The Library Catalog: Some Possible Futures

By Karen Coyle

Published in the Journal of Academic Librarianship, v. 33, n. 3

Two previous Managing Technology columns covered the future of the library catalog as seen from the past, and the impact of the culture of the World Wide Web on library catalogs.1 2What is happening today is not just a shift in technology but an entire re-arrangement of how we approach information. Regardless of how librarians feel about this new technology, many of our users have already made this change. The essential question, "Does my library have this book?" is now "Is this book available anywhere: offline, online, to buy, to borrow, to search within?" And "What does my library have on this topic?" has become "What exists on this topic, and how can I get it …. now?"

Essentially, the equation "information = library" is no longer. Part of the reason for that is that "information = book" as been eclipsed by "information = web." I put the word "web" in small letters because the network has become so ubiquitous that the technology that underlies the WWW is invisible to users. Although we in libraries are aware that the Web is not the entire universe of knowledge, many of our users would be surprised to learn that there is valuable, even essential, information that is not at their fingertips. There are two approaches we could take, given that fact: we could attempt to convince users that they should go into libraries to find information; or we could spend the next decade making sure that they can get to that valuable information by making it visible in the online world where they live, play and learn. Here are some ideas for how that latter can happen.

There's no catalog...

... like no catalog. Starting with the most extreme view of the future of the library catalog, some have a vision of a totally linked information universe where all resources interact.3 In this vision, libraries would continue to provide access services to quality resources, many of which are not available for open access on the public web. However, rather than concentrating that access in a separate library system that users must consciously access, the information about the library's materials would be diffused across the information landscape. Users searching in the global pool of information resources would encounter library materials along with materials from other sources including the public sphere of the web. The information web is then a universal Memex4 where all resources are interconnected and all citations hot-link to their documents. The report of the Denmark's Electronic Research Library (DEFF) calls this the "shift from 'collections to connections.'"5

There are a number of interesting implications in this scenario. One is that it requires a robust and wide-spread capability to authenticate users and their relationships to institutions and libraries. After all, to access library materials one must be a verified user of that library, with the privileges that implies. This may come to pass, but authentication is a sticking point in general for resource access within individual institutions and consortia. This is an area that needs a great deal of work.

Another implication is that users can retrieve resources within that universe without knowing what the source of the entry is. To users it is one, big data soup. This will be popular with information seekers, but it presents a challenge to the library in terms of visibility and branding, especially around questions of funding and institutional support.

The distribution of the library's resources and services throughout the information sphere does not actually mean that no catalog will exist, but it does mean that many users will encounter library materials without ever accessing what we think of today as a library catalog. Rather than waiting in the catalog for users to search, library data should "leak out" into the information space, should be indexed by search engines, and should be formatted such that entries can be included in other databases or resources. Imagine that the library catalog entry can actually become the citation in a document and you can begin to see the possibilities.

One for All

The highly networked nature of our information universe has all but removed the need for geographical proximity between users and resources, and for local data stores. Looked at from this point of view, it strikes one as odd that each library has its own bibliographic database and user interface. This redundant store of data is especially odd because we do often have at least one centralized copy of that same data, either in a service bureau like OCLC, or in a regional union catalog. From an economic point of view the local public catalog is an unnecessary expense if a centralized catalog can provide a suitable user view. Think of the money saved on hardware, software, and staff time.

This is the view expressed in the report of the University of California Bibliographic Services Task Force. Like many multi-campus systems, UC libraries each have a local catalog, and they also contribute to a union catalog which could take on the role of the public catalog for all of the participating library. The report goes further, however, and suggests that given the existence of a de facto national union catalog in the form of OCLC's WorldCat database, the management of a public catalog interface by the University of California is an avoidable expense.6

Although many librarians will undoubtedly fear that their particular library's special strengths would be lost in a large centralized database, there are some interesting advantages that participation in that larger bibliographic universe can provide. At least in theory, a large, central database could show a local view and, as needed, that view could expand in concentric circles of union views that represent the reality of the interconnected world of libraries. A user could move seamlessly from the local library to the consortium or group of ILL partners, on to the level of the state library, then to national and international resources. This view treats the local library as the entry point to a much larger universe, and opens up the user's view to include inter-library loan possibilities that are invisible today.

Freeing the Catalog from the ILS

Many libraries that are not ready to step away from having their own catalog have, however, found that they gain greater flexibility if the user view does not have to conform to needs of library management systems. Some libraries are already using this method; they have separated the public catalog from the integrated library system's hardware and software.7 This may seem to be a step backward from the goals of the integrated library system. What we have learned through that integration, however, is that the user view of the library is often subordinated to the needs of the library to manage itself. The new, liberated user service can take risks without having to worry about its effect on technical services activities. For example, the cataloging module can continue to create MARC-formatted records while the database supporting the user interface can be built on technology that uses more mainstream formats like XML. In this way, some libraries have been able to take advantage of sophisticated search technologies, notably those of Endeca8 and Aquabrowser.9 These products create new indexes to the bibliographic database and manage searching with word-stemming, spelling corrections, and innovative visual and faceted presentation. The end result is a library catalog that looks not much like a library catalog on its face.

Expanding the Catalog Universe

The catalog is generally a database of all physical items owned by the library. That is, however, only one of the many sets of information resources managed by a typical academic library, and the library resources are only part of what the parent institution offers. Information seekers are often directed to search a number of separate silos to access books, journal articles, learning resources, local databases of scholarly output, images, and digitized archival materials. It is probable that many materials in this fragmented landscape are under-utilized, either because users don't know where to look for them or are simply unwilling to conduct separate searches in order to be thorough.

