Kirill Fesenko. Library Online Catalogs as Propaidea to Collections (2004)
This paper examines the role of library catalogs in connection with the technological changes of the last two decades, effects of these changes on readers and libraries, and possible ways of improving the catalogs. Mortimer Adler’s perspective on learning is applied to demonstrate that subject browse trees should be added to online catalogs.
Readers’ learning: four goods and two intentions of the mind
The fundamental idea of libraries as collections of records of human knowledge is naturally linked with the concepts of human learning and knowledge. Thus, it would be useful to consider what knowledge is, how we learn at least in the most general sense and the role of libraries. Although there are many views on the nature of knowledge and learning (Null 2003; Rowland 2004), for the purpose of this paper I would like to use Mortimer Adler’s approach of “the four goods of the mind.” This perspective had been used by authoritive writers in the library science field (Crawford, Gorman 1995; Mann 2000) and it is particularly helpful for understanding of the learning process.
Adler distinguished information, knowledge, understanding, and wisdom as four goods of the mind which “ascend in a scale of values, information having the least value, wisdom the greatest” (1986, 110). He suggested in 1986 that people normally acquire information “bit by bit” from the newspapers, magazines, TV and radio shows and that a great deal of information is useless for the mind. A higher value knowledge is acquired in a different, more organized and systematic way in which “its component parts are related to one another, their sequence and interconnection, has some intelligible rationale” (110-111).
Another Adler’s useful perspective of “two intentions of the mind” comes from medieval thought. It suggests that we use our minds in the first intention when we study reality and its different manifestations. The second intention is employed when we use our minds to understand branches of knowledge which in turn are used for the exploration of reality (100). Adler stresses the importance of the second intention of the mind, understanding of the order of knowledge and relations of its branches to the readers’ success in the movement from information to knowledge to understanding and wisdom.
These ideas were reflected in the organization of Encyclopaedia Britannica. Mortimer Adler was deeply involved in shaping this publication as a member and a chair of its board of directors from the 1940s to the 1990s. During his time at Britannica, a new volume with the topical outline of knowledge called Propaedia was originally added to its fifteenth edition in 1974 and its improved version published with Britannica’s 1985 edition. The main goal of Propaedia was to serve as an introduction to the encyclopedia as a whole and to “present its readers with a systematic or topical outline of knowledge that maps or charts the whole world of learning in a way that provides guidelines for the exploration of all its related parts” (19). Adler was also comparing encyclopedias to universities and libraries in a sense that when upon reaching a certain magnitude they, similarly to encyclopedias, claim to cover “the whole sphere of what is known”:
"The word “university” echoes the word “universe” – an all inclusive whole in which everything can be found. The very word “encyclopedia” promises to provide the great circle (encyclo) of general learning (paideia) that every cultivated human being should possess." (4)
Adlers’ perspectives in application to libraries and catalogs
Libraries and librarians come to service to readers by providing authoritive information resources for their communities and systematic access to them. Hartzell puts this idea with respect to Adler’s approach in the following way:
"Even in Newton’s time, more information was regularly generated than any single person could absorb. The test now, as then, is to distinguish informational value. Librarians and teachers provide the arena for students to make those tests. By helping students evaluate the resources they find and assess their relative value, we build their capacity to discern. Then, by helping them to discern not only the implications of what they know, but how each piece may be interrelated, we enable them to construct the context that produces learning. It’s that process that invokes Adler’s higher-level gods [sic] of the mind. It’s that process that draws knowledge from information and allows knowledge to evolve into understanding." (2002, 35)
Libraries offer a number of ways to help readers access and select quality materials exactly in this interrelated way which ”enables them to construct the context that produces learning.” This includes library catalogs, “big red books” and other knowledge classification schemes showing subject hierarchies and interrelations, bibliographies, reference literature and open shelves for browsing of classified books. Importantly, reference librarians are available to readers to help with their inquiries and provide assistance on the use of these tools.
