Monday, April 13, 2009

Access and the Supercatalog

There's a lot running through my head at the moment. My husband and I bought a proper used car, my family is visiting me on this coast for the first time ever (I have a younger sister next to me on the couch reading Coraline and asking me "What does this word mean?"), and the new quarter is currently destroying and rebuilding mental concepts.

I just finished an article* by Cerise Oberman on the supercatalog and the "Cereal Syndrome" that many patron face in light of this massive increase in information. The cereal syndrome is essentially the issue of "more being less". Consumer studies showed that an overwhelming selection of goods in a store can actually lead to an increase in anxiety among shoppers, instead of a sense of pleasing bounty (190). This information overload and the anxiety that it brings is increasing prevalent in the library world, as we are adding more and more resources and databases and things to the catalog.

Oberman, writing in 1991, spoke of the creation of a "supercatalog", a "totally integrated information network" (190). I believe this is nearly embodied in entities such as WorldCat Local. One search and, at least in my library, you receive hits in the UW libraries, the Orbis Cascade Alliance, and everything that anyone has cataloged and affixed a symbol (like Harvard and their reserve articles....). That is, quite simply, a ton of stuff. Students need to be taught to think critically in order to slog through a multiplicity of hits, databases, and other resources.

While I deeply appreciate Oberman's proposed methods (grounded in my dear Kuhlthau), I think she missed one vital part of instruction, namely evaluating access. Oberman alludes to this in her first point on the online environment, namely that students should understand the function and purpose of the catalog. In doing so, students should be taught how to get to the materials they're locating, once they've figured out that the material is appropriate for their needs. At work we talk a lot about how students just want to click one button and have the materials appear, but right now that's not feasible with current catalog functions. Students have to decide if a material is local, in Summit, or in WorldCat. They then have to decide if they want to order it, how to order it (there are two different logins students have to use to order materials) and then how long it will take/how soon they need it. At work we try to provide good customer service by getting things as fast as we can, but often students shoot themselves in the foot by not understanding how to locate materials. If students order on ILL a book in Summit, we're going to cancel the request and order it via Summit, but they have to sit and wait for an ILL person to look at the record and run the search. If they pick a record with 3 holdings, they should maybe emotionally prepared for not getting the materials or should seek out new resources.

I suppose I'm wondering if this is a burden that should be on the student or that should instead be on the catalog developers. I think the question should be not can we make the catalog one click, but should we make it that way? As long as students have to rely on courier trucks and the US Postal Service to ship books and materials, information will not be instantaneous. Should we leave students with that impression of immediacy or instead teach them about the limits of the system? While it might not make us feel that great about our product, it's a valuable piece of information for students who need to make quick and important choices about material selection.

*Oberman, C. (1991). Avoiding the Cereal Syndrome, or Critical Thinking in the Electronic Environment. Library Trends, 39(3), 189-202.

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