Academic journal article Library Resources & Technical Services

A Comparison of Online and Card Catalog Accuracy

Academic journal article Library Resources & Technical Services

A Comparison of Online and Card Catalog Accuracy

Article excerpt

A Comparison of Online and Card Catalog Accuracy - Gunnar Knutson Many libraries have not yet completed retrospective conversion of their catalogs. Users must therefore search both manual and online files to access an entire collection; thus the relative accuracy of these files is an important issue. In this study, a new online catalog and an existing card catalog were compared to detect levels and types of errors, and to determ ine if the online catalog needed extensive upgrading. Results indicated the online catalog was more accurate, and the card catalog was apt to present progressively more problems for users.

Libraries with online catalogs have found that retrospective conversion projects are easier to begin than to complete. Libraries end up with two catalogs: an online catalog plus a card catalog containing records for older, unconverted materials. The card catalog still is an important information source in many libraries and can pose problems for users.

This situation has the disadvantage of necessitating searching different files to locate all cataloged holdings. The new and old catalogs may present different obstacles to users, so that at times they will fail to find cataloged materials. Many factors come into play in the user's interaction with an online or card catalog, such as the degree of persistence a patron exhibits in searching or the completeness of a citation. One basic factor crucial to the success of a search is the comparative accuracy of online and card files.

Search success depends in part on error rates in a catalog. Accuracy may vary considerably. When a library switches to an online catalog, it is reasonable to expect that the bibliographic records will be at least as high in quality as they were in the card catalog. Online cataloging and retrospective conversion are areas where there is potential for introducing errors that did not exist in the corresponding manual records. A single faulty keystroke may make an author or subject entry nonretrievable. Changing forms of entry, particularly in the subject catalog, also may affect search success.

This report is an attempt to answer the following questions: (1) How accurate is a library's online catalog as compared to the card catalog? (2) What types of errors most often occur in each catalog? (3) Would a library be doing a disservice to patrons by making an online catalog publicly available without extensive cleanup work and heading verification? (4) Do the answers to the first three questions indicate how a library should deal with its nonconverted records? To provide answers for one library, a research project was initiated that compared the accuracy of a newly installed online catalog to the card catalog still in place.


This investigation was conducted in an academic research library with about

450,000 cataloged titles. The library was founded in the late 1940s and grew rapidly when a new campus opened in 1965. In 1976 the library became a member of OCLC. Two years later a large-scale in-house retrospective conversion project began. In 1983 a decision was made to purchase the NOTIS integrated online local system. Subsequently the library's OCLC tapes, which contained both post-1976 cataloging plus retrospective conversion of the majority of the library's monographic holdings, were sent to a vendor for updating and authority file creation.

The library's processed tapes were returned and loaded into the local online system in mid- 1985. At first the system was available only to library staff and to users of the university's academic computing center. Prior to the installation of public terminals in the spring of 1986, the retrieval accuracy of the new system was tested. Library staff found problems such as filing indicator errors and outdated subject headings, and it seemed wise to determine if the errors were pervasive or merely isolated occurrences.

During this period the catalog department continued to maintain the card catalog while adjusting to the use of the new system for cataloging and authority work. …

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