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63rd IFLA General Conference - Conference Programme and Proceedings - August 31- September 5, 1997

What is the future of cataloguing and cataloguers?

Michael Gorman
Dean of Library Services
California State University, Fresno


All important questions expand until they fill the world. We cannot answer the question "What is the future of cataloguing and cataloguers?" until we answer the question "What is the future of libraries?" We cannot answer that question until we answer "What is the future of reading, literacy, and learning?" which, in turn, depends on the answer to "What is the future of society and of our civilization?"

I will take some time, therefore, to address the larger questions before I come to the central theme of this paper. No-one, least of all me, can say with certainty what society will be like in the future and whether our civilization will survive. The indicators are not entirely positive. The threat of global war and nuclear annihilation has been succeeded by the actuality of little wars. The images of these conflicts pervade our lives like a visual toxin and, in self-defence, we make them abstract and, ultimately, meaningless. The economic gap between the people of the developed and the developing worlds widens at the same time as the disparity between the rich and the poor in developed countries grows ever greater. Money-oriented philosophies hold sway in most democracies--one of the best-known leaders of such a movement famously proclaimed "there is no such thing as society"--hard to imagine the existence of libraries without the existence of society. Evasive multi-national companies, beyond the rule or control of governments, groups, or individuals, exploit the developing countries and are indifferent to the social or ecological consequences of their actions in the developed world. Education cannot compete with entertainment among the young and modern education is, all too often, narrowly focussed and vocational or professional in nature. A newspaper columnist wrote recently of the deleterious effects of the entertainment/business complex on the education of children. Addressing the officers of large corporations, he wrote:

Adults too, in developed countries at least, are lulled into quiescence by mass communications and other anti-intellectual diversions. We rejoice in computerization without realizing that technical capabilities are different from and inferior to human capabilities, and that much human potential is lessened and constrained by computerization.

The book that is the source of the quotation with which I began speculates on the atomizing, alienating, dehumanizing effects of the computer revolution, citing particularly the way in which ideals cannot survive the shattering of self that immersion in technology inevitably brings. As Talbott says "... if we continue assimilating ourselves to computers ... then we will finally lose ourselves ..."

In the face of such a threat, cataloguing and even libraries themselves might seem relatively insignificant. I would argue, though, that it is precisely by regaining control in areas that are important to us as individuals, by expressing and living ideals in areas in which we can have an effect, and by serving humanity by organizing and preserving the records of humankind that we can reassert human values and ideals and, in doing so, transform the computer from a malignant destroyer to a benign tool.

There are many negative trends and influences in the world, many developments that threaten society and civilization. We have the means to counter them, though, in the human spirit, human ideals and values, human realities and capabilities, and in education buttressed by an understanding of history. The truth can make us free and we can find truth within ourselves, our profession, and communities.

The meaning of community

Community is an oddly misused word today. (I read the other day of something called "the gaming community"-- a euphemism for gamblers.) Its very misuse is a sign of the power of the idea of community, however. In an atomized world, we all want to belong to something. Many of us do not really know our neighbors and we like it that way, so the physically identified communities of the past are no longer available to us other than in a few remaining community institutions. This is something that those who close public library branches for economic reasons would do well to ponder. In the academic world, there are communities of learning--groups of people huddled around a discipline and a library for intellectual warmth. (Perhaps those who champion departmental libraries are wise--they understand their symbolic and psychological value as well as knowing the right political choice!) Departmental, branch, or central, the academic library is a vital part of academic life--its services and programs serve the community and serve to maintain the community simultaneously.

Any library is a community within a community. Reduced to its essentials, a library consists of its collections, its staff, and the bibliographic structure that makes the collections accessible and enables the staff to provide the services and programs that the library provides. It is important to note an emerging definition of library collections that embraces not only the tangible documents owned by a library but also all the documents to which the library gives access. Using this definition, library collections comprise:

  1. tangible documents owned by the library;

  2. intangible electronic documents owned by the library;

  3. tangible documents owned by other libraries but available through inter-library loan, faxing arrangements, etc.;

  4. remote electronic documents available through the library's online systems.

A library with only collections is a mere warehouse of owned objects, and a dysfunctional warehouse at that if there is no bibliographic structure. It is obvious that library staff cannot do their work without collections, but that is equally true if they had collections that lacked an accompanying bibliographic structure. Which leg of a three legged stool is the most important?

The bibliographic structure is the element that binds collections and staff together to create the library community, the innermost of ever widening circles of community. Once that library community is created, it can reach out to and serve the wider academic community and the locality and region of which the academic community is a part. Through cooperation and interaction with other libraries and sources of recorded knowledge and information (interaction made possible and practical by online bibliographic control systems), the original library community becomes part of, and an element in, the global community and, thus, plays its part in the preservation and advancement of civilization.

Centrality of learning/literacy, and the creation of new knowledge

Civilization is defined by the ability of individuals and society to understand the lessons of the past; apply the knowledge of the past to present problems, issues, and circumstances; and to create new knowledge and understanding and, in doing so, shape the future. We value literature and visual and musical works of art, scientific advances, technological innovations, and research into all aspects of human enquiry for a good reason--they are what defines us as sapient beings capable of transcendence. Through the study of the achievements of humankind, we reach understanding and, in some cases, wisdom. Without those fruits of civilization, we are merely the most destructive of the animals; with them, we are little short of angels.

There are, essentially, only two ways in which we learn and, thereby, have at least the possibility of realizing our higher aspirations. The first is the interaction of teacher and pupil; the age old process by which the guide/guru/professor leads those less knowledgeable to the discovery of the richness of civilization and life. The second is the individual study of recorded knowledge, principally, but not exclusively, in the form of texts. Despite what silly people say, "visual literacy," "computer literacy," and "information literacy" are no substitute for real literacy. The ability to deal with complex texts is as vital to education as the ability to have access to, and to learn from good teachers. In using the term "literacy," I am not just referring to the ability to read. Essential though functional literacy is, it is only the foundation stone of true literacy--the one indispensable tool of life long learning. Sustained reading of texts is skill that is as complex and difficult to learn as it is rewarding. There is no short cut to true literacy--the process by which a human being becomes more and more literate with the passing of the years--and no amount of technology can avoid the necessity to read complicated texts, irrespective of the manner in which that text is delivered. Beyond all the hype about the transformational power of electronic technology and various multi-media gimmickry lies the inescapable fact that, at the end of the day, recorded knowledge in the form of texts must be studied--read. Understanding that, we understand that electronic technology is just another delivery system (an inefficient delivery system in the case of long, detailed texts) and must be judged as such.

Knowledge and information/data

In order to evaluate the usefulness of any medium of communication, we must understand the intrinsic nature of what is being communicated. This understanding has been muddied by the misuse of the word "information" in such phrases as "The Information Age" and "The Information Revolution." When used loosely, the word "information" means everything and nothing. It is much more useful to distinguish between information, on the one hand, and recorded knowledge, on the other. Information consists of facts, data, images, and short discrete texts that can be used alone. The latter, typified by entries in reference works, are context-free. Recorded knowledge is complex, sequential, and discursive. The context of any part of it is an essential attribute. The typical text embodying recorded knowledge must be read in sequence if one is to learn from the author and under stand the author's exposition of a subject. Reducing such a text to randomly accessible paragraphs, as proponents of "hypertext" wish to do, is to demolish the structure that the author has assembled with care and labor. The apt analogy is with a building in which each brick has its place and the sum is much greater than its parts. If you use a wrecking ball to reduce the building to rubble, some of the bricks may be of interest or artistic value but the overall achievement of the creators of the building is lost. Literary works and scholarly publications are typical examples of recorded knowledge. For a variety of technical and economic reasons, such works are best read and preserved in the form of print on paper. We should accept the fact that information is peculiarly amenable to being stored, made accessible, and transmitted by electronic means and that older forms of communication (principally print on paper) are best for storing, making accessible, and preserving recorded knowledge.

