Academic journal article Information Technology and Libraries

Filing, Filtering, and the First Few Found

Academic journal article Information Technology and Libraries

Filing, Filtering, and the First Few Found

Article excerpt

Card catalogs are dominated by the alphabetic arrangement of the catalog records. Alphabetic arrangement has been carried over to online catalogs, with some unfortunate consequences. Alphabetic order is reconsidered in relation to the purposes of catalogs and differences in catalog technology. Document ranking, subset ranking, and adaptive filtering are examined as alternatives in online catalogs to displays of catalog records in alphabetic order of main entry.

It has been customary to arrange catalog records alphabetically in book-form catalogs, card catalogs, and now, online catalogs. There has been some disagreement over details of filing concerning, for example, the treatment of numerals, modified and non-Latin letters, and the choice between "letter-by-letter" and "word-by-word" alphabetization. "Structured" or "categorical" arrangement, departing from strict alphabetization, has been used in some special cases, notably in the arrangements for prolific authors, of historical subdivisions, and in the past, for parts of the Bible. A "structured" approach arranges headings based on the categories to which they belong. For example, period subdivisions are arranged chronologically rather than alphabetical. Nevertheless, alphabetization has been dominant and pervasive principle.

In the United States there has been a marked preference for providing subject access by alphabetized verbal subject headings rather than by a classified subject catalog. The use of verbal subject headings and the dictionary catalog that then becomes possible increases the prominence (and complexity) of alphabetical ordering.

With some exceptions, the alphabetization of catalog records has been carried over to the display of records in online catalogs. Alphabetic ordering by main entry has become standard, whereas dictionary catalog arrangement has not. The necessity and benefits of alphabetizing catalog records by main entry in online catalogs are less certain than in card files. Feasible and attractive alternatives will be discussed below, but first the issues underlying alphabetic ordering will be reviewed. (For a good, detailed discussion of alphabetical and structured arrangements of subject headings in online catalogs see Headings for Tomorrow.[1] For an older, more general discussion see Beginning, of Course, with A, by Robert Helfer.[2])


The term retrieval is ambiguous in that it can subsume three distinct functions:

1. selecting (or identifying) documents (as in subject or author searching);

2. finding a document (or a record for a document) with known individual characteristics ("known item searching"), usually, but not necessarily, to ascertain the location of that document; and

3. fetching (delivering) documents.

Since the nineteenth century, library catalogs have been designed to support selecting in addition to the finding (locating) the function of a catalog.[3] Like bibliographies, modem catalogs are designed to enable the library user to identify or select items in the collections on a particular subject, by a particular author, and, to some extent, with other characteristics, such as form. However, the distinctive function of a library catalog is as a finding list that enables the library user to ascertain the location (call number) of specific items in the collection once the identity of the item is known. If it did not provide the shelf location of items, it would not be considered a catalog.

Alphabetic ordering is, in essence, a very effective device for locating words, usually names: names of people, names of places, names of things, and names of subjects. Alphabetic ordering is effective in the card catalog because as a "manual" system it enables the determination, both for filing and for finding, of the proper location of headings, subheadings, and individual records filed under headings and subheadings. …

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