Friday, June 17, 2005

WorldCat and the RLG Union Catalog

Any serious library researcher has probably either used WorldCat or the RLG Union Catalog to track down the location of books in other libraries. Both WorldCat and the RLG Union Catalog are union catalogs. The Online Dictionary of Library and Information Science defines union catalog as a "list of the holdings of all the libraries in a library system, or of all or a portion of the collections of a group of independent libraries, indicating by name and/or location symbol which libraries own at least one copy of each item."

Both of these catalogs, until recently, have only been available to library users who have been fortunate enough to be members of libraries that have paid for access to them. However, substantial subsets of both catalogs are now freely accessible and searchable. Although these two tools have been available for months, only recently, in my opinion, have they become truly usable.

The first is Open WorldCat, a program that "makes records of library-owned materials in OCLC's WorldCat database available to Web users on popular Internet search, bibliographic and bookselling sites." As the program's Web site explains,

A Web user visits a site such as Yahoo! Search or Google and enters a search phrase that matches the title of a library-owned item. The returned search results include a link to the Open WorldCat "Find in a Library" interface, where they can enter geographic information that helps them locate the item at a library in their city, region or country.

However, standard Google and Yahoo! searches didn't always display the book results at the top of the list, making them hard to spot in the usual list of thousands of Web sites for any given search. Relatively new search tools make direct searching for books in these search engines easier. Of particular note are a Yahoo! toolbar for the Internet Explorer browser and a search extension for the Firefox browser.

Now, almost all 58 million records in WorldCat have been made available to Google and Yahoo! for searching.

The second tool is RedLightGreen, which I consider to be the most innovative and helpful.

RedLightGreen helps you locate the most important books and other research materials in your area of interest, and find out whether what you need is available at your favorite library.

For the longest time, I had no idea exactly what RedLightGreen was searching. Yes, it helps you locate books and other materials, but which books? Their FAQ now explains that, "RedLightGreen's database is based on the RLG Union Catalog. ... Currently, RedLightGreen's database is the books portion of the RLG Union Catalog." You can read more about the contents of the RLG Union Catalog here.

RedLightGreen provides a helpful Google-style search interface (a single box). Alternatively, a Firefox search extension is also available (click on "Information for Librarians" in the upper-righthand corner).

Why I think RedLightGreen is innovative is that it provides the familiar, single Google-style search box, but after presenting you with the results of a search, suggests subjects to search. By clicking on a subject, RedLightGreen then displays all the books categorized with that subject. I believe that these subjects correspond to Library of Congress subject headings from database's respective catalog records in the RLG Union Catalog. (Example: a search for "cookbook" suggests "cookery," which is a Library of Congress subject heading.) Searches like these bring together all works categorized by the subject, without you needing to worry about thinking of all possible synonyms that are usually required for a complete keyword search. My explanation probably does not do the subject search justice; just try it out.

Another innovative feature is that RedLightGreen will create citations out of your search results and will save the citations so that you can easily create a bibliography. You can e-mail the citations to yourself or display them in a print-friendly format. This can be a big time-saver for students and reduces a bit of stress they usually feel trying to get everything formatted correctly.

Yet a third feature is that RedLightGreen provides you links from the records to booksellers should you wish to buy the books. Links to table of contents are also available for some records.

I think these efforts to make the union catalogs freely accessible and searchable in these ways do two things. One, they make library materials more accessible than ever. No longer is it only possible to find books in a library catalog. WorldCat is now indirectly searchable through everyone's favorite and easy-to-use search engine. Not only library books in search results remind people of the value of books in research, but these tools should bring more people into the library. Librarians can feel more at ease that what they thought was a threat to the library is actually helping to bring users back to it. Two, the innovative approaches to book searching, as demonstrated by RedLightGreen, should lead to easier-to-use library catalogs. People like an uncluttered, single-box search interface. RedLightGreen demonstrates that such an interface can work for a library catalog, while providing power users advanced searching tools/options that don't get in the way of the basic user. (I asked an Endeavor representative at the ATLA conference if they were considering such an interface for their Voyager library catalog product. She said they were!)

Note: Both RedLightGreen and Open WorldCat (through Google and Yahoo!) display advertising.

No comments: