Academic journal article Library Resources & Technical Services

Enhancing Subject Accessibility to the Online Catalog

Academic journal article Library Resources & Technical Services

Enhancing Subject Accessibility to the Online Catalog

Article excerpt

Enhancing Subject Accessibiltiy to the Online Catalog

Public access is probably the most complex area of library automation today. Users of all types of libraries are doing a lot of subject searching in online catalogs, but they are not satisfied with it. Karen Markey conducted an extensive research project on subject access in online catalogs in the early 1980s. The findings of that study were:

1. Subject searches predominate over the other types of online public access catalog searches.

2. Patrons express more problems about subject searches than other types of searches.

3. Subject searching needs to be improved in our online public access catalogs. [1]

In accordance with these findings, users at East Carolina University (ECU) have encountered the most problems with subject access to the online catalog. The reasons expressed by reference librarians at ECU are very similar to those that have been documented in the literature. Librarians need to assist patrons in overcoming the barriers to subject searching. The best way to build trust in the online catalog is to make certain that patrons' initial searches are productive.



A large percentage of subject searches results in no retrieval. This is a significant problem, since online catalog user studies indicate that patrons perform more known-item than subject searches as their years of formal education increase. [2] This means that less experienced patrons are using subject access more and having problems with retrieval. Interviewers have learned that patrons were able to verbalize the topic they wanted but that they could not match that topic with a subject term in the online catalog. [3] in a card catalog use study it was learned that searchers often changed the vocabulary used between the time they approached the catalog and the time they actually started the search. The number of terms was smaller and those became more general. [4] This could also be true for online catalog users. In fact, one study showed that over one-third of the access points used at the online catalog could be labeled as "whatever popped into the searcher's mind." [5] Topical subject headings often are not entered in Library of Congress Subject Headings (LCSII) in the same form as they occur to patrons or librarians. Some feel that it is the user's responsibility to know variant forms of headings because it has become too expensive for libraries to provide this information for patrons, but we cannot afford to catalog materials and then permit them to become lost in an online catalog because there is no control over the headings used.

Search topics are usually too general or too specific. A search that is too broad will frequently result in a highly posted response that presents the patron with a problem similar to that experienced at the card catalog. Often the patron might then resort to an exercise similar to thumbing through cards, that of viewing titles in sequential order. The inverse of an overproductive search is one that is too specific and therefore results in very little or no retrieval. Related is the problem that once patrons have found a subject heading that produces some response they automatically assume that they have retrieved all material on that subject.

Patrons might use LCSH, but they certainly don't understand it. It has always been difficult to explain "x" or "xx" or "sa," but now we have to try to understand as well as interpret for users USE, UF, BT, RT, SA and NT. If patrons do know to use the LCSH volumes to structure a search and if a printed copy is available, it is entirely possible that there would be no entries in the online catalog for the terms selected and a well-constructed search will result in no retrieval.

Subject searching is less concrete than known-item searching and often requires more effort. …

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