The User/Catalogue Interface

Making it easier to find things for users

The library is a place for collecting and archiving millions of items considered valuable to society at the time the items are created. For example, the number of items in the collection made available for public library use throughout Australia between 1996-1997 was 36,767,511 (1).

Naturally this brings us to the question, "How do we distinguish an item from the millions collected by libraries?" The answer is quite simply by using a catalogue.

The Catalogue System

In the old days, libraries rarely needed specialised cataloguing of any kind other than to sort books by author's name or title. However, this made it difficult to sort by subject.

Even if books were sorted by subject and a numbering system developed for cataloguing books, sometimes the numbering system was too simplistic and often resulted in having large catalogue numbers that were difficult to place on the end of thin books.

The problems were further compounded in the 1890s when small libraries combined into major centres of knowledge to form the hub of universities in England and the US. People soon realised there had to be a better way to find books than merely relying on just one experienced person to remember the location of books or to use cumbersome or ineffective numbering catalogue systems, or even to rely solely on finding a book by author's name or title.

Furthermore, whatever catalogue system should be created in the libraries of the world will have to be standardised because each library in a university may choose to create their own system of alphanumeric and numeric cataloguing system and so making it difficult for anyone travelling between universities to understand all the cataloguing rules just to find one book on their own.

Then the world's leading librarians decided to get together to discuss the problem. Soon a more standardised cataloguing system was developed of which the two most commonly accepted cataloguing systems today are LC and AACR. And with the availability of non-book materials in libraries such as CD-ROMs and photographs, further standardisation was needed in 1973 and by 1978, the standardised cataloguing rules known as AACR2 was developed and published.

The result today is a thoroughly modern and standardised cataloguing system relying on a compact combination of letters and numbers to group books under various subject headings and then have all the books sorted by alphabetical ordering of the catalogue numbers. And later, it becomes easy for the librarian to create a second cataloguing system to sort all books according to author's name and book title.

Is the catalogue system easy to use?

The cataloguing system now in existence is a concise and reasonably effective system for distinguishing and finding any item in a library.

Nevertheless, the presentation of the catalogue leaves a lot to be desired. For example, which of the following catalogues would you prefer to you?

  1. The card catalogue system,
  2. The somewhat complicated looking online text-based catalogue system available in libraries around the world (with three search pages —one for title, one for author's name and another for subject searching) where you have to remember a whole bunch of obscure keyboard commands in order to move through the catalogue and find what you want; or
  3. Would you prefer to use a simple "analytic" catalogue system like this one with everything you need on one page to find your information?

Most people would probably prefer Option 3.

Abbreviations galore — who needs them?

Also, because of the need to keep information compact and well-summarised in order to ensure the original card catalogues do not take up too much room in a library and electronic catalogues are able to fit within a prescribed storage medium, numerous shorthand notations were formulated. For people trained in the use of these catalogues, there is usually not much problem in using them.

Yet when we turn our attention to the general public who are not always well-trained in the art of reading a catalogue, this can pose a problem. For example, what does "pp" and "ed." mean? To the untrained eye, this may look like goobledygook. Even if training is provided to the general public, do librarians really have the time training everyone to read a catalogue properly?

Then there is the problem of not knowing precisely what the catalogue numbers mean (e.g. what does "GA" stand for? Is this related to a particular subject heading? And if so, what is it?).

Clearly there has to be training provided. But this is time-consuming and expensive for librarians over the long-term giving the amount of information available in the 21st century which has to be collected, catalogued and filed away on a shelf somewhere in the library for library users to have access to it.

Is the information in every catalogue sufficiently detailed enough for all customers to use?

And what about the rapidly growing demand by library users to find very specific and/or detailed information quickly and easily using a catalogue system?

Apparently, most serious library users (e.g. researchers etc) are already up to their necks in so much information in many libraries and the Internet and now they are now looking for a new catalogue system that is able to provide the level of detailed and specific information they need.

Can our current catalogue technology handle this demand?

How do people use a catalogue?

When searching a library catalogue, some users tend to have a pretty good idea of what book they want to read. Thus finding the book for these users is usually fairly quick using current catalogue systems because users can search under title and/or author's name. In the words of Joyce, this is known as "known-item" searching.

Then there are circumstances when users do not know what book to read for a particular topic. So the search through the library catalogue will have to be under "subject". This is known, naturally enough, as "unknown-item" searching.

But the problem arises when library users have to decide among potentially dozens or maybe thousands of books gathered from a subject search which one is the better publication to go for. Can the catalogue tell us which one to choose?

