Ohio university library catalogue http://www.flickr.com/photos/ohiouniversitylibraries/3485066089/

The catalogue
Sitting in a meeting the other day, with library staff from across the library, and talking about ‘the catalogue’ it quickly became obvious that there simply wasn’t a single view anymore of what the catalogue was.  What should be contained within it, how it should be organised, what role it should play in our library systems, what skills we needed to maintain it, or what it might look like in the future.  We all had different views, in part as a consequence of our different roles, with some seeing it from the perspective of users finding access to resources and others seeing it in terms of being a single place to list everything we had purchased, owned or licensed.   Despite these different perspectives the one thing we seemed to have in common was a feeling that somehow the catalogue no longer met all our needs in its current shape.

That discussion also brought to mind the ‘Squeezed Middle’ workshop, where it also became clear that the definition of what a library management system was has also become unclear.  And that makes me wonder, how and why, the definition of the fundamental technical infrastructure behind our day to day operations became so unclear.  How did an everyday tool like the catalogue, previously the undisputed gateway to library resources, start to lose that position?

The LMS, then and now
Library Management System, then and now
Thinking it through, it seemed easier to sketch out the landscape and the way it has changed as it makes it much easier to see quite how crowded the library systems environment has become.  And there are certainly a few other systems, such as PC Booking systems, wifi networking and RFID self-service that could be added into the diagram on the right-hand side to make it even more complicated. 

Whereas in the past we would put everything into the LMS, maybe that was because there wasn’t any other system that you could use.  Now a range of other systems are available, and many of them also have their own ‘catalogue-type’ service.  I’d probably contend that the reason that these other systems are available is because of failings in the LMS in that it hasn’t adapted quickly enough or is flexible enough, or is just positioned in the wrong space to be the comprehensive system that it once was.  From my perspective one of the things that the diagram brings home is that we are trying to do a lot more different types of things in libraries that we simply weren’t doing before.

So what has changed?
Lorcan Dempsey uses the phrases ‘Inside-out’ and ‘Outside-in’ to characterise roles around publishing content from inside the organisation to the outside world and making content from the outside world findable for your internal audience.   For print and archival collections the role of libraries used to be about publishing the contents of their collections (‘inside-out’), but now where electronic resources are a large part of the academic library offer, a great deal of effort goes into the ‘outside-in’ role through discovery systems, federated search and OpenURL/Knowledge Base systems.

In the past simple descriptive cataloguing, which largely describes the container rather than the content, was adequate to describe a book.  But now as the amount of content we have access to increases exponentially, describing the container rather than content isn’t sufficient.  As libraries create more content in digital libraries, make more use of video and audio material and start to work on expressing bibliographic data as linked data, it starts to become apparent that describing the ideas inside the container is of more value to users trying to find related (or even contrary) ideas.  As format becomes less relevant in a digital age where material can be accessed directly online, the descriptive element of cataloguing  becomes a statement of archival interest rather than an aid to finding the material.

Direction of travel
LMS suppliers in some cases seem to be trying to re-establish the comprehensive all-in-one solution (e.g. Alma from ExLibris) although the way these systems are being offered, either partly or wholly in the cloud, or as collaborative or shared systems, recognises some new realities around resources and costs.  Webscale platform services seems to be the new buzzword (buzzphrase maybe?), e.g. OCLC WorldShare™ Platform that combine typical LMS services with discovery services in a shared cloud.

Certainly collaborative systems, whether the community elements of Alma, or the Knowledge Base Plus e-resource systems that are planned, seem currently to be the likely direction of development for many systems.