Library catalogs play especially important role as collections would be unusable without them. Following Cutter’s rules, library catalogs allow finding works by an author, by title, editions of a work, and works on a given subject. Iuliia Dresher, Russian expert on bibliotherapy, also points out that subject catalogs play two distinctive functions in a library: informational and educational. As an informational resource, subject catalogs uncover the contents of a library collection organized by various branches of knowledge. On the other side, working with the subject catalogs, readers learn about divisions of knowledge and find new terms which are helpful in reformulating their queries. This educational function of subject catalogs, especially if they are supplemented with annotations, is similar to the one of the recommended bibliographic materials (2001).
Following Adler’s approach, we can assume that readers are using the second intention of the mind when they consult library subject catalogs and knowledge classification schemes in order to understand the systematic outline of knowledge and its related parts. Librarians provide service to readers by selecting and classifying valuable knowledge records, helping readers to access and navigate collections and understand both their scope and organization. Kling points out that this is librarians’ unique epistemic expertise, the expertise that “refers to the study of the nature, sources, and limits of knowledge” (2001, 146).
Before moving on to the next sections which addresses recent technological changes and their effects on the readers and learning in light of Adler’s definitions, I would like to note that the previous section provided an outline of some basics of human learning processes and how library machine and its librarians-operators serve readers in their pursuit of knowledge. A special emphasis was made on the value of understanding and use of knowledge classification schemes, library subject catalogs, and librarians’ unique epistemic expertise for readers’ learning. These elements support readers’ “second intention of the mind” to understand intelligible rational of subject hierarchies and their interrelations needed for conversion of bits of information into useable knowledge and provide foundation for further progress towards understanding and wisdom.
Libraries and change
The science and art of building collections and providing access to them have undergone many changes. During the passing of various writing materials and formats of knowledge records librarians remained the guardians and gatekeepers to collective memory of human kind. Transition from the book to card catalogs around 1900s, introduction of micro formats in the 1960s, automation of library processes and conversion of card catalog to OPACs in the 1970s and 1980s are but some examples of records format and technological innovations that effected libraries during the last century. During the last two-three decades, however, technological changes have deeply effected not just the format of knowledge records and organization of libraries, but also the mere ways in which readers access information.
Positive effects of networked electronic resources
Computers and Internet have taken a substantial part of our lives and effected the ways we communicate, do business, research, study, shop, spend free time, etc. In general, new information technologies immensely increased our productivity – never before in the human history information was as easily copied, transmitted and accessed. Libraries and readers benefited as well through introduction of automation systems, online bibliographic utilities, digital libraries and electronic resources which can be accessed 24/7 from basically anywhere. Importantly, Internet and innovative technologies helped to improve access to bibliographic records, newspaper and journal articles, statistics, collections of rare and brittle material. The same task of finding relevant newspaper and journal articles that would have taken hours or days of looking through many paper editions in a library collection twenty years ago can be done in minutes and with better results through full-text searching today.
Negative effects of networked electronic resources
On the other side, researchers reports a number of negative effects on readers and their learning associated with the changing information seeking habits and the fact that for many readers the Internet has become the main access point to information. It is commonly admitted that readers now often start their research with Internet search engines (and many end up with using whatever they find in search results) than at a physical library or even with its online catalog.
Grimes & Boening study of two community college classes revealed that students preferred Internet resources to library print collections because of the ease of access and printing out the search results. Students were even unaware that relevant online resources are available from the library. Interestingly, the same study established that students’ instructors were unable to provide detailed instructions on the evaluation methods for Internet resources and students based their opinion on the credibility of an Internet resource on “how the page looked” rather than its content (2001). Interviews conducted within another study of changes in the information seeking of undergraduates, graduates and faculty showed that participants from all three groups mentioned “Internet” more often than “libraries” when they were asked about sources of information for any purpose. However, same participants confirmed that there are new obstacles to finding information: problem of “not knowing where to start,” questionable authority of Internet sources and information overload. (Young & Seggern 2001).
