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Using an Online Library Catalog

Updated on April 30, 2010

I have written about the strengths and weakness of online catalogs in Online Library Catalogs: the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. The purpose of this article is to suggest well tested search strategies.

1. Understand the different structures and different functions of search engines and catalogs.

Modern library catalogs reside on the Internet, where they compete for attentions with search engines. Many writers of library literature claim that today's library user does not use the catalog. They point out, correctly, that catalogs have failed to keep up with modern technology and that most people find search engines much more intuitive. Library catalogs point to the holdings of a particular library. Search engines can find only what is available on the Internet, which means that library catalogs can find treasures invisible to search engines. In today's economic conditions, people do use libraries. If they do, in fact, choose not to use the catalog, they cannot find what the library makes available and therefore cannot take full advantage of its resources.

Human beings wrote the algorithms search engines use to select which pages to return for a given search and which ones of those to rank as most important, but when a user enters a search, the process of returning search results takes place without human intervention. The search engine crawls multiple millions of web pages searching for keywords and back-links--and nothing else. That is one reason why the single search box works so well.

Library catalogs long pre-date the invention of computer networks, and only computers make keyword searching possible. To some, that merely proves that catalogs are obsolete--but not so fast. Librarians long ago noticed that the same person's name may appear in different ways on different works, and that different people may have the same or similar names.

"David Guion" may be an unusual name, but it is not unique. My book, my doctoral dissertation, and my masters thesis are all in various library catalogs. The name is David M. Guion on the book, but David Michael Guion on the thesis and dissertation. It could conceivably appear simply as David Guion, D. M. Guion, or D. Guion on other publications.

Another David Guion (two generations older and no relation) composed popular songs and piano pieces. Many libraries own his music, available in both printed sheet music and recordings. What I have seen gives the name as David W. Guion. I  have seen reference works with the forms David Wendell (or Wendel) Guion, David Wendell (or Wendel) [de]  Fentress Guion, David W. F. Guion, etc.

Try looking for "David Guion" on Google; you will find both of us and some others, all jumbled together. It is not immediately obvious just how many different people with the same name turn up, and how is anyone to know that David W. Guion and David Wendel Fentress Guion are probably the same person? 

Therefore, for almost 200 years, librarians have sought to make sure that for every person in the catalog, there is one and only one way of rendering a person's name. Nowadays, all libraries are connected, so every library in the United States uses the Library of Congress Name Authority file. My bibliographic identity is "Guion, David M., 1948-  " If I'm famous enough to notice, the last four digits will be added when I die. Otherwise, I'll remain immortal in library catalogs. That will always mean me and no one else. If some other David M. Guion born in the same year ever issues anything that libraries acquire, some librarian will find a way to distinguish us.

I haven't looked up David W's bibliographic identity, but all of the other forms of his name exist in an authority record the public will never see. This record insures that no matter how a library patron searches for him, he/she will be able to find the official form and use it to find everything in the library by or about him.

Likewise, there may be more than one way to express a title, especially if the work is translated from one language to another. Musical compositions are notoriously difficult. Beethoven, for example, wrote 32 piano sonatas in various keys. He assigned opus numbers to most of his works, and some of them have nicknames. Any one of them could appear as Piano Sonata or Sonata for Piano in various languages, with the key, the sequential number, opus number appearing, or not, in various orders--with or without the nickname, if any. Confused? The Name Authority File has everything figured out. There is one and  only one preferred way to express these titles. Once again, an authority record operating in the background comes up with the preferred form.

Cataloging records also contain subjects, which are a little more complicated. I have mentioned that all libraries in the United States use the Library of Congress Name Authority File. The Library of Congress also has a Subject Authority File, but some libraries use different ones. Basically, academic, public, and medical libraries all use different lists of subject headings. For each list, however, there is an authority file: one and only one way to express a given subject.

For example, "cancer" is a valid subject heading for any non-medical library, but in medical libraries, it is "neoplasms." Anyone who searches by subject in the library at a university that has a medical school must choose between Library of Congress Subject Headings and Medical Subject Headings. All of the various synonyms for preferred terms work in the background to insure that you find the records you need no matter whether you used the authorized term or not.

Unlike search engines, a library catalog is an indexed database. There are separate indexes for authors and other names, titles, subjects, keywords and more. The keyword index reads anything in the other indexes I have named plus  descriptions and tables of contents.

Also unlike search engines, library catalogs rely on human intellectual input. It never dawned on me that some person wrote all of those catalog entries until I started to work in a library and did some cataloging myself. Critics of library catalogs complain that all of this human effort is too expensive and should be eliminated as much as possible. That would be disastrous. As it is, not every record that warrants transcription of the table of contents has it. No computer can find data that is not present. We need better records and more consistency, not less.

2. Start with a keyword search

Like Google, the catalog will return a better search if you use multiple and less common keywords. "Chemistry" will result in far more hits than anyone can wade through. "Chemistry" plus an author's last name is better. Adding another term like "organic" or "analytical" is better still. Unlike Google, most library catalogs require that you insert "and" between your search terms.

Some library catalogs, trying to emulate Google as much as possible, present a single search box. The best thing to do with that is look for the "advanced search." It is actually easier to use. A good advanced search screen will allow a general keyword search (like you can do on Google), but also keywords limited to the author, title, or subject indexes. It will also allow you to enter the exact author's name, title, or subject if you happen to know it. Having six or seven boxes to choose from may look harder, but it shouldn't take much time to get used to it. Once you do, you can do much more precise searches.

At this point in your research, you do not want a lot of titles to sift through. You want a few titles and you want to be confident that at least most of them are the kind of book (or whatever else) you are looking for. Once you get this list, select one of the titles and examine it carefully.

3. Look at the hot-links.

There will be several kinds of hot-links in the record. Classification numbers, names, preferred titles, and subject headings are all hot-linked. The hot-links show the official form of the name, title, or subject. You might want to write it down for future use. Clicking on any one of them will bring up a list of everything in the library that has that term or classification.

The classification number gives the location on the shelf. You can use it as a search term. The result is like browsing the shelves without having to go there. You even get to see possibly useful titles that someone else has checked out.

Most public libraries use the Dewey Decimal Classification. Most academic libraries use the Library of Congress Classification. Most medical libraries use the National Library of Medicine Classification. Usually, a catalog displays only one classification system, but if a consortium of libraries shares a common catalog and not all of them use the same classification, you need to recognize the difference in order to search with the numbers. The catalog should offer separate searches for the different classifications.

Names may be personal names, corporate names, or jurisdictional names. People and corporations or government agencies can be the author or editor, or for that matter, the subject. People may also be translators, illustrators, etc. Leonard Bernstein, for example, may be the author of a book, the speaker on a videorecording, the composer of a piece of music, or the performer (either as conductor or pianist) of a piece of music. Unfortunately, one of the ways all of our online catalogs fail is by not using the coding that exists to search for or list all of these roles separately.

Subject headings may consist of a single term or strings of terms separated by dashes. In a well designed catalog, it should be possible to click on any one term in the string; the farther to the left you click, the more general the search. For example, you may find "Dogs--United States--Biography--Humor." Clicking on "United States" will bring you to a screen that starts with "Dogs--United States" and shows you all of the available subheadings (such as Anecdotes, Pedigrees, Pictorial works, etc.) Unfortunately, not all catalogs provide that option; in these less well-designed catalogs, you can only select the entire string. In either case, you can make note of the terms and combine them in a subject-keyword search.

In short, to use an online library catalog, begin with a keyword search, but don't stop there if you are working on any kind of research project. From whatever record(s) you select from you keyword search, you can find more with just a mouse click.


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