Academic journal article Information Technology and Libraries

The Path toward Global Interoperability in Cataloging

Academic journal article Information Technology and Libraries

The Path toward Global Interoperability in Cataloging

Article excerpt

Libraries began in complete isolation with no uniformity of standards and have grown over time to be ever more interoperable. This paper examines the current steps toward the goal of universal interoperability. These projects aim to reconcile linguistic and organizational obstacles, with a particular focus on subject headings, name authorities, and titles.


In classical and medieval times, library catalogs were completely isolated from each other and idiosyncratic. Since then, there has been a trend to move toward greater interoperability. We have not yet attained this international standardization in cataloging, and there are currently many challenges that stand in the way of this goal. This paper will examine the teleological evolution of cataloging and analyze the obstacles that stand in the way of complete interoperability, how they may be overcome, and which may remain. This paper will not provide a comprehensive list of all issues pertaining to interoperability; rather, it will attempt to shed light on those issues most salient to the discussion.

Unlike the libraries we are familiar with today, medieval libraries worked in near total isolation. Most were maintained by monks in monasteries, and any regulations in cataloging practice were established by each religious order. One reason for their lack of regulations was that their collections were small by our standards; a monastic library had at most a few hundred volumes (a couple thousand in some very rare cases). The "armarius," or librarian, kept more of an inventory than an actual catalog, along with the inventories of all other valuable possessions of the monastery. There were no standard rules for this inventory-keeping, although the armarius usually wrote down the author and title, or incipit if there was no author or title. Some of these inventories also contained bibliographic descriptions, which most often described the physical book rather than its contents. The inventories were usually taken according to the shelf organization, which was occasionally based on subject, like most libraries are today. These trends in medieval cataloging varied widely from library to library, and their inventories were entirely different from our modern OPACs. The inventory did not provide users access to the materials. Instead, the user consulted the armarius, who usually knew the collection by heart. This was a reasonable request given the small size of the collections. (1)

This type of nonstandardized cataloging remained relatively unchanged until the nineteenth century, when Charles C. Jewett introduced the idea of a union catalog. Jewett also proposed having stereotype plates for each bibliographic record, rather than a book catalog, because this could reduce costs, create uniformity, and organize records alphabetically. This was the precursor to the twentieth-century card catalog. While many of Jewett's ideas were not actually practiced during his lifetime, they laid the foundation for later cataloging practices. (2)

The twentieth century brought a great revolution in cataloging standards, particularly in the United States. In 1914, the Library of Congress Subject Headings (LCSH) were first published and introduced a controlled vocabulary to American cataloging. The 1960s saw a wide array of advancements in standardization. The Library of Congress (LC) developed MARC, which became a national standard in 1973. It also was the time of the creation of Anglo-American Cataloguing Rules (AACR), the Paris Principles, and International Standard Bibliographic Description (ISBD). While many of these standardization projects were uniquely American or British phenomena, they quickly spread to other parts of the world, often in translated versions. (3)

While the technology did not yet exist in the 1970s to provide widespread local online catalogs, technology did allow for union catalogs containing the records of many libraries in a single database. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.