Information overload is one of the most common problems experienced by readers heavily relying on the Internet. Morgan & Reade point out that “To suffocate reality, information overflows and produces “information overload.” What happens in this phenomenon is that one’s capacity for sustained concentration, attentional reserves, and ability to choose become exhausted” (2002) – important point for a later discussion of the online catalogs.
Brian Quinn reports similar reader attitude towards online resources vs print. He adds other observations of changes in readers’ approach to library:
"Many students who approach the library’s reference desk no longer merely ask for information but, rather, ask for it in a certain format, often specifying computer instead of paper resources. Determining which format would best provide information was ones the professional prerogative of the librarian. Now, however, many students find computers faster and easier to use than paper sources and may insist on obtaining their information in a convenient form. The quality of information becomes secondary.. Many new students may demand that the librarian find information for them rather than be shown by the librarian how to find it themselves." (2000)
Eric Ormsby reports yet other changes in the ways readers seek information – “If a title or an author is not instantaneously located in a database or an online catalog, the assumption is made (and is quite hard to shake) that the title or author does not exist. Gone are the days of tedious and often fruitless hours spent toiling through bibliographies and bibliographies of bibliographies for a single nugget of fact.” The author also “observed over the last two decades that research in libraries, among undergraduate and graduate students, is becoming shallower and shallower” (2001, 10). This worrisome observation is shared by David Rothenberg citing a “disturbing decline in both the quality of the writing and the originality of thoughts expressed” in students’ research papers (1998).
Dilevko & Gottlieb present statistical data showing that the use of libraries by the undergraduate students is dropping steadily since early 1990s while the online traffic is growing:
University of Idaho: “door counts and book circulation have decreased by more than 20% since 1997,” but since 1999, the number of electronic articles retrieved went up by about 350%.”
Augusta State University: gate counts are down from 402,631 in 1992/1993 to 217,917 in 2000/2001 academic year while “online traffic increased dramatically.”
Associating of Research Libraries: The total number of reference queries among ARL members in 1995 was about 21 mln and only 16 mln in 2000.
Citations analysis also points to the fact that the number of book citations in undergraduate term papers is dropping since 1996. However, another study cited by Dilevko & Gottlieb shows increasing use of print resources when students face exams during the second or third year of the university (2002). This interesting effect that readers tend to use more paper resources when faced with the need to turn in a higher quality work is consistent with results of another study. Donald Waters cites the following numbers: more than four out of five UCLA’s freshman students use Internet for research or homework. On the other side, a survey of Harvard’s seniors use of print and electronic resources in research papers in humanities revealed that 75% of resources used were print materials. Students ranked print resources higher than electronic in four out of five factors “that make a difference in the quality of research and learning: generating the information for which the student is looking, the usefulness of the material, its reliability, and the availability of assistance.” Only factor of convenience scored higher for Internet resources. The author suggests that “a college course of study has a tremendous sobering effect in revealing the real value of the currently available Internet resources” (2001).
The Principle of Least Effort
Thomas Mann in Library Research Models suggests an answer to the question of why readers would rather use the networked electronic resources than higher quality non-electronic materials in library collections. Based on the results of several studies on user information seeing patterns conducted from early 1950s, Mann formulated the Principle of Least Effort:
"..most researchers (even “serious” scholars) will tend to choose easily available information sources, even if they are objectively of low quality, and, further, will tend to be satisfied with whatever can be found easily in preference to pursuing higher-quality sources whose use would require a greater expenditure of effort... as a general rule of thumb, people tend to choose perceived ease of access over quality of content in selecting an information source or channel." (1993, 91)
Negative effects and libraries
The negative effects of easily accessible Internet resources on readers and learning are well known to most librarians. Many feel that the traditional role of librarians as guardians and gatekeepers to collective memory has been challenged by the Internet in a new way. However, the scope of technological changes of the last two decades seem to have far acceded everything libraries encountered before. The speed in which these changes took place was breathtaking as well giving little time to analyze them, adapt to the new environment and even less to actively influence it.