Integrated library collections

Given that printed texts have a unique role in education and the preservation of the cultural record; given that electronic communication offers new, exciting means of transmitting and manipulating information; and given that all the other forms of communicating recorded knowledge and information have their own special role, it is evident that the library of the future will possess and house or give access to complex, integrated, pan-media collections. A cursory glance at the history of libraries will show clearly that libraries have always incorporated new forms of communicating and preserving recorded knowledge and information into their collections, programs, and services. Why is it so difficult for many to understand that what we have done in the past for sound recordings, films, etc., we will do in the present and future for electronic documents and services?

The bibliographic structure--UBC--online systems

One of the most inspiring library ideas of the last decades is that of Universal Bibliographic Control (UBC). The integrated library of the future will need a bibliographic structure if it is to play a part in the global network of bibliographic control that will realize UBC and make it possible for all the libraries in the world to share their resources. All libraries will contribute cataloguing data to that structure. Cataloguing is not, and has never been, an inexpensive business. Doing without cataloguing is an expensive business. The plain fact is that we can either spend money at the front end of the process in paying cataloguers and supplying them with the tools they need to carry out their work to the benefit of the countless thousands of users of the bibliographic structure or we can pay in the time and effort of those countless thousands of users as they fumble around doing keyword searching and getting results that are infinitely inferior in terms of relevance and recall and of the many related documents that will be missed in each search. We librarians should collectively and individually commit ourselves to identifying, cataloguing, and preserving those electronic documents that we agree are useful in exactly the same way as we do with all other materials and within the same bibliographic structure.

The question is, of course, which electronic documents among the millions are worth cataloguing and preserving? My simple test is to ask: "Would I have added this to the collection if it were in print?" If the answer to that is affirmative, I would suggest that we should work out collective schemes to make copies of such documents on acid-free paper, catalogue them, and add the resulting records to local, national, and international databases. I insist on saying that the only practical manner in which we can preserve our present for posterity is to create print on paper archives and to create an enduring bibliographic structure to sustain those archives. All suggestions of massive electronic archives are confronted with insuperable economic, technological, and practical problems.

Cataloguing codes and standards

Are our cataloguing standards and codes appropriate for electronic documents? I have looked at large number of records for electronic documents that have been created in recent years. In general, it is evident that our current standards and practices are being used to accommodate such records with only minor additions or modifications.

Descriptive cataloguing

I will address descriptive cataloguing by concentrating on the Anglo-American cataloguing rules, second edition (AACR2) because it is the standard with which I am most familiar and because it is influential internationally. Some would argue that the fact that a cataloguer cannot pick up, look at, and produce a physical description of an electronic document (in the words of Pat Oddy) "... undermines the whole basis of a cataloguing code built around the physical description of an item communicating the content of a work." She goes on to point out the two flaws in such an argument. " ... our systems of organization of knowledge are principally designed to give access to both bibliographic descriptions and intellectual works" and " ... it is a fallacy to believe that electronic media have no physical existence. Any electronic document is stored in some form for later access and retrieval ... [t]he only difference is that the storage system may not necessarily be visible ..." In short, there is no theoretical reason to make the use of AACR2 (or any other cataloguing code) invalid for the description of electronic documents.

The family of International Standard Bibliographic Description (ISBD) documents are the most internationally accepted bibliographic standards ever. They are a vital component of the architecture of Universal Bibliographic Control and have been incorporated into AACR2 and all other recent cataloguing codes. They have proven to be hospitable to the description of electronic documents, a development that will undoubtedly lead to a revision of the relevant chapter in AACR2.

When it comes to access points (headings and uniform titles), it is very clear that electronic documents are created by individuals and corporate bodies in the same way as other documents and that the names of those people and bodies can be regularized in exactly the same way as those who create works for the "traditional" formats. I have noticed that electronic documents, in some instances, are truly works of corporate authorship. In that they resemble sound recordings that are also often the product of groups of people identified by a name. Those of you who are cataloguers will appreciate the irony in this most modern of media breathing new life into a very old cataloguing concept. Future revisions of AACR2 will, undoubtedly, contain many more examples taken from electronic documents and will, thus, continue the AACR2 principle of showing the bibliographic similarity of publications in all media.

