Issues in Science and Technology Librarianship Spring 1998

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Delivering the Goods: Web OPACs and the Expanding Role of the Cataloger

Norm Medeiros
Technical Services Librarian
NYU School of Medicine


The proliferation of information available on the Internet is staggering. Although library web sites offer a means of access to Internet resources, these lists often lack subject analysis, cross-referencing, and ultimately prove useless to those unaware of their presence. To that end, bibliographic records represented in web OPACs can describe Internet resources and link directly to them. Catalogers are experiencing a renaissance as the online catalog becomes both atlas and vehicle to Internet-based information.


The proliferation of information available on the Internet is staggering. Though methods for evaluating these online resources are debatable, one thing is clear: there's a lot of worthwhile stuff out there. When doing research in 1998, one should not ignore the Net.

So what does this mean? Generally an academic library user performing research might begin with a search for books in the online catalog, move to an index to obtain citations to periodical literature, and then supplement her search with a cruise on the Internet. This trip may be simplified if the library has provided lists of subject-specific resources and mounted the links to these tidily on its web site. Nevertheless, perusing library-provided pages of "great sites" is a time consuming task.

Enter the cataloger.

What if the Internet sites endorsed by the library were also described and analyzed bibliographically in the online catalog? And what if that catalog was web based, capable of delivering the goods to the user? What could never have been imagined a decade ago is fast becoming today's standard.

Demise of the Cataloger

It wasn't so long ago the cataloger was considered a dying breed of librarian. Computer-based books, indices, and periodicals spelled certain doom for technical services staff since there would be no materials to check in, bind, apply labels to, or shelve. The OPAC circumvented the need for catalog cards and would assuredly obliterate classification schemes. Who would need to browse the stacks, especially when nearly all information would reside on computers? Outsourcing, the great panacea, would provide libraries with what little else remained to be done "behind the scenes."

So why are catalogers more vital than ever? In part because a need for database maintenance exists, a side effect of the online catalog. The OPAC's reliance on bibliographic and authority records in MARC format remains a stumbling block to removing catalogers from the mix. Moreover, the pesky book just won't go away, nor will the print journal, videocassette, or other forms of materials libraries collect that are not available online. But perhaps more than anything else, the Internet with its mass of unorganized information has revitalized the role of catalogers. Isn't it ironic that the OPAC and the Internet -- the two reasons catalogers would supposedly go the way of the 8-track tape -- have proven to be paramount reasons catalogers are enjoying a renaissance.

Cataloging the Internet

"Cataloging the Internet could be the greatest make-work library project of all time" (Campbell & Cox 1997). The thought is absurd. For one thing, there are those who contend that the online catalog, like its predecessor the card catalog, should only contain records for materials physically held by the library. Although this opinion is evaporating as more and more library materials are accessed via the Internet, an argument is made that bibliographic descriptions for remotely accessed resources mislead patrons into thinking these materials are stored locally (Duranceau 1996). The argument continues that access or "pointing to" information differs substantially from owning or "holding" information, and that OPACs should be inventories of what is housed within the library's walls. But what if a library owns the right to access information? Should records for these "owned" but not "held" items appear in the catalog? Does it even matter whether access to said information is purchased or free, so long as it's useful?

There exist two distinct categories of online resources a library may choose to catalog, and money lies at the fulcrum of this distinction. If, for instance, a library purchases the right to access an electronic journal, whether directly or as a consequence of maintaining a subscription to its print counterpart, it seems dutiful to have this material represented in the OPAC. Traditionally, format has never prevented bibliographic representation. So long as the material is considered within the scope of the collection development policy and worth purchasing, it has always been cataloged. In this instance, the availability of the electronic journal online is more about the Internet as a medium rather than as a storage location. Sure, this e-journal is mounted on a computer somewhere, but its location is less important than one's ability to access it via the Net.

Receiving somewhat less enthusiasm for OPAC recognition are the web sites we, the library community, have no contractual right accessing. These consist of freely available Internet resources, usually mounted by educational, governmental, and not-for-profit organizations, that have content worth attention. Nevertheless these resources reserve the right to vanish or change addresses at a moment's notice. Although the argument for including these Internet "freebies" in the OPAC can certainly be made, their freedom to maintain an elusive nature makes them more susceptible to the cataloging backlog despite their informational value. Liberally speaking, quality Internet-based resources, whether purchased, donated, or available free of charge, should be represented in the catalog. It seems to me that the library's endorsement of any information resource should mandate its bibliographic presence in the OPAC.

