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Library 2.0 and the catalogue

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By Margaret Adolphus

Introduction

Libraries are increasingly using Web 2.0 technologies (such as media sharing, blogs, wikis, RSS, etc.) to involve the user in their services, but, however much libraries have evolved as something more than the sum of their collections, they are still an important part of their offering, and the catalogue the main means of discovery.

Yet catalogues are losing out as search tools to the Internet.

The main problem here is the way in which we have been spoilt by the Web. Historically, the catalogue has never been a particularly user-friendly tool (I can't speak from experience, I seem to have got by with a not totally undistinguished academic career without using it much), but its discrepancies are emphasized by the ease with which it is possible to search the Web.

Think of the single search box, ranked results and the fact that many commercial retailers such as Amazon embellish their search results with more than the desultory bibliographic information – you can, for example, see an item's cover, browse content and read reviews.

So why aren't libraries flocking en masse to follow Amazon's lead? The truth is, it's not that simple. Whereas adding some 2.0 features often involves small, relatively easy initiatives, such as uploading photos of events to Flickr or writing a blog, making changes to the catalogue is often more difficult, simply because it lies at the heart of the library's infrastructure. Thus it's often the Cinderella of the bold new Web 2.0 world, the service left well behind in the 20th century.

It is however critical that the catalogue is a user-friendly experience; it is the major patron discovery tool and the way in which users interact with the library's resources. Not only that, a number of web-based commercial reference sources have sprung up, such as Amazon's Askville, which actually threaten library reference services.

Eli Neiburger, associate director for information technology and production at Ann Arbor District Library, has this to say about the catalogue:

"It's crucial that library catalogues deliver as satisfying and rewarding of a web experience as the best commercial web products; libraries are in competition with these services whether we realize it or not. It's a critical time for libraries and it's very dangerous for our most prominent public interfaces to be weighed in the balance and found wanting."