s working on some best practices. [I’m very interested in this. The mantra “expose yourself to search engines” seems at best ill thought out currently. There are the easy and obvious examples – if you have special collections for example, definitely mention them on the relevant Wikipedia page, or use tools to try to get the site more recognition. But what about those of us who aren’t large research institutions? I asked more about this in the Q&A section at the end, but didn’t receive much beyond OCLC is working on it. I think it would be wonderful to team up with the big search engines to have a “find it at your local library” suggestion whenever anyone searches for a book or an author. How can we make that happen? Google book search does have a “find this book in a library” feature that leads to WorldCat and seems to know my location. In my dream world the first hit for a search for a book would take you to some sort of FRBR-ized version of what Open Library is doing (one page for every book) where you can then buy, borrow, or get a free version online. I suppose this is what OCLC is trying to be, but I somehow feel a little better about a group that doesn’t have a pricing page being the ones in charge of it…]

The demise of the local catalog – discovery increasingly happens at the network level. Even when it happens at the local level, few want to limit their search to only books. [I think there are some inherent problems with trying to search for articles and books at the same times since the granular metadata isn’t there for books yet, so many relevant books would be missed in favor of articles. Different sources have different types of information in them which would be retrieved with different keywords, so I don’t know that a single search interface would actually help you or save you any time. But there’s probably a solution out there somewhere.]

Even if they do want to limit themselves to books, our systems don’t include what they can find at Google books. [If what he meant here was “doesn’t include all the free books online” then I agree, it would be great to get all the free online books indexed in one place and then get those records into our catalogs – assuming you could also filter them out for people who want something made of paper to walk away with. If what he meant was “doesn’t list all the books indexed by Google books” well then why should it? And better yet, why choose Google books as your marker? Why not LOC? Why not OCLC? I still think most people coming in to most libraries want to know what that library has, not what the world has.]

New finding tools are making traditional library catalogs obsolete. Note: libraries still need an ILS but it will not be the way users find what they want. Put a new finding tool in front of users. His idea is Open WorldCat. Discovery up at top. Why this makes sense – users typically want to find everything they can on a topic. [I’d really like to see a study to back this up. My impression is that constituents are more likely to want the book they’re looking for, or a book on the topic or in the genre they’re looking for. Only people writing research papers want as much as possible and even then they often only want as much as they need to reach their word limit. As an aside – another argument I have against federated searching is the mixing of reading levels. There is no point in bringing in detailed chemistry or biology journal articles for someone who just wants to write their 4th grade book report on spiders. Knowing which resource to go to is valuable, not in a “oh you need us” kind of way, but in a “let’s not mix everything together so that it makes it hard to find what you want” kind of way. One of the main roles of librarians as I see it is to help people learn the research process – how to evaluate sources, where to go depending on what you’re looking for, etc.]

Users prefer to search in one place if possible – “only librarians like to search, everyone else prefers to find.” They want to know how soon they can get it but not much more. Most ILS have been optimized for librarians not users. [That I will definitely agree with!]

Taking a look at what users are accustomed to – Amazon. Here he showed a slide of the UC Berkeley catalog – they built it themselves. Then the site redesign – added choices. He was saying there are too many choices before you can run your search. [On the other hand, if he’s saying that they don’t notice any of that stuff, what’s the harm in putting it there? Maybe they’ll learn something.]

Then he showed the advanced search page. 51 choices for what to search on – including binder file. No reason to be in front of users. [I would argue that some options are worthwhile, moreover, the next generation catalogs still have those refinements, you just usually select them after you’ve run your search, refine by location, format, subject, etc.] No vendor was involved in this disaster. They’ve been kind enough to give us what we’ve asked them for. Melvyl at UC – shows a record of a book that is available online in full text – goes to a copyright notice. Is this what the Google generation expects? Deserves? [I don’t know whether the copyright notice was required or not, so I’ll skip that, but I’ll agree with how far the person has to hunt through the record to find out that there’s also a free version online. Or an exact copy that happened to be published a different year. We need some better sort of works level access rather than jumping immediately to the item level. I like what LibraryThing is doing with this and includes in their LibraryThing for Libraries services. I’ve pitched this at my college and hope that it goes through.]