The Traditional Online Catalog

"Libraries will have to try to alter our users' belief that an OPAC is 'only a list of books.'" -- Eric Lease Morgan (Duranceau 1996).

The decision to catalog Internet resources was made well before the emergence of web-based catalogs. In 1991, more than a year before the Mosaic browser showcased the power of networked hypermedia, OCLC first began examining the feasibility of MARC and AACR2 to handle the new medium (Jul 1997). Two OCLC-sponsored cataloging projects and 16,000 bibliographic records later, the ability to catalog Internet resources with traditional tools is no longer questioned. Still, the character-based OPAC could only describe such a resource and direct a patron to where the resource existed on the Internet. No method existed for transforming the OPAC from atlas into vehicle.

[Screen shot of NYU School of Medicine's catalog]

MARC Tag 856

Generally, the incorporation of a new MARC tag brings about at best some discussion on AUTOCAT. However the anticipation for field 856 can only be described as ravenous. Not in this author's memory has an element been so coveted by the cataloging community. As described in March 1995 by the Library of Congress' Guidelines for the use of field 856, this field links the bibliographic description of an electronic resource to the resource itself (Library of Congress 1995). Catalogers could now code field 856 with all necessary information that would allow for connection to a remote host from a web-enabled catalog. Field 856 was forward looking, innovative, and the shot in the arm bibliographic description for Internet resources needed.

The Web OPAC

There is little doubt that the imminent birth of field 856 spawned rapid development of the web-based catalog. Vendors realized that in order to stay competitive they would need to offer a product that could exploit the 856's ability to link to external resources. It's not ironic that the 856 field did not initially contain an indicator value for the hypertext transfer protocol (HTTP). At the time of its inception, gopher servers and telnet applications were still the rule. However, by late 1995 Netscape was the rage and hyperlinking the craze. Just as video killed the radio star, web servers exterminated gopher sites. Clearly the future would reside in the glitz and ease of hypermedia.

In response to the web frenzy, online catalog vendors began developing systems that could seamlessly convert MARC records into hypertext markup language (HTML) thus rendering specific fields in the catalog record "clickable." Fields traditionally brought under authority control such as authors, series, and subjects were now hotlinked to other bibliographic records containing these headings. This non-linear approach to information retrieval presented patrons with a new discovery tool made available by the hypertext medium. The mother of all hotlinked fields however was still the 856. It provided a gateway out of the catalog and a means to deliver Internet resources from the standardization and familiar comfort of the OPAC.

[Screen shot of NYU School of Medicine's
web-based catalog]

The Expanding Role of the Cataloger

Today more than 50 vendors tout web-based catalogs, including Endeavor Information System, Geac, Sirsi, and Innovative Interfaces, Inc. (Scott 1997). Although traditionally web development in academic libraries has fallen on the shoulders of Public Services or Systems personnel, the emergence of the web-based catalog has created a new vitality for cataloging departments. Catalogers help to develop policy on linking to remotely held resources from bibliographic records, as well as on the incorporation of Internet resources in the catalog. In many instances, catalogers and other technical services staff serve on library web teams where their attention to detail and organizational skills are particularly useful. Many subject specialists are now responsible for locating web sites of value in their disciplines, and links to some of these comprehensive resources are often passed on to the cataloging department for inclusion in the OPAC. As more and more print materials offer supplemental information online, catalogers and their staffs must make the added effort to incorporate these web resources into standard bibliographic records. Clearly, the responsibilities of and need for catalogers will only continue to increase as libraries promote the discovery of useful materials for their users, wherever these materials may be.


The mere presence of a point-and-click interface is often enough to justify purchasing a web-based catalog. Many patrons no doubt prefer the simplicity of using a mouse to the often clunky command-driven OPAC. Yet the web OPAC's coming-of-age reaches far beyond aesthetics and personal preferences. By representing Internet resources in the OPAC, catalogers are helping patrons access useful resources that may have otherwise gone undiscovered. The more things change...


Campbell, D.G. & Cox, J.P. 1997. Cataloging Internet resources. Feliciter 43(5):60-63.

Duranceau, E.F. 1996. Cataloging remote-access electronic serials: rethinking the role of the OPAC. Serials Review 21(4):67-77.

Library of Congress. Network Development and MARC Standards Office. 1995. Guidelines for the use of field 856.

Jul, E. 1997. Cataloging Internet resources: survey and prospectus. Bulletin of the American Society for Information Science 24(1):6-9.

Scott, P. & Macdonald, D. 1997. Webcats: library catalogues on the World Wide Web. [Online]. Available: {http://www.libdex.com/} [March 31, 1998]


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