Library literature and various conferences present a wide range of conflicting ideas about what libraries should become in the changed world. Rob Kling notes that “In academia, some physicists and computer scientists publicly brag that they don’t use or need libraries” (2001, 145). The library science itself becomes increasingly interdisciplinary and seemingly less relevant as several library schools have been closed or adopted computer and information science curriculum. Eric Ormsby also notes that “at least two once-essential disciplines, that of cataloger and that of bibliographer, have been weakened, if not rendered obsolete” (2001, 10).
Some academic libraries seem to be giving up to the popularity of the Internet by increasingly adopting the “Internet Centered Model.” Access to Internet appears in this model to be the main function of a library complimented with snack bars and other Borders bookstore-like conveniences (Mann 2001). Dilevko, Gottlieb and Mann suggest that this effort to attract students back inside the library walls in fact downgrades the library’s permanent collections to a secondary role. Finally, there is also a case of Des Moines Area Community College (West Campus) library which has been turned to completely paper-free library providing access to e-journals and e-books only.
Networked electronic resources and learning
To sum up the above sections on the effects of networked electronic resources on learning in light of Adler’s perspective of “four goods and two intentions of the mind,” I suggest the following conclusions:
1. Core paper book library collections appear to be less relevant to readers compared to electronic resources. Readers are generally overwhelmed by information overload and many struggle with evaluation of the uncontrolled Internet resources.
2. Both library and non-library electronic resources come to readers in the disconnected form where pieces are not interrelated. This complicates the process of constructing “the context that produces learning.. and that draws knowledge from information and allows knowledge to evolve into understanding.”
3. A growing distance between librarians and readers prevents librarians from providing their epistemic expertise to readers.
It is also obvious that the number of electronic resources will continue to grow and that Internet will persist its evolution as a main channel of communication and access point to information for most readers. The following sections will examine how libraries connect with readers on this communication channel.
Increasing role of online catalogs
“Now that employees have access to the catalog from their desks, the catalog might be the only contact librarians have with patrons” – points out Lee Stocker (Crosby 2000). Distance learning students for whom UIUC’s OPAC is the only contact they have with the university library would agree with this opinion. Given the fact that readers spend more time on the Internet than in physical libraries, we can assert that role of online catalogs as an access point to library collections and services has significantly increased compared to the role of OPACs in the pre-Internet era.
Back then, OPACs provided one of several possible venues for readers to explore knowledge organization in a systematic way in which “its component parts are related to one another, their sequence and interconnection, has some intelligible rationale.” Other venues available for inquiries into subject hierarchies included LCSH’s “big red books” (and other knowledge classification schemes), browsing of classified books on the open shelves and using a reference librarian’s epistemic expertise. These other venues are getting less used as readers spend more time working with electronic resources and Internet sites. Thus, the role of online catalogs as maps or charts that readers can rely on for the exploration of knowledge organization increases.
Online catalogs vs search engines and problems with keyword searching
A lot has been said in the library literature about information overload, instability and unreliability of Web sites and other problems with doing research on the Internet. Still, readers follow The Principle of Least Effort and tend to like commercial search engines better than library online catalogs as points of access to information. The following two views are not uncommon:
Colin Powell, Secretary, U.S. Dept. of State:
"I told my staff: I no longer have any encyclopedias, any dictionaries, or any reference materials anywhere in my office, whatsoever, I don’t need them. I’ve stopped using all reference materials because you don’t need it. All you need is a search engine.. [it is] on my screen all day long so that if I need to know anything about anything or anybody, or whatever, I just throw it in the search engine and it’s faster than me reaching for a dictionary or reaching for an encyclopedia, or reaching for a reference book. So I just threw them all out." (2002)
John Berry, Editor-in-Chief, Library Journal:
"When I go to library OPAC I almost always trip over some unnecessary need to enter here or click there. I know I get name and subject authority control and highly standardized forms of entry. But the OPACs are not as fast or as easy as the search engines.. Ultimately, I’ll sacrifice my comfort in the library’s authorized results for Google’s speed and convenience. Human interaction with librarians is even slower. Now I go to the search engines first. They have captured and filled 90 percent of my reference needs, and they don’t annoy me by asking if I really want what I got.. There is only one admonition for fellow librarians in all this: when you develop library systems, services, or policies, avoid excessive, off-putting functionality. In other words: keep it simple!" (2002, 8)
In the eyes of many expert and certainly many more novice searchers, OPACs are not as powerful or user-friendly as commercial search engines. Thus, the keyword searching has become a default way of retrieving documents for many readers who have been relying on popular search engines for years. This is a problem for research as Thomas Mann points out: “At real reference desks, the results we observe are that Boolean searches alone in fact make it much easier for searchers to entirely miss the most appropriate sources” (2003, 54).
