Making Book 5: Patron Access: Issues for Online Catalogs

In 1987, I went back to a book a year—for that year and through 1992 (although there was a second “book” in 1992, I’m not sure it counts).

To my mind, this book is the second one that changed the library field significantly (MARC for Library Use was the first): I believe online catalog patron interfaces in the late 1980s and beyond were significantly influenced by this publication, including the huge growth in gutter-aligned labeled displays.

How widespread are gutter-aligned labeled bibliographic displays? Take a look at your library’s online catalog, the detailed or full display for a single item. There’s a very good chance that it has a column of labels—and that those labels are right-aligned. (I know that’s true for my public library, and I believe that library uses one of the most widely-used ILSes.)

Before Patron Access, there were very few such displays. I didn’t come up with the idea (I saw it suggested by Joe Matthews), but I believe this book was the first to publicize it widely and show how well it worked—since it certainly didn’t sound intuitively attractive.

Background

This is the second book to grow out of the RLG Patron Access Project, the lengthy literature survey, and the enormous outline and bibliography I assembled during that project. (The outline included more than 250 specific issues relating to patron access: it did emerge as a three-part document in late 1985 or early 1986 (as far as I know, it is not available online). My superiors at RLG were happy to allow me to use the outline to prepare a book. As usual, a number of RLG colleagues (Lennie Stovel, Glee Cady, Kathleen Bales, Sarah How) commented on various drafts, as did my editor at Knowledge Industry Publications and my wife (Linda Driver, a professional librarian).

It’s probably worth quoting two paragraphs from the Acknowledgments:

This book builds on, but does not supplant, the landmark books on online catalogs by Charles Hildreth, Joe Matthews and Emily Fayen (all cited in the Bibliograph). Although I don’t agree with everything in those sources, I would be remiss not to express my appreciation for their work.

Finally, I should acknowledge the librarians who, over the years, have shown that the most important aspect of patron access is the concerned, professional librarian. Many names at UC Berkeley, Stanford, Palo Alto City Library and Menlo Park Public Library come to mind; Virginia Pratt at UC Berkeley’s Library School library deserves special mention.

The book was not published by Knowledge Industry. G.K. Hall purchased the Professional Librarian Series from Knowledge Industry, including existing contracts; this was my first book to be published by G.K. Hall.

Foreground

The preface to the book—a 259-page (plus xii pages) 6″ x 9″ hardcover and paperback—made it clear that the highlight boxes were “my own opinions and are intended to provoke thought, not to be accepted on faith.” And here are the final four paragraphs of that preface, which describe my aims fairly well:

Good patron access systems exist, and more are being developed. Online catalogs, though still in their infancy, have the potential to provide more and better access to all forms of bibliographic material, including materials never represented in card catalogs.

This book’s subtitle expresses its primary intent and focus: Issues for Online Catalogs. After some years of discussion, early research and early examples of online catalogs, the time seems right to discuss a broad spectrum of issues related to patron access. Some issues appear to be obvious and to have obvious answers. Some issues may appear extraneous to patron access. Many issues are controversial, and some may be impossible to resolve.

My intent in this work is to stimulate further thought and development, not to devise the perfect patron access system. Assertions should encourage challenges; if those challenges produce demonstrably better patron access, my goals will be achieved.

Patron access catalogs will improve. By 1991, many of the discussions in this book should appear quaint because the issues I discuss will already be resolved. That’s as it should be. I am building on the work of others, with the expectation that others will add more and better work to mine.

I believe that happened, and I believe this book played a significant role. I suspect some of the highlight boxes are still relevant. If you’ve always lived with online catalogs, you might not be aware just how primitive many patron interfaces were in 1986—if libraries had online catalogs with patron interfaces at all, that is. Remember patron access interfaces that were only to the catalog itself, without holdings or availability information? No? (When somebody talks about “online card catalogs,” it’s worth remembering that there was a time when many online catalogs didn’t provide status information—and in many cases provided less information than the card catalogs.)

The book’s organization stems from the master outline’s organization, refined over the course of a year or more. There are a dozen chapters, including “Presentation: Context in an Online Catalog,” “System Clarity,” “Feedback and Help” and “Display Issues.” (There’s also a glossary, an annotated bibliography and an index.) It appears that the longest single chapter is “The Database Engine: Computer, Files and Indexes,” but most chapters are roughly similar in length.

I am particularly proud of this book. I now own the rights to all of my books published by Knowledge Industry or G.K. Hall/Macmillan. This is the oldest one that, if I had the text in machine-readable form, I would actually be tempted to republish (quite possibly with a CC BY license) because it might still be useful for the field. (I don’t have the text in machine-readable form, and can’t see scanning the pages and cleaning up the OCR without any funding at all…but I do believe it would be a worthwhile project.)

Just to finish this off, here are four of the five assertions (highlight boxes) from the “Protection” section, each of which has several paragraphs of expansion. (The fifth may not be relevant any longer—it had to do with limited computer resources, very much an issue in 1987!)

A good patron access system protects the patron from the system, the patron from other patrons and agencies, and the system from the patron.

While patron access systems should show that items are charged out, and may show when they are due, no patron should be able to find out who has items charged out.

No records should link a patron to returned items, and no records should link an item to the patrons who have borrowed and returned it.

Records of commands entered at a catalog should never identify the patron who is using the system.

I believe those four (the last three are essentially expansions of the first) still describe a desirable state of affairs for every library’s online catalog—and I still believe that weakening those protections is dangerous.

Crawford, Walt. Patron Access: Issues for Online Catalogs. Professional Librarian Series. Boston: G.K. Hall, 1987. ISBN 0-8161-1850-7. ISBN 0-8161-1852-3 (pbk.)

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