Thought-provoking post on concept-oriented catalogs over at Everybody’s Libraries, which I’m told is one of the top librarian blogs to read this year. Let me see if I can summarize…nah, let me start by contextualizing.
So there’s two basic sorts of search you can be doing. You can be looking for a known item, or you can be looking to learn more about some topic. (And, of course, your handle on these things can be more or less fuzzy.)
The post’s contention is that library catalogs, architecturally, do a lot better with the first kind than the second. (I know some of my readers have had issues with known item searching in their friendly local library catalog. I’m talking about the idea behind the architecture here, not the quality of implementation.) Yes, there are subject headings and other conceptually oriented metadata in MARC, and yes, that stuff is searchable, but it’s not conceptually treated as the center of attention: “These concepts are represented in our MARC records, but as distinctly second-class entities. They’re typically attributes of the records that are the focus of the catalog, rather than focused records in their own right.”
In other words, the catalog is about the items, not about the ideas, and the post author thinks that’s a problem.
Interesting, interesting. Dovetails with a lot of the stuff we were talking about in my library software class last term about ILSes being set up to serve librarian workflow, with the patron-accessible bits sort of as an afterthought and, until recently, grafted onto an architecture designed around librarian needs, not built ground-up around an idea of patron interests or behavior. (That all is starting to change, and precisely in what direction is under active debate — see AquaBrowser and SOPAC and VuFind and the entire open source movement and my husband’s shiny new employer, although library stuff isn’t at all the focus of what they do…)
I also appreciate that the post ties in with the idea of search-as-iteration, not search-as-thing — I’ve encountered the latter too many times in library school, and it seems like the wrong paradigm to me. (For example, it doesn’t make sense to me to evaluate the success of a search by saying “I typed X, and the results I got represented y% of the applicable collection and contained z% red herrings.” Really? It seems to me success should be measured with whether you found what you needed at the end of your search process, but that process may have included multiple searches and refinements (and the ability to suggest helpful refinements is something by which both catalog interfaces and librarians ought to be measured). In some contexts that process ends after one search; in some contexts it doesn’t. Hey, look, a digression!)