17 April 2013

My Favorite Part of the Library? The Catalog!

It's mid-April, and that means it's time to celebrate National Library Week. I've written about libraries a couple of times before, once about the origins of my "lone unicorn" approach to information seeking and once about my first experience with interlibrary loan. The one thing every library has that really allows my lone unicorn tendencies to flourish--and also facilitates the interlibrary loan experience--is the catalog.

Back in the early days, it was called a dictionary catalog. That's when it was in book form. Many of us grew up calling it the card catalog, because that's what it was. Cards. In drawers. Some library patrons still call it the card catalog, because that's the term they're used to. You're probably aware that those card-filled drawers became databases around twenty years ago, but most people who work in libraries these days will probably know what you mean if you still fall back on the term you've always used.

Want to update your terminology? Try OPAC. It's pronounced OH-pack, and it's an acronym for online public access catalog. If you prefer to call it "the online catalog," that works too, as does plain old "catalog." I recommend adding OPAC to your vocabulary, though, and here's why.

If you use the term OPAC with people who work at libraries, they will know a couple of things about you. One, they will realize that you know of its existence and have tried to use it. This will make them happy. Two, they will know that you've set foot inside a library since the card-filled drawers went by the wayside. This will also make them happy. Use their lingo. Use their tools. They will be eager to help you.

I love that I don't even have to leave home to use an OPAC. I can submit requests online for things I want to look at, then sit back and wait while those things are sent to my local branch of the library. I can renew the items I've checked out online. It's so convenient!

Subject headings are my favorite aspect of library catalogs, though. You may have missed the footnote in a previous post in which I mentioned that "information has to be about something. In the process of assigning subject headings to books and other items, cataloging librarians perform subject analysis to determine what those items are about." Determining an item's aboutness can be an interesting intellectual exercise. It's not always a simple and straightforward process, but the end result is quite useful. Here's an example.

Last month my friend Gena Philibert-Ortega tweeted this question:

I suggested using the following subject heading in an OPAC to search for library books: Children--United States--Societies and clubs. The first word is the main subject heading, and it represents a group of people. The main heading is then subdivided geographically, and further subdivided by topic. Change the terms in each part of the heading, and you'll get different results: Women--England--Societies and clubs.

I could go on and on about subject headings, but today I have an exciting event to look forward to, and I don't want to be late! Check in tomorrow for some thoughts on Librarians' and Teachers' Day at the New England Regional Genealogical Conference, also known as NERGC. I may attempt some live-tweeting too, if it seems appropriate, so keep an eye out for @kinfolit. In the meantime, Gena's been blogging about why she loves libraries over at Gena's Genealogy, so go check out her post as well. Later!

Copyright © 2013, Madaleine J. Laird. All rights reserved.

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