Scholarly Conversations, Seed Documents, and the Regressive New WorldCat

I write this after a traumatic experience. Yesterday, through force of circumstances, I had to use the new WorldCat interface to demonstrate research techniques, and the experience wounded me.

Some background: I teach a library school course called Introduction to Sources and Services in the Arts and Humanities, and one focus of the course is to prepare students to provide research consultations to advanced undergraduate students in the humanities. I teach a method that I have used myself for many years, and that has generally proven worthwhile.

Students working on research essays in the humanities should try to find, and ideally enter, scholarly conversations on the topics of their research. The idea of “scholarship as conversation” became on of the “threshold concepts” in last year’s ACRL Framework for Information Literacy, but I’ve been using the metaphor for a long time because it’s useful. Advanced scholars in a field are already familiar with relevant conversations, but students have to find a way to get there, and one way to do that is through searching relevant databases and catalogs.

Searching itself isn’t particularly difficult, and simply finding sources for a research essay is one of the easier tasks in the research and writing of one. Nevertheless, students sometimes have problems, and one of the problems is knowing what they’re searching for. They believe at first that they’re searching for any sources on their topic, but that search can be very extensive. In the humanities, they should be searching for what Rebecca Green calls “seed documents.”*

A seed document is one that helps students find that conversation. Ideally, it should be a recent book (or 2 or 3) in English from a scholarly press as relevant as possible to the research topic, and preferably one discovered through a variety of means. Thus, if the same book or two is discovered through a catalog search, a subject index search, and in the bibliography of an article in a subject-specific scholarly encyclopedia, it’s probably a source the student needs. After finding a handful of sources like that, it’s time to stop searching and to start reading and chasing footnotes. In that process, students are more likely to find the relevant scholarly conversation as they see scholars citing other scholars in dialog with them.

Generally, I suggest the triple approach of index, encyclopedia, and WorldCat (so as not to limit the search to what happens to be in one particular library). For literature, which was the discipline yesterday, I would suggest the MLA Bibliography and the Literature Resource Center in addition to WorldCat. For WorldCat and other databases, I suggest a series of steps:

  1. Search relevant keywords
  2. Locate the most relevant book to your topic
  3. Find the subject heading(s)
  4. Search the subject heading(s)
  5. Sort by date-newest
  6. Find the most recent relevant books from scholarly presses
  7. Go get them and start reading

There’s nothing fancy or earth-shattering about the process, but it’s simple and it often works. However, it works a lot faster in the old, and eventually to be discontinued, version of WorldCat than in the new version, because in the old version one can get a list of 100 results instead of just ten, and–most importantly–one can see the publisher information at a glance. Here’s what a typical result looks like:


In the new version of WorldCat that I had to use because that’s what the library school students had available, the same record looks like this:



You can’t see the publisher information until first clicking on the title, and THEN on the “Description.” Instead of being able to see publisher information immediately, it takes two clicks from the results list. Also, unless I missed something (and if I did please correct me), the results list can’t be expanded beyond 10 results.

That means instead of being able to scan a long list quickly looking for relevant titles from scholarly publishers, researchers would have to:

  1. Click on the title in the results list (which then moves to a frame on the left)
  2. Click on the Description of the book to see the publisher information
  3. Click to go to the next screen of ten (which returns to the initial results list format)
  4. Click on another title (which then moves to the left frame again)
  5. Repeat, Repeat, Repeat, Repeat, Repeat, Repeat, Repeat, Repeat.

Clicking is always slower than scrolling, and some people prefer clicking to scrolling. Those people should love the new WorldCat, because not only can’t you scroll more than ten results (in the version I used), but you have to click twice as often to see the full citation. does allow one to see the full citation (at least for now), but is also limited to ten records at a time. Still, that’s better than the new WorldCat.

Several months ago, representatives from OCLC visited my library to demo this, and the response from the entire group of librarians was negative. Everyone used WorldCat for different tasks, and for every task for which people normally relied on WorldCat the new WorldCat made that task either more difficult or impossible. If the new WorldCat doesn’t fix what I consider to be a serious problem, it will go from the research tool of first resort for upper level students in the humanities to a useless tool of no resort, which would be a pity because there’s nothing comparable to replace it.

