The Changing Nature of the Catalog – A Response to Calhoun, Mann, and Yee

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The central premise of Calhoun’s report is that technology has “created an era of discontinuous change in research libraries—a time when the cumulated assets of the past do not guarantee future success” (2006, p. 5).  Calhoun’s perspective is that this notion applies directly to traditional library cataloging.  Yee argues that traditional cataloging is fundamental to the value of libraries (2007).  Mann makes the case that research libraries’ primary mission is to serve the specific needs of serious scholarship (2006).  Each is right in their own way.  Mann and Yee, though, fail to recognize the changes that the coming of the Information Age has wrought on the world outside libraries.  Far too much valuable information is outside the reach of traditional catalogs.  Libraries must embrace technology to extend the grasp of catalogs beyond local holdings.

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Does Cataloging Scale?

Recently, on the This Week in Tech podcast (twit.tv), I heard an interesting comparison of a difference between
Apple and Google. In reference to the Apple App Store, one of the commentators said that Apple’s model was to have the equivalent of a giant room full of employees doing nothing but manually approving each addition to Apple’s offerings. In this way, Apple maintains absolute control of its users’ experiences. I can’t remember exactly what Google product was mentioned in comparison, but the important point was this–Google is *not* offering a certain feature for now because they can’t figure out how to automate the process that goes along with it. The point being, Google absolutely refuses to pursue offerings that require manual control/input because only automated processes are capable of “scaling up” to the enormous number of uses Google products have to cope with. Despite the mainstream success of iPods and iPhones, Apple still has the soul of a niche company. Google, on the other hand, is entirely a creature of the Internet Age–it works, and *only* works, on a massive (and necessarily massive) scale.

That long winded intro does lead back to Cataloging, I swear :) Doesn’t the Apple model sound a lot like a Cataloging Department? Hsieh-Yee asks [in Organizing Audiovisual and Electronic Resources for Access], “will cataloging have a role to play in the organization of information in the twenty-first century?” I would ask, “*can* it have a role? If Cataloging is stuck in the “Apple model,” can it scale to 24x7x365 geyser of information object creation that is the internet? Or is a fundamental change required to keep up?