Monday, 23 July 2012

Back to the future (or, a cataloguing history lesson)

It is interesting to note that as technology develops and more functions become possible, with each big new step forward we seem to lose something that worked well in the past.

When library automation was in full swing in the 1980s and early 1990s, the main point of it appeared at first to be for circulation purposes. It was usual to continue the card catalogue alongside the automated circulation system, and records for books and other items which were first uploaded were very basic, as they were not intended to take the place of the catalogue. Once it was fully realised that everything could be integrated, the detail of print catalogue records was sometimes lost in the process.

Automation has the advantage of speed, and of freeing staff from tedious manual chores. The demise of the card catalogue meant, oh joy, no more laborious filing (a job which usually fell to the junior staff), and no more negotiation with secretaries about typing priorities (younger readers may not appreciate that you were never supposed to admit to being able to type yourself, especially if you were male).

Between the card catalogue and the automated catalogue came that hybrid, the catalogue on microfiche. The cataloguer would still be working on paper, filling in a form manually: the data entry was done onto tapes by clerical assistants, sent away, and eventually returned in fiche form once a month (the time lag between cataloguing a book and the fiche arriving could be as much as nine months. Yes, nine months.). It then had to be checked for errors and if there were any the whole process had to be done again. The card catalogue was quicker, despite the typing and filing, and there was often an interim stage of keeping records of the items which had not yet appeared on the fiche. It was possible, therefore, to have as many as three or four different places to look for catalogue records.

The next big technological advance, the web-based OPAC, meant that items catalogued could be visible immediately, and corrected instantly. How spoiled we have been with it! Has it turned us into sloppy typists? An error can be corrected while someone tells you about it over the phone. Refresh the page, and, hey presto! the mistake has vanished!

Technology continues to advance, and soon we will be following all the other libraries who have moved on, away from the catalogue to a resource discovery platform which treats the data more in the way a database does, allowing more flexibility of ways of searching. It's a long way from the card catalogue or the microfiche. There's always a drawback, though, and for me the fact that instant amendment and the ability to see what you have just done immediately will no longer be possible is a big one, as we will now have to wait overnight before our records are visible. (This is also not ideal for the part-timer!) Never mind, we have been here before in terms of gains and losses, and this loss won't be apparent to the users. It does feel like a step back to me, though!

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