A partial solution to this problem is the metasearch engine. Metasearch systems conduct searches on individual databases or resource stores, then bring them together into a single display. Because of differences in data between the databases and how the databases perform searches, however, the quality of the search results is often poor. One solution to this is to create an index layer between the user and the resources, essentially indexing the institutional information space in much the way that a web search engine indexes the web.10 It may not be possible to include vendor-provided data in the index, but within an institution a combined and coherent access to all institutional materials means that users will be exposed to a wide range of resources with a single search. A search on people could give office hours, courses being taught, and a bibliography of articles the person has written. The catalog, in this case, is no longer just the library catalog but is on its way to becoming a rich information portal with a broad scope, one that users will turn to even when they don't have the library in mind.

Focus on the User

What most explorations of the future of the catalog have in common is a focus on the user. In the past, the focus of the library catalog was the library, and the goal of the catalog was to define the library's holdings. In the future, the successful library catalog will be user-centric, and its organizing principle will be the user's information needs, not just the need to use the library catalog. Some members of our profession anticipate a new emphasis on subject searching11, possibly based on full text indexing. Others see libraries spending less time on mass-produced materials and more on primary resources.12

This argues for systems that are highly flexible, that can be made to respond to observed patterns of use. It argues for personalization, but not only in terms of default searches or saved email addresses, but also in allowing the user to capture, link or modify, to mash-up library data with other networked environments, such as taking their personal bookshelf into a virtual learning space. User-centricity also means providing services that don't end with the delivery of a book or article, but that go forward into the use and re-use of resources. Just as a library provides services other than document delivery, a library system can provide virtual study space, group activity areas, reading groups and study aids. It can link to the classroom, virtual or physical.


You may be wondering at this point: What will this new catalog look like? I can't answer that. My feeling is that what I can imagine today will be too close to what we have already. I don't know if there will be incremental changes, or great leaps forward. I can posit some general goals, however, as a way to begin thinking about this future.

Starting Points for Change

Where do we begin to effect this change? When we evaluate what we do today in light of what we think we should be doing in the not-too-distant future it becomes immediately evident that our current model is overly rigid. It consists of AACR, MARC21, and vendor systems that determine the public's view of the library catalog. Each of these is known for having ponderous mechanisms that resist change, and take years to realize even minor modifications in how we work. Such a rate of change is no longer an option.

The economics of greater change are often cited as stumbling blocks. The most common argument about moving from the MARC record format to a more modern record design is that we have many hundreds of millions of MARC records in existing systems. Using this argument, we would never be able to justify a change to our catalogs. Given that our MARC records are machine-readable and fairly consistently coded, programmatic conversion of the records to a new format is not the greatest of our challenges. More to the point is the need to address the costs of our current practices. Some recent reports have suggested that libraries are putting too much of their effort into materials that are well covered in terms of bibliographic control, such as currently published books, and should concentrate their efforts on unique materials that are harder to locate. Libraries are not accustomed to thinking in terms of economics and shy away from making these choices, but in a world awash in information resources, some triage is going to be necessary.

Libraries will also have to be willing to share the burden of metadata creation with others. This means dropping the snobbery of "only libraries create quality data" and partnering with vendors and users to collectively create our retrieval systems. (Markey) Publishers may never use AACR name forms for their authors, but they are a great source of blurbs, reviews, and cover art. They also have information about authors that is more user-friendly than the dry notes of a library authority file.

I have heard it suggested that we drop the term "catalog" altogether, because it carries with it many associations and makes it hard for us to thing outside of the proverbial box. As yet, no one has proffered a reasonable substitute for the term, so we will have to discipline ourselves for now and allow our minds to embrace a larger vision of that term for our, and our users', future.

1 Coyle, Karen. "The Future of Library Systems, Seen from the Past." Journal of Academic Librarianship. v. 33, n. 1

2 Coyle, Karen. "The Library Catalog in a 2.0 World." Journal of Academic Librarianship. v. 33., n. 2

3 LeVan, Ralph. "Opensearch and SRU: Continuum of Searching." Information Technology and Libraries 25, no. 3 (2006): 151-53.

4 Bush, Vannevar. "As We May Think." Atlantic Monthly (1949).

5 Denmark's Electronic Research Library. "DEFF Strategy Discussion Paper." 2007. Available{77BD6B2C-CFC5-4BF2-B283-80229C104290} (February 12, 2007)

6 University of California. Bibliographic Services Task Force. "Rethinking How We Provide Bibliographic Services for the University of California." University of California, 2005. p. 19

7 Some examples are NCSU's catalog, based on Endeca technology (, and the library catalog of the University of California at Berkeley (http://



10 Lankes, R. David, Joanne Silverstein, and Scott Nicholson. "Participatory Networks: The Library as Conversation." Produced for the American Library Associations's Office for Information Technology Policy, 2007. Available: (February 13, 2007)

11 Markey, Karen. "The Online Library Catalog: Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained?" D-Lib Magazine 13, no. 1/2 (2007).

12 Calhoun, Karen. "The Changing Nature of the Catalog and Its Integration with Other Discovery Tools." Ithaca: Cornell University Library. Prepared for the Library of Congress, 2006. p. 10

13 Lankes, op. cit.

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