*Green, Rebecca. “Locating Sources in Humanities Scholarship: The Efficacy of Following Bibliographic References.” The Library Quarterly 70, no. 2 (2000): 201–29.


I thought the results of this study were interesting, though not surprising. Librarians at SUNY Buffalo compared search results from their catalog and Google Books and found that Google Books generated many more results and that “many of the Google Books results were relevant and useful.” It would probably be the case when comparing Google Books with my library’s catalog, even though we have many more books in our library than Google has yet digitized.

I would be curious to see the result of a similar comparison between Google Books and WorldCat, though. Often when looking for books on a subject, I skip my own OPAC and head for WorldCat anyway because I always come up with more results. It’s not just a matter of WorldCat having more records, though obviously it does. WorldCat also seems to have more complete records as well. Almost inevitably when I do a keyword search, WorldCat generates ten times as many records as the Princeton catalog, including records for books Princeton owns but that don’t show up with the same keyword search in our OPAC. Usually, that’s because the WorldCat record has tables of contents or additional subject headings not in our records. Though I use Google Books occasionally, I haven’t noticed it being any better than WorldCat, but that may change.

Imagine the possibilities if Google succeeds in what appears to be its endeavor to take over the information world. What kind of book searching capability would we have if Google and OCLC merged? GoogleWorldCat would probably put all the OPAC vendors out of business.


Last week was very busy, which explains the lack of posting. It was one of those weeks when working two jobs starts to take its toll. In addition to a lot of student conferences and consultations and instruction sessions, I ended the week twisting my knee somehow so that I had to spend a couple of days with my leg elevated and an icepack on my knee, so traumatized by the whole thing that I couldn’t do anything but sit in the den playing with Legos and watching hours of the Addams Family on DVD with my daughter. It will probably be weeks before that theme song leaves my head.

The most bothersome and even embarrassing part of last week were the instruction sessions, especially the portion devoted to finding books. I’ve just grown more and more irritated by OPACs over the years. I know that for our library the OPAC is still the best way to verify if we own something. It used to be the case that when teaching freshmen, as I was last week, I relied exclusively upon the OPAC to teach the students to find books. Why should I complicate the information world any more than I need to? This year I’ve finally given up the ruse of simplicity, and teach Worldcat and Google Books along with the catalog. Inevitably, when we do identical keyword searches in the OPAC and Worldcat, Worldcat has roughly 10 times what our library has, and Princeton, as you might imagine, has a good sized library. That, however, isn’t the bothersome part, since we deliberately don’t buy lots of material out there. The more bothersome part is that at least twice as many titles as found in our OPAC show up in Worldcat as being owned by Princeton, typically because the Worldcat catalog records contain more information, and thus are more likely to show up in keyword results.

I’m less impressed by what the Google Books searches bring up except for more esoteric topics, but I can imagine a more refined Google search with tens of millions of digitized books and slightly more subject control being far superior to any current catalog.

I know there are slightly more sophisticated catalogs out there right now, but we don’t have one. Three were recently demonstrated, but none met with enough approval for adoption. That might be just as well. The effort and expense necessary to move from a barely adequate present to a imperfect, experimental present might not have been worth it. No wonder people used to better search engines balk at OPACs, where you have to spell exactly, put searches in the right word order for the best results, know how to think like a librarian to get the most out of them. I tell the students that to use the catalog effectively, they’ll need to think like a librarian, and that I feel their pain but it’s the way the world works here for a while to come.

In the meantime, I can’t help but recall one of my favorite bits of doggerel every time I have to show some clueless student how to navigate the muddy waters of the catalog. You might remember the halcyon days of Saturday Night Live, back when a young Joe Piscopo taught us how to laugh. In those days SNL would host one of my favorite poets, the inimitable Tyrone Green. How he feels about his landlord is how I often feel about my OPAC. Thus, I leave you with a bit of poetry for the day.

IMAGES by Tyrone Green

Dark and lonely on a summer night
Kill my landlord, kill my landlord
The watchdog barkin’, do he bite?
Kill my landlord, kill my landlord
I slip in the window
I break his neck
Then his house I start to wreck.
Got no reason, what the heck.
Kill my landlord, kill my landlord.
C-I-L-L my landlord.