There are several issues with the keyword searching. The readers’ word choice itself depends on many factors including reader familiarity with the subject, educational and ethnic backgrounds. Secondly, readers’ term usage can be different from the one of the cataloger which may result in 0 hits in the OPAC. Also, many readers are used to Google’s alerts to other alternatives for misspelled words. OPACs on the contrary often produce 0 hits on the misspelled words and a reader might think that the library has nothing on her topic (Theimer 2002).
Keyword searching, especially if used as the only way of access to knowledge records, is not helpful for conversion of information to knowledge if looked at from Adler’s point of view. Libraries have to improve their online catalogs if they want readers to rely on them in pursuit of knowledge in an online environment. How else would libraries attract readers to their sites otherwise?
Choosing right priorities for online catalogs
Commercial database providers know very well that one of the most (if not the most) important factors that influence their current and future market share is choosing of the right priorities for systems development. Today’s information technologies offer a broad range of possibilities and choosing wrong ones can cost a fortune even to a large company. To choose right priorities, one needs to have a good understanding of current trends, user needs and a foresight. Libraries face similar challenges with regard to online catalogs development and their shrinking “market share” on the Internet is a clear signal that something might be wrong with the priorities. Patrick Sommers points out: “What is competing for people’s screen time? That’s where the library has to look to understand what people like about interfaces.. More and more, access to library resources can be done through an interface” (Kenney 2003).
Even a quick look at some of the possibilities for catalog improvement would produce a long list of options. This list could be divided into the following groups, for example: (1) content development; (2) interface; (3) search features; (4) search results display; (5) browsing; (6) personalization; (7) records format; (8) added value features and (9) miscellaneous (see Table 1). Obviously, it is difficult to implement all these great ideas suggested by researchers. The options are too many and among some of the possible questions that librarians might want to consider while choosing priorities are these:
Certainly, there is no easy or single answer that would satisfy everyone. Many libraries can choose little because of the financial and technological restrains of their own or third-party online catalogs and integrated library systems. However, what might be even more important for libraries than funds, at this point, is an understanding that the online catalogs should be improved not just because libraries need to divert users back to their Web sites from Google but because libraries need to reestablish themselves as gatekeepers to knowledge records. It is important to understand that some OPAC “bells and whistles” are not going to help readers in their progress from information to knowledge to understanding to wisdom in the same way as coffee shops and other Borders-like conveniences won’t help readers’ advancement in learning in the physical libraries. If this understanding is achieved, it will become easier to express certain requirements in the guidelines to online catalogs, consider cooperative efforts and communicate demands to commercial software vendors.
The need for easier interfaces or “dumbing down” the catalog
“I guess I would say that OPACs are complicated because the world is complicated,” Michael Gorman responded to John Berry’s comment (see above) on the ease of using Google compared to library online catalogs (Gorman 2003). This interesting explanation of complexity of OPACs by the complexity of the world itself has some old roots. In 1915 William Bishop in his address to the New York State Library School also noted that “Catalogs are complex because people and books are complex” (1926, 134). Though it is hard to argue that people and books are complex, we should question the proposition that this necessarily justifies the complexity of the online catalogs now when readers have other alternatives to libraries. Given the Internet reality, this approach should be reexamined. Otherwise, libraries will keep losing readers to Google and uncontrolled web sites.
