Making Book 10. The Online Catalog Book

This (full title The Online Catalog Book: Essays and Examples) is the last book I did for G.K. Hall, the only book I did with them that was 8.5″ x 11″, the last book of mine that appeared in both paper-wrapped hardcover and paperback—and the only book of mine that Hall published that probably never earned out its advance (modest though that was). It was also one of two books I’ve done where I wrote a relatively small portion of the book (although, in this case, it was enough to constitute a book-length manuscript in today’s terms): the first 129 pages of a 546-page book.

Five years ago, a book like this would have been nearly impossible to prepare; five years from now, it may be easy. At present, we’re somewhere in the middle: It wasn’t easy, but I hope you’ll agree it was worthwhile.

Libraries have increasing opportunities to make their online catalogs work and look the way they would like (and that will serve their patrons). Libraries can certainly benefit from a range of examples to see what’s possible and how it seems to work. From a user’s perspective, the online catalog is the set of available screen displays: that’s where the user and the system connect.

Remember that this was 1991-1992: most online catalogs either used PCs as terminals or could be used on PCs, so screen-capture software made it possible to grab screen images—but it was also very early in the development of the web, with no graphical browsers yet available (Mosaic showed up in 1993). Nor were most online catalogs available remotely to anyone interested in looking at them—at that point, it wasn’t easy to confuse the internet and the web.

I thought it might be plausible to update Patron Access: Issues for Online Catalog and add a substantial appendix showing a few screens from each of perhaps two dozen catalogs. I verified that nobody else had plans to gather together screen images from a wide range of catalogs and proposed a book. Originally, the expectation was that it would be a 6″ x 9″ book with 150 to 200 pages of my text followed by 250 to 300 pages of contributions including 400 to 500 screen shots covering perhaps two dozen online catalogs.

A call went out on PACS-L for volunteers. (Remember PACS-L, the Public-Access Computer Systems list?) I got more than 20 responses including several locally developed catalogs (remember when libraries developed their own online catalogs?). I also prepared a list of 42 vendors offering online catalogs and sent letters out to all of them for which I didn’t already have contributors. “Several vendors responded; many did not.” A second mailing brought a few more responses—but more than half of the supposed catalog vendors, including a few that at the time regularly advertised in the library press, never responded in any way, not even to say “we’re not interested.”

I finally identified 42 contributors representing 40 different systems (and two very different versions of each of two systems). Thirteen were library-developed; the rest were commercial. Since I couldn’t establish a rational basis for rejecting half of the possibilities, G.K. Hall agreed to a larger page size and more pages, and I gave up on updating Patron Access, instead providing a series of informal essays on catalog design issues, leaving three-quarters of the book for examples.

Ten contributions didn’t arrive (people change jobs; crises arise; priorities changes). The balance of systems changed: The book finally included seven locally developed systems and 25 commercial systems, including two CD-ROM products and systems ranging from ones running on a single PC or Mac to some very large multicampus systems.

After an ordeal of coping with a variety of screen capture programs and the resulting output (things were a bit less standardized 22 years ago!), I managed to put it all together. A quote from the preface: “There were times—as I was trying to find a workable graphics conversion routine or appropriate reproduction scale for certain screens—when I began to question my sanity in taking on this project. That question has no easy answer, but the remarkable variety of interesting contributions that emerged did keep me going.”

This was definitely a book of its time. The first 12 chapters were informal essays (by me) on various aspects of online catalog design, ending with the information for contributors (they got a set of instructions, including a suggested list of areas to cover in screen shots). The remaining 32 were contributions, each on a specific online catalog, with some introductory comments by the contributor(s) and a series of screen shots. The 32 systems were arranged alphabetically—from The Assistant as used at Arkansas Supreme Court Library (The Assistant was a commercial online integrated catalog designed to operate on single microcomputers or networked workstations) through Winnebago CAT, Winnebago Software’s online catalog system. In most cases, there were a couple dozen screen shots.

This was a massive book. Text was set in two columns of 10-point type, so there was a lot of text on each page; most figures were reproduced three to a page, except for a few cases where half a page was needed for clarity.

I suspect some of the advice in the first 12 chapters continued to be useful; some might still be. I discussed user-centered design, coherent interface design, the common command language (for good reason, many of the catalogs back then were at least partly command-driven) and a range of other topics.

But Wait! There’s More…

Most contributors submitted quite a few more screens than would fit in the book if it was to be publishable. Most readers wouldn’t need to see all the screens—but I thought a few vendors, consultants and libraries might find them valuable. So, with G.K. Hall’s permission and the cooperation of LITA, I prepared a companion publication that included (gasp) more than 1,400 screens in more than 840 pages. But that’s #11, an ambitious plan that was both before its time and pretty much too late. More on that later.

Crawford, Walt (and many contributors). The Online Catalog Book: Essays and Examples. Professional Librarian Series. New York: G.K. Hall, 1992. ISBN 0-8161-1996-1. ISBN 0-8161-1995-3 (pbk.)

Comments are closed.