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Wednesday, February 22, 2012

The hidden value of catalogs and indices



I’ve been doing more thinking about the value of catalogs and indices for librarians, archivists, and researchers. From a librarian’s perspective, these tools help us and researchers find what they are looking for. That sounds really simple and straight forward, except that it is easier said than done. I’ve written a little about how indices are put together, where journal articles and books covering the same subject areas are intellectually grouped into the same place, and, using call numbers, can be physically placed together on the shelf.

Books in series can be placed together or separated from one another, yet co-located in a catalog. Let me give you an example. There are books written in series called “monographic serials.” They are usually on a similar topic, say mapping, or urban studies. Now catalogers can select call numbers so they are shelved together one after the other allowing the researcher to just go to the shelf and find the topic of their choice within the series. Or they can be interspersed throughout the collection, depending upon their subject matter and only brought together by the “series” title. Every library varies in its treatment of these monographic serials, and LOC no longer provides guidance as to which way to catalog them. The cataloging and MARC record contains the information that allows us to find all the books in this series which could be scattered all over the library.

My favorite catalogs are the national union catalogs. The one for the United States is NUC pre-1956. It is a series of about 750 quarto (large) green volumes that are often hidden away in libraries and cataloging areas and are rarely used today. Examining the entries you can actually trace the history of cataloging and classification. Within the volumes are lists of an author’s works, major and minor, articles in journals that some library cataloged, and even pamphlets by ministers, scientists, and humanists alike. While the holdings information may be outdated, it is fifty-five years old after all, access to series and subject information is invaluable for historians, literary scholars, and historians of the book, to name a few.

When I was researching late nineteenth century archaeological reports from Near East excavations, all the preliminary research and findings were cataloged as separate items in the New York Public Library catalogs (pre-1972). Now I could have found some of the articles / pamphlets in journal indices, but many were not published in the US or were not included in standard indices. The catalog held the clues and opened up a world of research and exploration for me.

Many of these older book catalogs are still in use. The entries have never been converted to machine readable entries, and probably never will be. Some libraries have annotated their catalogs and cards with little notes that aid the researcher or are based on evidence found by researchers in the course of their studies. The same holds true of print indices, exhibition catalogs, and subject specific catalogs that provide access to older or specialized collections. These resources are invaluable to the researcher and scholar, to the librarian and archivist working in a special collection.

So how does this pertain to information scientists today? It is important to see where the idea of organizing our printed history comes from. And it is not just printed history. There are catalogs and organizational methods for photographs, sound recordings, and even objects. These items are often arranged in acquisition order that is, when they were acquired, or by type, with subject access through a catalog. The catalog is supposed to do all the work, through access points for title or descriptive phrase, author or creator or excavator, and by subject or classification.

I have been writing about tangible items. What about all the items, websites, and ideas on the Internet? Should we bother trying to create order out of all the chaos? That’s such a huge question, that it really belongs in a course by itself. My simple answer is that the search engines that go out to the web are our, societies’, feeble attempt to provide some order and control over a vast ocean of data and information. Some search engines to better jobs than others. None compare, yet, with the way print and online ‘card’ catalogs and indices provide access to books and journals.

Our job as librarians, archivists, and information scientists is to help retrieve materials for researchers using these catalogs, indices, and search engines. Our goal is to teach our patrons to navigate the disparate catalogs, indices, and databases to find what they seek. Knowing how they work and how to make they work is half the game, the other half is to understand what our researchers need and how they go about seeking that little bit of information, that little clue that completes their puzzle. 


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