This issue is also related to the “user” vs “system-centered” view on the systems development debate. It would seem to be obvious that online catalogs are made for readers and we should do everything possible to make them as easy to use as possible. If readers think that an information system is too complex, then the system should be “dumbed down.” Taking cars as an analogy, we can say that online catalogs should be as much “user-centered” as cars should be “driver-centered.” People don’t like cars that are uncomfortable and difficult to drive. Online catalogs are becoming increasingly uncomfortable and difficult to drive for readers compared to commercial search engines to which they have become used to.
It is also important that online catalogs are designed to protect readers against the overload on the “information highway.” I have observed that the more information a retrieval system contains, the more readers want simplicity and uniformity in the interfaces. Library community might want to consider adapting guidelines for interface graphic design and search rules that can be shared by many libraries. Readers notice that commercial search engines are more similar to each other than online catalogs.
The intent of this section was to show that catalogs need to be simplified so that they are not too difficult for increasing number of readers who grew up using commercial search engines. At the same time, catalogs need to “smarten up” so that they can show readers paths to higher quality knowledge records in library collections and provide maps or charts for the exploration of the collections as a whole through subject hierarchies and interrelations. Increasingly, catalogs become the major channel of communication between readers and librarians. Frederick Kilgour was quite ahead of his time when he pointed out in 1969:
"One major ultimate goal of computerization of college libraries must be the recapturing of humanization lost when libraries grew beyond the stage of having a staff of a single librarian familiar with all materials in the collection and able to interpret those materials personally for each user. To be sure, this goal may not be achieved until the end of the century, but it may not be achieved even then if it is not defined and established now." (1969)
The need for improved subject access to collections or “smartening up” the catalog
First signs of trouble with the subject access to collections surfaced after card catalogs were replaced by computerized catalogs. Clifford Stoll notes that though computer catalogs were more efficient for looking up a single book by an author or title, the subject access to collections degraded:
"Computerized library catalogs don’t perform the same function as card catalogs. They’re really listings of what’s on the bookshelves – an inventory of books by title and author.. Many people research whole topics.. They need subject listings and cross-references. Computer catalogs are especially stingy here – each book gets only a few subject listings. And those subjects aren’t cross-indexed – you can’t jump from book to book, like you could with a card catalog." (1995, 199).
Studies in the early 1980s sponsored by the Council of Library Resources (CLR) also established that though subject searches were the most popular in the online catalogs, these were also types of searches that people had most problems with. And though discussions and research attempts to improve subject searching in OPACs continued till the early 1990s, the momentum was lost:
"Researchers attempted or suggested ways to improve subject searching by, for example, enriching the subject content of the catalog database; enhancing browse displays and other aspects of the user-system interface; increasing the sophistication and power of the catalog search engine; and exploring user-centered rather than system-centered philosophies of, and approaches to, system design and improvement. Curiously, despite the momentum built up during this period of concentrated research, the online catalog sector of the subject access research front became comparatively quiet over the subsequent decade. (Graham 2004, 36)
Rumi Graham suggests that efforts to improve subject access to collections through online catalogs died out possibly because the issue was too complex or research efforts were diverted to the development of web interfaces. Steven Davis also notes that “..libraries and the automated system vendors that serve them have done little in the last decade to improve subject access to our print and, now, online collections” (2002) The researcher suggests other possible reasons for this anomaly, including: (1) marginal economics of library market; (2) vendor’s timid approach to enhancement processes; (3) infrastructural changes in libraries over the last decade in order to stay current with technological innovations; (4) aging systems of classification and subject analysis which continue to serve as main cataloging standards; (5) technical limitations of Z39.50 which constrain developers from improving the online catalogs; (6) fear of possible loss of interoperability with consortia and cooperative systems; and (7) “the rise of the Web and the seemingly universal appeal of know-nothing, shot-in-the-dark keyword-Booleanism” (Davis 2002).
