Catalogs and the March of Technology

Screen Shot 2016-01-07 at 2.51.27 PMLikely only of interest to library nerds or technology history types, but here’s an interesting piece in American Libraries about how the technology behind library catalogs & how it drove standards (and came to be limited by them).  I lived through a lot of these shifts, including the end of the physical catalog at the Library of Congress. Henriette Avram (mother of the computerized format of bibliographic info)  was still working there at the time and treated with the same sort of awed respect that TBL got in early web days.
From the piece:

“[Melvil] Dewey did not anticipate the availability of the LC printed card service when he proposed the standardization of the library catalog card, yet it was precisely that standardization that made it possible for libraries across America to add LC printed cards to their catalogs. Likewise, Avram did not anticipate the creation of the computerized online catalog during her early work on the MARC format, but it was the existence of years of library cataloging in a machine-readable form that made the Online Public Access Catalog (OPAC) a possibility.”

MARC automated a process, but it was founded on the idea of printing, wrangling and using a physical card, and this has led to any number of misfires…

We, and by “we” I mean all of us in library technology during this time, created those first systems using the data we had, not the data we would have liked to have had. The MARC records that we worked with were in essence the by-product of card production. And now, some 35 years later, we are still using much the same data even though information technology has changed greatly during that time, potentially affording us many opportunities for innovation. Quite possibly the greatest mistake made in the last two to three decades was failing to create a new data standard that would be more suited to modern technology and less an imitation of the library card in machine-readable form. The MARC record, designed as a format to carry bibliographic data to the printer, was hardly suited to database storage and manipulation. That doesn’t mean that databases couldn’t be created, and to be sure all online catalogs have made use of database technology of some type to provide search and display capabilities, but it is far from ideal from an information technology standpoint.

Not to mention a pain for the user. What’s puzzling to me is why we are still stuck with a system that technology has blown past. Karen Coyle wonders too:

The entire basis of the discovery mechanism addressed by the cataloging rules has been rendered moot in the design of online catalogs, and the basic functioning of the online catalog does not implement the intended model of the card catalog. Parallel to the oft-voiced complaint that systems developers simply did not understand the intention of the catalog, the misunderstanding actually goes both ways: Significant differences in retrieval methods, that is, sequential discovery on headings versus set retrieval on keywords, did not lead to any adaptation of cataloging output to facilitate the goals of the catalog in the new computerized environment. Library systems remain at this impasse, some 35 years into the history of the online catalog. The reasons for this are complex and have both social and economic components.

I wonder if they still teach MARC coding in library school? As Wikipedia points out, it’s clearly technically obsolete, but 30 million plus libraries keep track of their collections that way, as the famous saying goes, ” what is to be done?”

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