The Library Catalog in a 2.0 World

by Karen Coyle

Preprint. Published in Journal of Academic Librarianship, v. 33. n. 2

In my previous column I presented some past views of the future of the library and the library catalog. Writing on the threshold of the computer revolution, most of those futurists correctly foresaw a library and catalog that could be accessed from the user's office or home. Some even predicted the eventual dissolution of the physical library, with all documents and all services being digital. But none of them envisioned the rise of a vibrant information environment entirely outside of libraries: the World Wide Web. Our users have shifted their attention from the library to other sources of information. The question today is not how do we get users into the library, but how can we take the library to the users. The answer will necessarily involve a transformation of the library catalog.

In the era of the library with walls, the library user's accessible information universe was bounded by those walls, and the catalog was the user's entry into that accessible realm. Today's library without walls provides access over computer networks to a wide variety of resources, most of which are not represented in the library catalog. There are journal articles, full text reference books, institutional repositories, digitized archives, and curriculum materials. The materials that are available through the library are generally not part of the open access information sources that the user encounters through Web search engines. Yet those open access resources are also a valuable part of the user's information environment, and should not be seen, either by librarians or users, as rivals to library resources. The challenge today is to present all of this as a coherent whole, and still help users make choices between the different offerings.

The Discussion

" ... we have a catalogue interface which is unconnected to popular user discovery environments or workflows." 1

In the library press and the professional blog-o-sphere there are ongoing discussions of the future of the catalog, of cataloging, and of the library itself. In fact, we can't discuss these three topics separately; as the library changes, the catalog must change; and as the catalog changes then cataloging must change to fulfill its needs.

The discussion about changing the catalog 2 3 tends to focus on the creation of new user services, sometimes layered on top of the current library system and catalog data, sometimes in terms of a new model for the library's service to the user. There is also discussion about changing cataloging, in particular the work of the Joint Steering Committee for the Revision of AACR and its work on Resource Description and Access4, the presumed successor to the AACR2 cataloging rules. The broader question of changing the library does come up, and often in the context of adjusting to new models of scholarly communication 5 6.


In a world that is constantly and rapidly changing, the declaration that we are approaching something called "Web two-point-oh" is a strong statement that this change will be substantial. Not that there will be an actual moment in which the Web 1.9 will become Web 2.0, because this isn't a planned or even a coordinated change. The term "2.0" is just a shorthand for an unknown but desired move to something new. The change is evolutionary and relatively gradual in a world where it is almost a full-time job to keep abreast of new daily developments. There is no single definition of Web 2.0, although certain experts can describe its characteristics. Tim O'Reilly, founder of the foremost publishing house for computer and networking titles, gave these as some of the key elements of a Web 2.0 application: it takes place on the Web; it is a service, not a product; it is not limited to a single software product or a single machine; it is open and shared; users in group and social interaction are part of its organization. Users provide content and add value. 7

Because "2.0" has become the word for "modern," librarians are talking about "Library 2.0." There is no agreement on what 2.0 means in the library environment,8 and given that libraries have existed for centuries compared to the less than two decades of the web, it's quite possible that we should be talking about Library 7.0 or 12.0. There is one sense, however, in which the use of 2.0 makes sense, and that is that at this moment in time the library's services are very much interdependent with the World Wide Web, and the libraries' users are, almost by definition, Web users.

There are two topics in the Library 2.0 discussion that I find most compelling. The first is that the library catalog, in the sense of the finding list of the library's holdings, is no longer the library's primary user service. The second is that the 2.0 philosophy emphasizes the social aspects of information such as reviews, recommendations, and tagging.

The Catalog in a 2.0 World

The library catalog is a very 1.0 tool. It developed as an organized index into the library's collection of physical items in the 19th century. Each catalog entry is an abstract representing something on the library's shelf. It is an excellent example of meta-data because the catalog forms a representation of the library at a level of abstraction once removed form the real thing. This is very useful when the real thing is a book on a shelf many floors away, or in a different library.

The concept of the catalog as a one-to-one representation of the library's holdings carries with it the assumption that the user accesses the catalog to find something that the library owns. If the user is not looking for a known item ("does my library have this book?"), his query could be stated as: "What can I get in this library on this topic?" This is a different query to: "What information exists on this topic?" That broader view is more of an exploration. Dempsey9 refers to this as the difference between discovery (an information query) and location (where a resource can be found). In a book-oriented world, this is the difference between bibliography (a topical study not limited to any location) and the holdings of a particular library. Library catalogs are the latter; printed bibliographies and indexes are the former. In fact, the OCLC report on user perceptions of the library shows that only one percent of users begin their information search in the library catalog. The library catalog comes in when the user seeks to locate something that he or she expects that the library might have. Since the same OCLC report shows that most users think of libraries as mainly having books, this gives you an idea of when users will choose to turn to the library catalog.