Next gen finding tools are able to integrate access to a wide variety of sources. Able to use information from other systems as well as provide it (via protocols). Offer sophisticated features like relevance ranking, faceted browsing.

libraryfind.org – open source project to provide a metasearch tool. OSU libraries are developing it. Facets on left to narrow results. Surfacing the richness of the data that so far has been hidden. Integrates access to articles as well.

WorldCat Local – faceted browsing, relevance ranked. Books are ranked – complicated algorithms but also includes number of libraries holding – so most popular go to top. Integrated articles. First thing you see are local holdings, then regional consortium, then everything else. Set up in concentric circles where the user is the center and how soon they can get it is the center. [This explanation went a long way to help sell me on his provide them everything idea.]

Our viewpoint = local collections, then our group, then the global

User’s viewpoint = same building, 1-2 days, 1-2 weeks. Tell me what I have to go through to get this and I’ll decide if its worth it.

WorldCat identities – pulls in cover art, publishing timeline, most widely held works, genre – chicklit, fictionfinder, tag cloud, can search on genres, settings

He said he’d be remiss if he didn’t show some of the vendor options.

ExLibris’s Primo

Libraries have begun to develop tools themselves

Penn library – search box and button at top searches web site, journal articles, catalog, ebooks, research guides

He said “it really doesn’t take a whole lot to do this.” [I think that depends very much on your resources both financial and technical. I know there’s a desire to let people know how easy things can be, but let’s not forget the single librarian rural libraries with no money and no tech skills and no tech department. Again, I know he was brought in to be inflammatory and inspiring, but I think this attitude of “It’s so easy!” is actually more condescending than reassuring. It had this undertone of “get with the times people!” and it definitely rubbed me the wrong way. It’s simple to say, but not at all simple to do. Change in large institutions is hard because of all the administration and bureaucracy that needs to be plowed through. Change in small institutions is hard because of lack of funds, technology, and technical skills. Change is hard. It’s important – definitely, but let’s not pretend it’s easy.]

Talk to your users, do needs assessment, usability testing

Next gen catalogs – not his preference that we continue to have silos of information. Try to provide a unified interface.

A brief moment to discuss taxonomy:

  • ILS = integrated library system – including circulation, cataloging, etc
  • discovery system = only the public interface, doesn’t replace the ILS

both can be locally configured/maintained or centrally hosted

Needs an API between discovery system and ILS.

Questions to consider:

  • Do you want to replace your ILS or just your public interface?
  • Can you consider open source options? Many cannot.
  • Do you have the technical expertise to set it up and maintain it locally?
  • Are you willing to regularly harvest data from the ILS to discovery system?



  • one of his favorite interfaces [Mine too, this is one I made a note to look into further]
  • developed by Villanova
  • open source supported by palinet
  • vufind.org has a demo version
  • tells you available or checked out in results
  • also call number and location
  • faceted browsing – narrow by material type or topic
  • shows similar items
  • review that they bring in from amazon

OCLC offering API for WorldCat


  • blogging platform made over into a library catalog system
  • based on wordpress
  • Plymouth State University
  • nice search suggestions !!
  • Shakespeare
  • they use the word tags rather than subjects since users are used to that

What does the future hold? A few predictions:

  • Users of local library services will continue to (and increasingly) discover them beginning at the network level.
  • The basic infrastructure for small and medium sized libraries will be commoditized and outsourced.
  • The overall spending on library software will decrease.

What do I do now?

Most of you should just hang tight. Some will be early adapters, but he wants to see some more shakeout happen. Keep your eyes, ears and minds open. Don’t despair, you will survive this too. Laugh because if you’re not having fun you’re not doing it right.