Which catalogue system should we have?

There is a belief among some librarians that "known-item" searching is the most popular method of searching. As Pauline A. Cochrane said:

"We have held international conferences, created international standards, and organized a Universal Bibliographical Control project—all devoted to bibliographical descriptions of known items. Belief in the paradigm that the catalogue was for known-item searching is very strong indeed." (2)

Surveys conducted in various academic libraries can neither confirm nor deny this belief.

For instance, in the study conducted in 1983 by Neil A. Radford and published in the Library Quarterly, searching was divided roughly "50/50 between known item and subject searches, though the better educated the reader the greater the reliance on the known item approach". (3)

In 1958, the Jackson survey found that 58 per cent of all public library searches were by subject and the situation was the same in academic libraries.

In essence, nobody knows for sure whether people use the "known-item" searching more often than subject searching or vice versa. It probably depends on educational levels of people using catalogues, how effective the catalogues are in the first place, and whether people are already provided with a list of references for them to search.

For example, if lecturers at universities choose not to provide a bibliography listing to students, it would not be unusual for students to do a subject search for a particular topic most of the time. But if the lecturers do provide a bibliography listing, the students will probably go for a straight title and/or author search.

It all depends on the circumstances.

Therefore, it makes sense to have a catalogue system that can do both subject searching and "known-item" searching at the same time.

The problem of subject access

This brings us back to the previous problem. Current catalogue systems are only designed to hold a summary of each item in a library using a list of the most useful data elements such as the name of the author(s), title, the publisher, the year the item was published and any other useful information to help distinguish the item from another.

However, more and more users today want more specific and/or greater information in the catalogues to help them choose precisely the item they want, especially if they choose the "unknown-item" searching method.

The problem apparently lies in the headings (or titles) given to every item in a library—they are simply not specific and/or detailed enough to help every library user. As Joyce writes:

"People who are subject specialists seem rarely to use the subject catalogue. They complain the headings are never specific enough." (4)

With the huge amount of information available today, users want to find very specific information quickly and easily. That means the subject access has to be greatly expanded and more specific and detailed information about the items has to be presented.

As D. Joan Joyce discovered:

"Subject access to the contents of monographs [using current cataloguing systems] is notoriously poor. Users want, and demand, better subject access, but the intellectual cost of providing additional controlled subject headings to monographs is prohibitive." (5)

What can we do?

Improving the catalogue interface

As far as the appearance of catalogues are concerned, perhaps we need to build a frontline user-friendly interface system on top of the old with the ability to link to the original catalogue information and present it in a better way so that anyone can understand what it all means.

Could we design such an interface? If librarians can learn simple database software development tools like FileMaker Pro or a simpler version of the powerful and effective Microsoft Access package, then there should be no difficulties in designing a high quality catalogue interface system for making it easier for users to use the original catalogues available to them.

Who knows what can be done by librarians if given the right information management tools.

Improving subject access

Joyce mentioned how one could enhance subject access of library items by analysing the table of contents and back-of-book index as additional access points without significantly increasing the cost in creating a catalogue. As she said:

"There is a solution to the problem. Subject analysis of the contents of a monograph is already supplied by the publisher and/or author through the table-of-contents and the back-of-book index. Can these provide additional access points to the contents without substantially increasing the cost?" (6)

Naturally this assumes the cataloguing is still done manually by well-trained cataloguers, and publishers continue to provide publications in the paper format.

However, new electronic cataloguing systems are available today with the ability to utilise every single word in an entire document as an access point. One can easily see this cataloguing power in a software package called Adobe Acrobat.

Adobe Acrobat—a powerful analytical catalogue system

The Adobe Acrobat system is a rather interesting piece of software for the serious librarian. The system is able to convert any paper or digital book, journal or multimedia presentation with some text in it into the PDF file format without losing document integrity (e.g. font type, position of graphics and text, precise colours and so on).

Once a document is converted to the PDF format, all the words in that document will become an access point using the Adobe Acrobat Catalog software.

This means that once the Acrobat software has created the catalogue and index (a process done automatically at specific times of the day if the librarian chooses), any word or combination of words you type into the Adobe Acrobat search field will be checked against all known PDF publications. And any PDF publications whose title, author's name and/or text in the publications satisfy the search criteria of the library user are instantly displayed on a computer screen.