Subject access

It is easy to criticize the many defects of full text keyword searching. In order for the criticism to be effective, one has to propose a valid alternative. I believe that alternative lies in an application of the basic principles and structures of subject cataloguing--subject headings lists and major classifications.

Subject headings lists

It is important to remember that the structure of a subject heading list (the syndetic structure) is a separate issue from that of the actual words used in the subject headings themselves. The vocabulary of subject headings has been criticized for years, but the flaws in that vocabulary can be remedied, especially in an age of on-line catalogues. The structure of such lists, on the other hand, is basically sound and especially suitable for use in on-line systems. The Library of Congress List of subject headings (LCSH), for example, is, essentially, a vast thesaurus with many complex links between related subjects. If all useful documents on the Net were to be assigned subject headings the potential for searching would be so great that the present aimless "surfing" (a wonderfully apt metaphor for the sometimes exhilarating, almost always pointless, activity using keywords) would be replaced by purposeful, powerful search and retrieval systems that would produce results high in relevance and recall. Yes, it would cost money to assign those subject headings but surely we could devise a grand collaborative program that would enable the work to be done cooperatively for the benefit of all and thus realize, for electronic documents at least, the ideals of Universal Bibliographic Control first put forward more than a quarter of a century ago.

If our subject headings lists are to be fully modernized, I believe there are three issues to be addressed. These are my modest proposals:

  1. I would propose a project, in each country or linguistic group, to review subject heading terminology in the light of standard thesauri, dictionaries, etc., in each subject area, to propose changes in present terminology, and to use the awesome power of on-line systems to replace out-dated and anomalous terms in on-line catalogues. This would be neither an inexpensive nor a speedy process but it would make subject access to all our documents (including electronic documents) something that would truly match the expectations and desires of library users.

  2. In the past, much analysis and criticism has focussed on the order of terms in multi-term descriptors. It seems to me that could be marginalized as an issue if we implemented fully computerized and modernized subject headings along the lines that I have proposed. To put it bluntly, if all elements of headings are equally searchable and retrievable, their order verges on the irrelevant.

  3. Connections between related subject headings are, for the most part, from broader to narrower topics. A fully automated system could take advantage of existing links and add the value of making them all two-way (that is, from the narrower to the broader as well as the other way around).


Classification is often thought of as merely the way in which we arrange books and other materials in the library. Its considerable potential for subject retrieval was largely ignored up to the introduction of on-line catalogues. This tendency was reinforced by the non-theoretical basis of some classifications, which tends to make the creation of complex classification numbers difficult, to say the least. The Dewey Decimal Classification, UDC, and other schemes have always had a theoretical basis that has allowed the creation of complex numbers along the lines suggested by Dr. Ranganathan and others. Since many libraries have regarded classification numbers as mostly a means to arrange books on the shelves, the potential complexity of numbers runs straight into Gorman' Third Law of Librarianship--"The longer the number, the smaller the spine." I believe that we should divorce the question of shelf arrangement from that of classification as a retrieval device. Freed by the invention of a "short number" system for arrangement and location, libraries could take full advantage of the potentially powerful subject retrieval use of classification in on-line systems. I have three proposals:

  1. We should ensure that materials are classified in such a way as to make all components of the subject are equally retrievable in on-line systems.

  2. Since classification will be used for subject retrieval rather than for identifying a particular book, there is no reason why, when warranted, the cataloguer should not assign more than one classification number to one document. The idea that every document has a particular place in a single array of all the documents in the world has always been absurd and the use of two or more numbers for a single document is really just a recognition of reality.

  3. We should explore the possibility of using the power of online systems to coordinate classification numbers, the indexes to classification schemes), and verbal subject headings to create a subject searching capability that is beyond anything that we have now.