The information environment based on distributed electronic resources is much less geographically bounded than the hard copy world. The user experience with the use of discovery tools that are part of the electronic environment is that the discovery and "obtain" functions are satisfied with the same search. Another common experience is that ones search is not limited to a single institution or location but goes against an aggregate of information sources. This is true not only when using a general Web search engine, but even on branded sites. When a user searches Amazon for a book, Amazon helps the user purchase the book from any number of different booksellers. In the networked"2.0" world, the organizing principle is the service, not the institution or the geographical location.

The most 2.0 of current library technology is arguably the use of the OpenURL. The OpenURL has created a vital link from library-licensed resources to the library user. In addition to the OpenURL services built into licensed databases, browser plugins10 facilitate the connection between open Web sites, like Google Scholar, and the library's licensed resources. Without ever consciously entering the library catalog, the user receives services provided by the library. This is an excellent example of taking the library to the user. There is a database that is the foundation of the library's OpenURL resolver service. This database identifies resources that are managed by the library and the services that are associated with those resources. In all senses this database is a kind of catalog, even though it will never be searched directly by the library user, and doesn't even have much of what we would call bibliographic information. The resolver database does not replace the traditional library catalog, but it is evidence that new models for catalogs may be needed to integrate with new types of services. The emerging model of layered services is one in which multiple catalogs exist within a library system with a great variety of resources.11

User 2.0

The 2.0 concept is not just about searching. The last point above in Tim O'Reilly's definition of Web 2.0 is that users participate and add content and value. The first decade of this millennium will probably be known for the growth of sophisticated electronic social activity. Users have become accustomed to creating content on the Web, whether it is writing a review of a book at an online bookstore or creating an identity for themselves on My Space. They are also accustomed to having their say by posting comments to blogs or adding their ideas on a topic to Wikipedia.

Today's users have an expectation that they will find a community at their electronic destination. They also expect to interact with their information resources, not to consume them passively. This creates something of a dilemma for libraries. Library catalogs are created by professionals using a set of rules that even few in the library world can say they have truly mastered. The idea that users would be allowed to modify the catalog is about as far from the mentality of the cataloging rules as you can possibly get. OCLC is experimenting with some user input by allowing users to add reviews to Open WorldCat. The basis of the catalog and cataloging remains the same, and the reviews as yet do not affect retrieval. Most online library catalogs are un-social, not even allowing the electronic equivalent of the penciled comment on the back of the catalog card.

Users are also comfortable sharing their information resources and combining them with those of other users. At social bookmarking sites 12, users share their bookmarks and the tags they have assigned to them. Librarything,13 is a site for sharing and comparing personal book bibliographies. At these and other social sites, users get feedback from other users that help them understand and expand their information view.

Users also expect their information resources to interact with one another. The OpenURL browser plugins, mentioned above, allow users to move seamlessly from a citation on the Web to a copy of the cited article that is not available on the open Web. Other plugins help users create bibliographies from bibliographic information on the screen, including the screens of library catalogs.14 This bibliographic information can then be added to documents that users are writing.

The upshot of this is that there is no one single destination for users involved in a search for information or in some other information-related activity. A survey conducted by OCLC on user perceptions of libraries shows that the vast majority of those interviewed use search engines to begin an information search (84 percent). Only one percent begin an information search on a library Web site. (p. 6-3) Which doesn't mean that they are not interested in library services, but they may not discover those services if the library does not find a way to go to the user, rather than waiting for the user to come to the library.


In the next issue, we'll take a look at some of the ideas that are brewing for new library catalog models, and some of the creative experiments that are already taking place in that direction.

1 Dempsey, Lorcan. "The Library Catalogue in the New Discovery Environment: Some Thoughts. Retrieved From " Ariadne, no. 48 (2006).

2 Calhoun, Karen. "The Changing Nature of the Catalog and Its Integration with Other Discovery Tools." 52. Ithaca: Cornell University Library. Prepared for the Library of Congress, 2006.

3 Next Generation Catalog discussion list, NGC4LIB. http://

4 Joint Steering Committee for the Revision of AACR.

5 Lynch, Clifford. Digital Collections, Digital Libraries and the Digitization of Cultural Heritage Information. First Monday, volume 7, number 5 (May 2002), URL:

6 Friedlander, Amy. Dimensions and use of the scholarly information environment. Washington, D.C., Digital Library Federation and the Council on Library and Information Resources. 2002.

7 O'Reilly, Tim. 2005. What Is Web 2.0. (accessed 12/14/06, 2006).

8 Crawford, Walt. "Library 2.0 And "Library 2.0"." Cites & Insights: Crawford at Large 6, no. 2 (2006): pp. 4-6

9 Dempsey, op. cit.

10 An example of a browser plugin can be found at the Openly Informatics site:, and others can be located with a search.

11 Greenstein, Daniel. "Lessons in Deep Resource Sharing from the University of California Libraries." In Emerging Visions for Access in the Twenty-first Century Library: CLIR, 2003. p.78 Available: (Accessed December 14, 2006)

12 A partial list of sites can be found at


14 One example is Zotero, at

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