by Erik Adams
When I’m not doing research instruction or providing patron services, I maintain my library’s web pages on our intranet and write software. Recently I have been updating our library catalog, which has forced me to think about the changing role of the catalog at our firm and how it fits in with our mission. Which, not coincidentally, is research instruction and other patron services. This means the catalog should have an important role, but as things stand it is falling short.
I probably should do a survey of my patrons, though I suspect that if I asked my attorneys what they thought of the catalog the most common response would be “The library has a catalog?” This is partially the fault of poor placement on the firm’s intranet but also reveals a misperception of the role of the catalog: as the firm has shifted away from books to electronic resources, there is a perception that the catalog is less useful. The catalog is seen only as a tool for finding books, as opposed to a tool for finding sources of information. If you need to find a web page, you use Google.
This perception is unintentionally reinforced in our attorney training. Back in the days of the card catalog, an important part of teaching people how to do research would include an introduction to the card catalog and any local quirks: do we have separate main entry and subject catalogs, or is everything interfiled? Does the public have access to the shelf list? And so on. These were important parts of research instruction. But now when we orient new attorneys at our firm, showing them the catalog seems pointless when the collection is so small and so many volumes have a big orange sticker on them that says “SUPPLEMENTATION DISCONTINUED.”
(To be fair, many of those out of date books also have a green sticker that says “Also available online,” but that doesn’t catch the eye.)
Physical collections at many law firms are dramatically shrinking. At my firm and others, the number of works we have available online solidly outnumbers the number of physical volumes. Yet one of the most frequent reference requests we see is “is this title available online?” The attorney could answer the question themselves via the catalog, but it didn’t even occur to them. Though, they could be forgiven if they tried and failed; I have heard from friends at other firms and universities that their catalog did not handle online resources very well. In our library, the system supports adding a link with a short text description, but the link clearly plays second fiddle to title, author, publisher, and physical description. And, depending on how you run the search and review the results, you might not even see the link.
I’ve also heard complaints about online catalogs being hard to use. One university librarian I know told me that their catalog’s “basic search” and “advanced search” functions have different, non-overlapping options: there are search filters on the “basic search” screen that are not available on the “advanced search” screen, which meant that a single research session would bounce back and forth between the two. Even if the patron did think to use the catalog to find a website, they might not be able to find what they were looking for.
At the end of the day, one of the biggest problems we face is marketing. Even if the interface issues were resolved and the ability to present online resources were perfect, attorneys will think of the catalog as an automated version of something that used to be on 3 x 5 cards in little wooden drawers. The attorneys know that the physical collection is shrinking and reason by extension that the library catalog isn’t useful. If the effort we put into maintaining an accurate catalog is going to be worth it, the catalog must be marketed just like any other research tool.