So, whose catalogue is it anyway?

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.

Reduced budgets? Increased impact! : MmIT2012 in Sheffield

Reduced budgets? Increased impact! : MmIT2012 in Sheffield

When one of us has attended a conference, seminar or training event we try to share what we have learned by making a brief presentation at our monthly staff meeting.  In some we cases, we thought it would also be useful to write about it on our blog.

This account of the 2012 MmIT Conference was contributed by Nick

MmIT (Multimedia and Information Technology Group), a special interest group of CILIP, evolved from the merger of the AV Group (who originally dealt with gramophone records) and the IT Groups of the Library Association.  This – their first conference for some years – was held at the University of Sheffield, was well attended (mainly by delegates from the academic and special library sectors) and exceptionally well organised.  It was unsurprising that an interactive voting session – another feature of the day – was heavily in favour of resuming Annual Conferences.

The theme of the day ‘Reduced budgets, increased impact!’ was implicit in the two plenary sessions, the four workshops (delegates could choose to attend two) and the series of 5-minute sessions held immediately after lunch.  One thread emphasised the potential of cloud technology to overcome the difficulties traditional library management systems have in offering unified access to conventional and digital content, the other highlighted the ways in which libraries can make use of free (or low-cost) web-based technologies to enhance their services.

The first plenary session was ‘Paradigm shift: a slate of new automation platforms’ delivered by Marshall Breeding, Director for Innovative Technology and Research at Vanderbilt University.  Breeding, a long-time observer of the evolution of the uses of information technology in libraries, argued that we are at the beginning of a ‘paradigm shift’. He expects library management systems that are rooted in print and not well-suited to adapt to new content forms (so that digital content has to be provided through parallel systems) to give way to library platforms that enable a unified approach to content management. 

He sees the key to achieving this shift as being a move to ‘web-scale’ technologies and a cloud-based environment where libraries make use of hosted multi-tenant software accessed via the web on a subscription basis to replace self-managed and discrete library management systems.  Libraries would no longer own and manage their own data – the data will be “in the cloud” and libraries will make use of it in the way that suits their collections.

Breeding did make it clear that he was thinking, in the first instance, of the academic library environment, where the majority of funds are already spent on electronic content and that the 10-year ‘cycle of transition’ he foresaw might not apply to the public library sector, where he expected the older model to persist for longer.     

The first workshop I attended was Dave Pattern’s ‘Discovering Discovery: experiences of implementing Summon at Huddersfield University’. He outlined the problems that Huddersfield had previously encountered with providing access to e-resources, such as needing multiple passwords and different interfaces (these seemed familiar to the academic library staff – and students – in the audience). A Library Impact Data Project had found evidence of a strong correlation between usage of e-resources (particularly journals) and academic achievement, but also a worryingly low usage of these resources.

After an e-resources review they had chosen to implement Summon, which allows the user to search the physical library stock, e-books (mainly digitised full text), journal and newspaper articles with a single search, thus satisfying the users’ preference for a ‘Google-like’ search without diminishing their ability to make use of the full range of library resources.  The result has been a significant reduction in the number of complaints and a substantial increase in usage.  (It should be remembered that the context here is one where users primarily need to have access to journal literature for the purposes of research).

Summon at Huddersfield can be seen in action here and the slides from a similar presentation here .

In the second workshop ‘A free web toolkit for the modern library’ Claire Beecroft and Andy Tattershall of ScHAAR (School of Health and Related Research at Sheffield University) offered an entertaining survey of some of the (mostly) free online tools that are available to enhance and promote the service provided by a modern LIS.  They divided them into ‘Pliers’ (how to pull people in), ‘Saw’ (how to cut costs), ‘Hammer and nails’ (how to pull things together) and ‘Trowel’ (how to spread the message).  The tools demonstrated included various Google apps that can be used to replace Microsoft software, Mendeley (a reference management database), Prezi (an alternative to Powerpoint for creating presentations) and Vimeo (which ScHAAR use as an alternative to YouTube for posting online tutorials and publicity material).

They also (on a sobering note) stressed the importance of making sure that apparently free content taken from the web really is free and not the property of a copyright holder and (rather dampeningly) were doubtful about whether it was really possible to write an engaging institutional blog.

Their own blog is here .

Unfortunately Ross Mahon (Apps Edu Evangelist @Google) was ill and unable to present the second plenary session in person, so presented it from Ireland via Google Hangout, thereby demonstrating the potential of one of Google’s products (although – to be honest – I didn’t think this was an unqualified success).  His presentation was mainly a demonstration of how various Google Apps for Education can be used to communicate better with the ‘Digital natives’.

In between the morning and afternoon sessions there were a series of five-minute presentations (including one from a Sheffield student about designing attractive QR codes) and the day finished with a Q&A session with all the speakers.  Asked specifically about public libraries, one speaker said that free applications potentially offered public libraries the greatest opportunities precisely because we have the least money. When asked what he felt the greatest threat was, Andy Tattershall replied that it was that “the rug might be pulled from under our feet” – meaning that some of the things we have become used to getting for free might not always remain so.  

The official  MmIT blog contains an account of the day, with the slides from some of the speakers’ presentations and summaries of the workshops I missed.  It has also been blogged by Michelle’s Library Stuff , Lady Pen’s Treasure Trove and Sensible Shoes and entertainingly live-tweeted (the tweets were displayed at the sides of the stage) by some of the students who were helping organise it and by some of the delegates (using the hashtag #MMIT2012).