The cumulative effect of these factors on libraries and readers is negative. As this issue is central for the paper, I would like to further highlight it with the following citation from Eric Ormsby’s “The battle of the book”:
"Dewey’s system rested upon an ancient conception: knowledge is not only classifiable but hierarchical.. Though Dewey, in its various revisions and permutations, is used worldwide and is probably the most successful and practical classification scheme yet devised, with that of the Library of Congress not far behind, nowadays all such systems have been rendered irrelevant and even otiose, at least for the average reader, by the advent of automation. The systems are still in use – books have to be analyzed and classified and shelved somehow and librarians are inveterate systematizers – but they have been effectively gutted of their epistemological structures. What librarians term “subject access” is no longer crucial in carrying out research in a library and the old, massive, crimson-buckram-bound volumes of the Library of Congress index of subject headings, a concordance of Babel on an infinite Borgesian scale, is now more of a curiosity than anything else. Once it became feasible to conduct Boolean searches or simply to employ keywords, the entire edifice of subject classification and taxonomy began to totter.. As opposed to the old vertical and hierarchical way of articulating knowledge, the new keyword approach is resolutely horizontal and “egalitarian”; not only can anyone use it, practically anything is connected to anything else. The notion of moving from the general or universal to the particular is made ridiculous. Who needs logic when you can enjoy random access? It would be foolish to deny the usefulness of keyword searches and their analogues. At the same time, I have observed over the last two decades that research in libraries, among undergraduate and graduate students, is becoming shallower and shallower. (2001, 9)
These observations are consistent with Mortimer Adler’s perspectives of “four goods and two intentions of the mind” and importance of maps or charts which guide readers in their pursuit of knowledge. It is these maps or charts which online catalogs of even large academic libraries seem to be missing. If predominant orientation of online catalogs on the random keyword mode of access to knowledge records reflects our current paradigm, then this paradigm needs to be changed. The solution appears to be simple: we just need to add true browse subject displays to the online catalogs. Obviously, different libraries serve different communities and online catalogs can hardly be the same. However, what studies and researchers are pointing out at is a principle by which proper access to knowledge records should be organized in an online environment.
If universities and libraries can be compared to encyclopedias as an all inclusive whole of knowledge in broader or narrower areas, then online catalogs serve as an introduction and a gateway to collections. As such, online catalog is similar to Britannica’s Propaedia which “present(s) its readers with a systematic or topical outline of knowledge that maps or charts the whole world of learning in a way that provides guidelines for the exploration of all its related parts.” Using these maps or charts, readers should be able to observe and explore subject browse trees and follow cross-references to materials from core library collections and authoritative non-library electronic resources. Suggestions for draft interfaces for a simplified online catalog with added browsing functionality are presented in Figures 1, 2 and 3.
During the challenging times of transition to the Internet as a new communication channel and information overload, readers need libraries and librarians to provide guidance in a world that becomes increasingly complex and fragmented. Cited researchers and studies indicate that networked electronic resources have certain negative effects on readers’ learning and position of libraries. The Internet is turning into a major access point to information for an increasing number of readers thus competing with physical libraries and paper books for readers’ attention. In order to stay relevant in an online environment, librarians need to improve catalogs as an interface between libraries and readers; an interface that would be as easy to use as commercial search engines yet complex enough to serve as a map or a chart to the knowledge records in the library collections. Through online library catalogs librarians can provide their epistemic expertise to readers which will guide them to the quality resources in the meaningful way – a way which helps readers see hierarchies and interrelations of knowledge and its parts needed for conversion of information to knowledge to understanding and wisdom.
I would like to conclude this paper with William Bishop’s words which are as timely and relevant with regard to online catalogs today as they were with regard to card catalogs eighty years ago:
"We shall need every bit of energy, vigor, and knowledge that we possess to adapt the card catalog to libraries in the future. Instead of releasing us from an obligation, instead of making the proper record of our books a matter of mere routine, the universal use of the printed cards demands of us librarians new zeal, new skill, and an added technique. Problems of selection, of arrangement, of display, of interpretation of the catalog are pressing hard upon us." (1926, 131).
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