No matter what its revisionist historians may say, MARC has its origins in the catalogue card. This is not only seen in the order of fields in MARC, which preserves the order of data in a catalogue card exactly, including the separation of the "main entry" heading (1XX) from other access points (7XX). All the problems that we have with MARC stem from this initial violation of the fundamental law of library automation--"never just automate what you have." Years ago, I called for a thorough overhaul of MARC that would, essentially, substitute simple records (names, descriptions, subject packages) with many and complex connections for what we have now--complex records with few connections. It is evident that call fell on deaf ears. As a consequence we are dealing with the effects of many millions of MARC records and hundreds of systems based on those records without being able to take full advantage of the sophistication of modern on-line systems. Is it possible to take advantage of an effort to catalogue a wide range of electronic documents by creating a New MARC for those records before they get too numerous? Such a bold step would enable us to test new ideas and to work out ways of bringing the benefits of those ideas to our existing records and systems

Preserving the records of civilization

Libraries have a duty to preserve and make available all the records of humankind. That is a unique burden. No other group of people has ever been as successful in preserving the records of the past and no other group of people has that mission today. In addition, librarians are unique in having created the complex architecture of bibliographic control and, thus, making all that recorded knowledge and information freely available. Empowered by technology and inspired by the vision of Universal Bibliographic Control, we have made the efficiency of bibliographic control available to all and stand poised to bring electronic documents into that grand scheme. Let there be no mistake: if we librarians do not rise to the occasion, successive generations will know less and have access to less for the first time in human history. This is not a challenge from which we can shrink or a mission in which we can fail.

The future of the cataloguer

I have, I trust, demonstrated that the bibliographic structure is essential to the future of libraries; that libraries are an essential component of education, learning, and literacy; and, that society needs learning and educated citizens in order to develop, thrive, and survive. We librarians have the tools, experience, and the capability to preserve and organize recorded knowledge and information on a global scale, to realize the ideals of Universal Bibliographic Control, and to play our vital part in human progress and the advancement and protection of civilization. For cataloguers particularly, the future is challenging and bright. We must maintain the bibliographic structures that we have built and expand and develop them in two ways. First, by ensuring that worthwhile electronic documents are organized and preserved so that they can be made available to future generations. Second, by improving bibliographic standards world-wide and ensuring that they reach a level of standardization that makes possible and new level of global cooperation. Some have speculated that cataloguing and cataloguers may be obsolete--I firmly believe that the opposite is true and that cataloguers will have an increasingly important role to play in the future of libraries and of society.


Knowledge is power. Knowledge is the keystone of enlightenment and understanding. Civilization began with the image and the text and, since that dawning, human beings have striven to create and preserve recorded knowledge for future generations. Surely we will not use the advent of electronic technology as an excuse for abandoning that mission. We owe a duty to posterity to preserve the records of our time, in whatever form they are created and issued, because knowledge, taught and recorded, is the essential prerequisite to understanding and wisdom. Libraries can and will use technology intelligently to carry on our historic mission and, in doing so, to foster cooperation, community, progress, and peace.

Thank you.


  1. Talbott, Stephen. The future does not compute. Sebastapol, CA: O'Reilly and Associates, 1995.

    Zorn, Jeff. "CEOs shoulder part of blame for school woes." Fresno bee, May 19, 1997. (Reprinted from the San Francisco examiner.)

    Talbott. op.cit.

    "I think that most of my students are, to use the jargon, visual learners." Jack McGarvey (school teacher), "... but computers are clearly the future." New York times, Sunday, May 26th 1997, sec. 3, p. 12. Mr McGarvey does not explain how one can be educated if one is a "visual learner."

    Kaltwasser, Franz Georg. "Universal Bibliographic Control." UNESCO library bulletin, 25: pp. 252-259 (Summer 1971).

    Oddy, Pat. Future libraries, future catalogues. London: Library Association Publishing, 1996.

    The ISBD for Electronic Resources (ISBD(ER)), the successor to the ISBD for Computer Files, is due to be published in late 1997.

    Anglo-American cataloguing rules, Second edition. 1988 revision. Chapter 9.

    Gorman, Michael. Authority control in the prospective catalog. In Authority control: the key to tomorrow's catalog. Phoenix, AZ: Oryx Press, 1982.