Thursday, June 23, 2016

Catalog and Context Part III

This entire series is available a single file on my web site.

In the previous two parts, I explained that much of the knowledge context that could and should be provided by the library catalog has been lost as we moved from cards to databases as the technologies for the catalog. In this part, I want to talk about the effect of keyword searching on catalog context.


If you weren't at least a teenager in the 1960's you probably missed the era of KWIC and KWOC (neither a children's TV show nor a folk music duo). These meant, respectively, KeyWords In Context, and KeyWords Out of Context. These were concordance-like indexes to texts, but the first done using computers. A KWOC index would be simply a list of words and pointers (such as page numbers, since hyperlinks didn't exist yet). A KWIC index showed the keywords with a few words on either side, or rotated a phrase such that each term appeared once at the beginning of the string, and then were ordered alphabetically.

If you have the phrase "KWIC is an acronym for Key Word in Context", then your KWIC index display could look like:

 KWIC is an acronym for Key Word In Context
Key Word In Context
acronym for Key Word In Context
            KWIC is an acronym for 
acronym for Key Word In Context

To us today these are unattractive and not very useful, but to the first users of computers these were an exciting introduction to the possibility that one could search by any word in a text.

It wasn't until the 1980's, however, that keyword searching could be applied to library catalogs.

Before Keywords, Headings

Before keyword searching, when users were navigating a linear, alphabetical index, they were faced with the very difficult task of deciding where to begin their entry into the catalog. Imagine someone looking for information on Lake Erie. That seems simple enough, but entering the catalog at L-A-K-E E-R-I-E would not actually yield all of the entries that might be relevant. Here are some headings with LAKE ERIE:

Boats and boating--Erie, Lake--Maps. 
Books and reading--Lake Erie region.
Lake Erie, Battle of, 1813.
Erie, Lake--Navigation

Note that the lake is entered under Erie, the battle under Lake, and some instances are fairly far down in the heading string. All of these headings follow rules that ensure a kind of consistency, but because users do not know those rules, the consistency here may not be visible. In any case, the difficulty for users was knowing with what terms to begin the search, which was done on left-anchored headings.

One might assume that finding names of people would be simple, but that is not the case either. Names can be quite complex with multiple parts that are treated differently based on a number of factors having to do with usage in different cultures:

De la Cruz, Melissa
Cervantes Saavedra, Miguel de

Because it was hard to know where to begin a search, see and see also references existed to guide the user from one form of a name or phrase to another. However, it would inflate a catalog beyond utility to include every possible entry point that a person might choose, not to mention that this would make the cataloger's job onerous. Other than the help of a good reference librarian, searching in the card catalog was a kind of hit or miss affair.

When we brought up the University of California online catalog in 1982, you can image how happy users were to learn that they could type in LAKE ERIE and retrieve every record with those terms in it regardless of the order of the terms or where in the heading they appeared. Searching was, or seemed, much simpler. Because it feels simpler, we all have tended to ignore some of the down side of keyword searching. First, words are just strings, and in a search strings have to match (with some possible adjustment like combining singular and plural terms). So a search on "FRANCE" for all information about France would fail to retrieve other versions of that word unless the catalog did some expansion:

Cooking, French
Alps, French (France)
French American literature

The next problem is that retrieval with keywords, and especially the "keyword anywhere" search which is the most popular today, entirely misses any context that the library catalog could provide. A simple keyword search on the word "darwin" brings up a wide array of subjects, authors, and titles.

Darwin, Charles, 1809-1882 – Influence
Darwin, Charles, 1809-1882 — Juvenile Literature
Darwin, Charles, 1809-1882 — Comic Books, Strips, Etc
Darwin Family
Java (Computer program language)
Rivers--Great Britain
Mystery Fiction
DNA Viruses — Fiction
Women Molecular Biologists — Fiction

Darwin, Charles, 1809-1882
Darwin, Emma Wedgwood, 1808-1896
Darwin, Ian F.
Darwin, Andrew
Teilhet, Darwin L.
Bear, Greg
Byrne, Eugene

Darwin; A Graphic Biography : the Really Exciting and Dramatic 
    Story of A Man Who Mostly Stayed at Home and Wrote Some Books
Darwin; Business Evolving in the Information Age
Emma Darwin, A Century of Family Letters, 1792-1896
Java Cookbook
Canals and Rivers of Britain
The Crimson Hair Murders
Darwin's Radio

It wouldn't be reasonable for us to expect a user to make sense of this, because quite honestly it does not make sense.

 In the first version of the UC catalog, we required users to select a search heading type, such as AU, TI, SU. That may have lessened the "false drops" from keyword searches, but it did not eliminate them. In this example, using a title or subject search the user still would have retrieved items with the subjects DNA Viruses — Fiction, and Women Molecular Biologists — Fiction, and an author search would have brought up both Java Cookbook and Canals and Rivers of Britain. One could see an opportunity for serendipity here, but it's not clear that it would balance out the confusion and frustration. 

You may be right now thinking "But Google uses keyword searching and the results are good." Note that Google now relies heavily on Wikipedia and other online reference books to provide relevant results. Wikipedia is a knowledge organization system, organized by people, and it often has a default answer for search that is more likely to match the user's assumptions. A search on the single word "darwin" brings up:

In fact, Google has always relied on humans to organize the web by following the hyperlinks that they create. Although the initial mechanism of the search is a keyword search, Google's forte is in massaging the raw keyword result to bring potentially relevant pages to the top. 

Keywords, Concluded

The move from headings to databases to un-typed keyword searching has all but eliminated the visibility and utility of headings in the catalog. The single search box has become the norm for library catalogs and many users have never experienced the catalog as an organized system of headings. Default displays are short and show only a few essential fields, mainly author, title and date. This means that there may even be users who are unaware that there is a system of headings in the catalog.

Recent work in cataloging, from ISBD to FRBR to RDA and BIBFRAME focus on modifications to the bibliographic record, but do nothing to model the catalog as a whole. With these efforts, the organized knowledge system that was the catalog is slipping further into the background. And yet, we have no concerted effort taking place to remedy this. 

What is most astonishing to me, though, is that catalogers continue to create headings, painstakingly, sincerely, in spite of the fact that they are not used as intended in library systems, and have not been used in that way since the first library systems were developed over 30 years ago. The headings are fodder for the keyword search, but no more so than a simple set of tags would be. The headings never perform the organizing function for which they were intended. 


Part IV will look at some attempts to create knowledge context from current catalog data, and will present some questions that need to be answered if we are to address the quality of the catalog as a knowledge system.

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