So, whose catalogue is it anyway?
Contributed by: Heather
Back in the day, before all this high-falutin’ technology came along and spoiled everything, catalogues and cataloguers knew their place. They were solid and reliable and the question of design didn’t really arise with either of them. The catalogue was a sizeable piece of furniture, unchanging down the years, demanding no maintenance beyond the occasional tightening of a rod, the waxing of a drawer to make it run smoothly or a little light dusting. Maybe we got the polish out at Christmas, I don’t remember. Cataloguers were the people who created the cards that went into it, and their guiding principles, whether writing or typing, were legibility and neatness. Happy the typist who could produce stencils for a spirit duplicator with a lightness of touch that did not result in the centre of letters like o and g falling out and resulting in an unsightly blot!
Microfiche catalogues followed the same principles of clear layout with no fuss or frills. They were plain, simple and serviceable. Legibility became even more important as we were all convinced that poring over microfiche all day long would end in us going blind. Little did we know what the future held for us in the way of computer screens and blinking cursors (and you may read “blinking” in either its literal or colloquial meaning). Early online catalogues followed suit, looking pretty much like the fiche catalogues they replaced.
Nowadays it seems that design is king. We want to apply design both to the way the catalogue looks, and what it does, and sometimes we blur the distinction between the two. We want pop-ups and rollovers, pictures and links – speaking for myself I’d cheerfully commit murder to get a virtual shelf browse. We want the catalogue to look attractive, to be engaging and to offer every kind of trick and treat; we want all the sweets in the sweetshop, all at once.
But here’s the problem – most cataloguers (there are honourable exceptions) do not have the necessary IT skills to design a catalogue from the ground up or even to tinker with an existing product in order to enhance and alter it. As we become more and more demanding, we have to hand over catalogue design to experts from other areas who may know little or nothing about libraries, catalogues or users. Cataloguers are still the people who create or derive the data, but we have little or no say over how it appears on the screen or what can be done with it. We stoke the furnace but we don’t drive the train, and that’s one reason why cataloguers are increasingly divorced from the front-line service. Our public-facing colleagues, and our users, want the bells and whistles just as much as we do but they know that we aren’t the ones who can provide them.
And it seems to me that this gap is in danger of widening still further. What we lack at the moment is mostly skill (we don’t lack enthusiasm or imagination), and skill can be learned. Even the dustiest and crustiest of us can engage with HTML and CSS and goodness knows what all, if we really want to and are prepared to find the time (usually our own time, be it said). Lots of us still have catalogues that can be modified locally, if we just know how and are prepared to roll up our sleeves and get stuck in.
What gives me the shivers even more than the thought of learning HTML and CSS and all the rest, is that increasingly our catalogues are remotely-hosted. That seems to mean that all the development takes place on a misty mountain-top far away and is then “rolled-out” to us, like fog. It just – well, it just arrives. One morning it is there, when it wasn’t there the night before. And as cataloguers we are even more disengaged from the catalogue than before. We are scarcely even aware that we create or derive the data that the magicians work such wonders with. We are dazzled by the glittering surface. Pretty, pretty things!
I don’t know the answer. I don’t know what we have to do to get the catalogue back where it belongs, in our own hands. Maybe between the increasing sophistication of technical knowledge that is required to drive this machina ex deo, and the lack of resources, time and energy that restricts us nowadays, we have no choice but to relinquish the design to the experts. But I’d like to be sure that everyone remembers there is still a link between gleaming bodywork and what’s under the bonnet, and that without the engine the machine just won’t go anywhere.