Then we went to audience questions.

Shawne Miksa was first up. She wanted to point out that much more work is needed on the back end to make these tools effective. Whatever the display is, the data is needed.

She also wanted to ask about the statistics – it was an online survey – she thinks it was a narrow user group. Should we only focus on that one user group? Roy said no – we should ask our users, but since many libraries don’t have the resources to do in depth user studies, general surveys can help. Shawne said that her 70 year old mom won’t understand tags. She also worries about dumbing down system. Roy replied that it’s not dumbing down, but making it easy to use. We’ve required the user to come up with complicated boolean queries, it’s all about building intelligence into the back end. Shawne also lamented that she never hears anything about people can learn. Roy thinks its important that we not require them to learn. [I’m a bit split down the middle on this one. I do believe that teaching is a main component of my job as a librarian. I also agree that our systems should be easier to use. I think a lot of it depends on what the person is looking for when they come into the library and I’m not convinced that adopting the single search box method is the best approach.]

The next person had an odd question about being indexed. His IT department told him that was bad because that puts you into Google cache, which made them more likely to be hacked. The general consensus was “huh?”

The next question was about his claim that young people don’t care about privacy, that we should give them the option to drop that. She asked about our responsibility to inform them. He thinks there are ways to provide what they want and maintain privacy. [I agree with this completely and think that this should be the message that people use in the first place. We can do lots of great 2.0 things without throwing out our privacy concerns. I think this is a much more effective and responsible approach than the “get with the times, the kids don’t care” one I usually hear. The kids might not care, but that’s just because they’re young enough to think they’re invincible and that the McCarthy era could never happen again.]

The next woman offered that one of the heartburn items is feeling they’ll lose what they want in terms of searching. [This was a really great point, assuring librarians that they won’t lose the functionality they’re used to is important.]

Next up, I asked more about making libraries crawlable. As I said above, I get what libraries with special collections can do, but what is the approach for smaller libraries? There’s no reason our sites would or even should rank near the top. He suggests using Google sitemap to get your ranking up, but outside of that that the real initiative is to get WorldCat into the search results and have your library found through WorldCat. I also asked what WorldCat was doing to get higher in the search results. He said they are in Google book search, but didn’t have any specifics beyond that.

The next question was on the role of OCLC as gatekeeper. And unfortunately I must have been walking back to my chair then because that’s where my notes end and I sorely wish I had his answer to reflect on here.

My parting thought on this session (which will come up again when I cover the general session later) is my general personal unease with the antagonistic approach that I frequently see when proposing important changes. I think that this session and the general session later in the day were well received, but I worry they were preaching to the converted. There’s something to be said for firing up the choir, but in terms of getting new recruits I wonder if we might not catch more flies with honey. “Look at all the wonderful options we can offer our constituents!” rather than “Get with the times or die!” I will readily admit that I’m probably more sensitive than most people, but I don’t see the need to be so disparaging towards what’s come before. Librarians did the best they could with what they had and now we have some great new tools in front of us that will take some time to learn how to use. This is an exciting opportunity! Let’s share that enthusiasm and optimism and try to put aside the negativity as much as possible.


4 Responses to “TLA Conference – The Future of Catalogs”

  1. Alice Says:

    Thanks for this great summary, Ellie. We like (and need) to hear your feedback!!

  2. ellieheartslibraries Says:

    Thanks Alice!

  3. Ellie,

    I was the one who asked about the role of OCLC as gatekeeper. The reason you don’t remember an answer was that there basically wasn’t one. Roy did agree that in the future there may be improved localization techniques for libraries wanting to expose their collections, and he also agreed that libraries should experiment with as many possible ways to expose their content as they’re comfortable with. Sitemaps are one option, but only if your catalog permits deep-linking into it (no session IDs, among other things).

    Danielle Cunniff Plumer
    Texas State Library and Archives Commission

  4. ellieheartslibraries Says:

    Thanks Danielle!

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