Controlling Our Information

Recently, I attended a meeting where we discussed a growing problem for our library–the inability to get all of the electronic resources we subscribe to in our catalog, especially the ejournals. Part of the problem is staffing; I’m not sure we have enough people to treat these journals as we do print journals. Part of the problem is sheer quantity. We purchase a journal package, and suddenly that’s a thousand new titles, and perhaps they don’t have easily available MARC records. The catalog has always traditionally been the place of record for what the library owns or has access to, and if it could still be that I’d be happy, too, but clearly it’s not. People are finding journal articles through Google Scholar that, according to our OPAC, we don’t subscribe to, and yet obviously we do subscribe to them because otherwise the patron wouldn’t be able to access some of them through Google.

I’m torn in the debate. I like the idea of the catalog of record. I’m comfortable searching the catalog and teaching others to. I like the power over information that a perfect catalog can give me. And I know that admitting that the catalog can no longer function that way and that alternative searching methods are inevitable means giving up a lot of the control we have over our own resources–control which we have very good reasons for wanting. It means we have a lot of uncertainty that doesn’t benefit us or the patrons, but which may be inevitable.

Yet I still wonder if we’re fighting a Sisyphean battle. We roll those MARC records up the hill into the catalog and think it’s complete, and along comes another thousand journals unaccounted for. (I know that was a bit strange, but I was trying to figure out what Sisyphus would do with a MARC record.) Increasingly, I have the nagging feeling that trying to catalog every item we own or have access to is analogous to trying to catalog the Internet. I just don’t see how it can be done. (Perhaps that’s what the elusive semantic web is supposed to be able to do some day, but I won’t comment because I’m not sure I understand the issues well enough.)

Some of us are understandably bothered that we have resources we don’t control, or that people can find our own journals through Google but not through the OPAC. I think this is where I part company with some of my colleagues. As much as I would appreciate the perfect OPAC, I don’t think it’s possible anymore, and it doesn’t bother me that people find resources through other methods. It’s enough for me if people find the information they need, and if they find information we provide but not with tools we provide, I’m fine with that. It’s possible that librarians are the only ones bothered by this, and the fact that people are already accessing our journals through Google in the first place is an indication this might be true.

I also know there are other next generation catalogs that attempt to do some of this stuff. We don’t have one of those, though. And even with these I wonder whether there can any longer be one-stop shopping for library resources.

If there can’t be, and clearly there isn’t now, then it causes obvious problems, especially perhaps for reference services. If we can no longer depend on having a catalog of record, how can we verify what we have? Is the catalog even useful if we can’t trust it? I’m certainly not arguing that the catalog isn’t still useful, only that it’s usefulness is limited in yet another way, and that we must use alternative ways to find information, even information we’ve purchased. The world of information is a great big mess these days, and I appreciate the problems as much as anyone, but if problems can’t be solved, then worrying about them doesn’t help much. Sisyphus might have been better off if he’d left that MARC record at the bottom of the hill and searched Google instead.

One thought on “Controlling Our Information

  1. I encounter this situation almost daily in doing online reference work. Sometimes it can take me five or six steps to determine where an article might actually be available full text online (if it’s available at all). This confuses everyone involved, and doesn’t provide the best service. I don’t understand why database providers don’t offer the cataloging of journals in their databases–well, what the heck, I don’t work at a university, so maybe they do. That seems as though it would take some of the agony out of the situation. I’m glad I found your blog.

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