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Bibliographic Discovery, Access and Delivery – The Way Forward

by on February 12, 2010

The National Art Library at the V&A has recently been reviewing the way forward for our bibliographic discovery, access and delivery services.  This has been prompted by a recent staff restructuring and an impending upgrade of our library management system.  I reviewed four recent reports on this topic from key national and international library organisations.  In spite of the fact that most of their conclusions are both radical and controversial there is a remarkable degree of common ground between them.  I have attached the discussion paper I produced based on the contents of the reports I reviewed.   Significant points of agreement include:

  • In recent years library catalogues have been moving from a position of dominance to one of decline in the field of bibliographic discovery.  One of their key drawbacks is the fact that their contents are largely invisible to search engines.
  •  The process of cataloguing is complex and difficult for librarians to master, making it both labour intensive and expensive in terms of library resources.   Users struggle to understand how catalogues work so fail take full advantage of their many value-added features.  
  • There is an extraordinary amount of duplication of effort in catalogue creation across the sector and considerable doubt about whether the current model of localised catalogues is actually sustainable.
  • In general catalogues tend to be automated versions of their printed card predecessors so have not incorporated the enhanced features users have come to expect in a digital environment.  They also tend to concentrate mainly on printed materials largely excluding digital formats. 
  • Endemic problems of catalogues, such as confusing search methods, poorly organised results and search dead-ends, have still not been addressed on any perceptible scale. Yet these failings have been successfully tackled by search engines.
  • Delivery of the content of catalogue search results, either through the inter-lending of actual books or the supply of digital facsimiles, continues to be a vastly under-exploited potential service enhancement.
  • The proprietary library management system sector is a relatively insignificant player in the global IT market and therefore has very limited investment capital.  However, much of this capital is squandered in customising their products for the benefit of librarians rather than library users.
  • What is ultimately needed is radical national and international leadership to produce a new integrated model of cataloguing fit for an online environment.  In the meantime libraries can maximise the value of their current local catalogues by introducing a variety of add-on features.  Most of these enhancements, such as linking to available full text, tagging and recommender systems, are freely and easily available.  LMLAG Cataloguing Report

Martin Flynn

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