Discussion on the future of library catalogs is common today. In these conversations, I often hear an argument something like this: “Catalogs and search engines have different goals; are trying to accomplish different things. Therefore we shouldn’t be making direct comparisons between them. By extension, we shouldn’t be comparing their functionality and features either.” This is of course an oversimplification of what’s generally said, but the spirit is there.
I’m concerned about this line of thinking. The original posit makes sense on the surface, in the sense that there is a history of analyzing and documenting the goals of the catalog (Panizzi, etc.), and that the business goal of search engines is to make money by selling advertising. But I think this approach both sells search engines short and doesn’t go far enough thinking about catalogs. From the search engine point of view, the business argument is true, of course, but overly simplistic. We can extend the definition of the goal of search engines to say that they strive to make money by selling advertising in a system that connects people to information they seek. Google wasn’t a business at first, it started as a research project by CS students to better index information. That’s a pretty simple and laudable goal – to help people find things. The catalog is the same. With all the talk about the goal of the catalog being collocation (and all the other related goals well-documented in the literature), it’s easy to forget that those goals exist (wait for it…) to connect people, today and in the future, with information they seek. So in this very basic sense, catalogs and search engines are trying to accomplish the same thing. The methods are often different, but I don’t think we’re serving ourselves well if we just write the success of search engines and the current struggles of library catalogs off because of those differences.
Early search engines had one big difference from library catalogs: the materials they index. But this is no longer true to any significant degree. I’m no fan of cataloging web sites in MARC to make them searchable in our catalogs, and I see this as largely out of favor now, but this was only the first step towards blurring the line between the content indexed by search engines and that in our catalog. Google Book Search, for example, provides access to many of the same materials that are in our catalogs. The methods of searching are very different, with full-text indexing being a strong component of GBS and bibliographic information the strongest component of our catalogs, but again, the goal is the same – getting people to books relevant to their information need. The argument separating catalogs from search engines by format of materials indexed is waning, but I still hear it from time to time. The conventional argument that a catalog provides access to things a library owns is also waning, for obvious reasons.
So what’s left to distinguish the goals our catalogs from search engines, giving us a convenient excuse for why our catalogs perform so poorly? Not much of substance, I think. To me, the different is all in style instead. Let’s certainly keep those goals of the catalog in mind, but let’s not assume that the methods we’ve used to achieve those goals in the past are the only methods that can be effective. If the goals of search engines and catalogs aren’t all that different in the end, maybe we can mix and match some methods too. We’ll never know until we try.