Then it is just a matter of choosing the publication with the highest probability of having what you want at the top of the search result list. This means by double-clicking on the preferred PDF publication or the one with the higher relevance ranking, the computer automatically finds the PDF file, takes it out of its electronic library shelf on a hard disk and opens up the publication to the page(s) containing the word(s) in your search field (i.e. highlighted for you to see).

Once you are finished, close the PDF file. Your Acrobat software does the work of putting away the publication in the right area of the hard disk.

The advantage of the electronic "analytic" catalogue system

The advantage of the Acrobat system is obvious. No need for separate title, author and subject card catalogue systems. You don't even have to have a separate search field for title, author's name and subject headings. Nor do you have to worry about whether there is enough specific information available in the catalogue to find exactly what you want—you basically can't get any more detailed information from a catalogue than what's already available in the PDF documents! All you have to do is install a copy of the freeware Adobe Acrobat Reader and start searching once the electronic index and catalogue has been created and the PDF publications are stored on a computer or server.

What will it take to make this technology work?

If publishers can provide journals, books and presentations in the PDF format (and not just in the paper format for consumers), then any librarian can use Adobe Acrobat Catalog to automatically create the cataloguing system for any number of PDF documents.

And the librarian does not have to be sitting around at a computer terminal waiting for the catalog to be created. It can easily be done in the background or overnight while the librarian continues with his/her other work.

It is all a question of whether publishers see the benefit of creating PDF documents for all their publications. Given the trouble nearly all publishers go to to create and publish a book using Adobe PageMaker, Quark Xpress or some other electronic publishing package these days before printing it on paper, all they have to do is tell their software package to print the book as a postscript file and then get Adobe Acrobat to convert the file to the PDF format. Then the file can be password protected and finally distributed through the email system to various libraries around the world. How much could that possibly cost the publisher compared to printing the publication on paper and distributing it to the library?

But computers can't do subject searching!

In a questionnaire administered to library users across twenty-nine libraries in the United States during April and May 1982, thirty-one per cent of the 8,094 users who responded agreed the subject searching approach on a computer was difficult. However, searching by title and author is no problem. (7)

But this was back in 1982 when software and hardware for libraries was still in their infancy.

And anyway, users in another survey conducted at the Bath University made it clear their preference for computer searching (and other physical forms of the catalogue) over card catalogues (which were notoriously difficult to subject search let alone time-consuming to find items by title or author).

Now we have the low-cost power to design new electronic "analytic" databases for creating a better quality cataloguing system and with a much more user-friendly frontline user interface if we so choose.

And more importantly, the software to handle subject searching is already available now with the level of detail and specificity required by library users using the Acrobat system.

Do we still need cataloguers in the digital age?

So while information continues to be stored in the traditional paper format and new libraries and organisations keep springing up in various places all needing to create new catalogues for their paper documents, there will always be a need for the cataloguer to manually catalogue information.

However, the technology is already here and every librarian in the world now has the power to choose precisely what kind of a catalogue system will best suit the needs of all library users, especially when it comes to effective and efficient subject searching in the 21st century. As Joyce writes:

"In general, the access points presently provided do little more than to remind library users of how to locate items of which they already know the existence. If a user knows of the existence of an item of information, that item can be located by the user making an author search, a title search, or a call number search. However, it is a different matter if the user has only a general idea of the subject area for which information is needed. Subject approach to library resources is, in general, very poorly provided." (8)

It is all a question of whether:

  1. Publishers can start providing all their publications in the digital format (preferably using PDF) to libraries; and
  2. Librarians start using the electronic "analytic" cataloguing systems now available to instantly organise and catalogue all the publications (usually overnight),

and so allowing the best possible service to the library user. Then perhaps the days of the traditional cataloguer could be numbered.

As Herbert Hoffman wrote in a letter to the February issue of American Libraries:

"What the library needs is an analytic catalog. The librarian of the past could not consider it. (Who would have typed and filed all those cards?). Librarians of the present cannot consider it because...they are still trying to program their computer to retrieve books, items, titles, and other "materials", believing that this is what is needed. How far away is the future then? Well, the electronic technology for the analytic catalog is already here. Now if the library profession would just shed the misconceptions that readers need books when what they need are works contained in books, the future could start tomorrow." (9)

So what do we do with traditional catalogue systems?

As for the traditional catalogue systems we now have for the paper-based items in our library, it is probably better to maintain them in their current form without further improvement as they would be too expensive to rebuild to meet all the needs of library users.

Use the traditional "summarised" catalogues to find books if you know the author's name and/or title; but use the electronic analytic catalogs to find the exact information you want within the books based on subject searching in the quickest and easiest way possible.