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Looking Ahead to Faceted Searching - Part 1

May 7, 2009 | Alan H. | Comments (17)

The web team's work at Toronto Public Library is a combination of day-to-day maintenance (keeping our existing web and interactive services working and their content updated) and longer-range projects to improve, revise or replace existing services and resources, or introduce completely new ones. 

A major current project is the introduction of faceted search capabilities for the website and the library catalogue as part of the larger redesign of our website.  To understand what this is and why it's a major thing for us we have to talk a little about the history of search, especially as it relates to libraries.

Pre-Electronic Search In Libraries

Before computerized catalogues the primary means of access to books was the card catalogue:

Sample card catalogue image

{made with the Catalog Card Generator}

Some of you may remember using card catalogues (perhaps even fondly).  I can't claim total accuracy in the one above because I barely remember using them.  They took up a tremendous amount of space to hold all those cards and were difficult to keep in good order!  Many of the cards were cross-references to other cards to let you know things like:

  • The correct spelling in the catalogue of an author's name, if there were variants
  • The correct title of a book with variant titles
  • The correct subject heading in the controlled vocabulary used to make sure synonyms and related terms (dog, canine, hound, puppy) were grouped together, usually the Library of Congress Subject Headings

Card catalogues relied on highly structured systems for organizing information that required a certain degree of expertise and experience to use.  A major role of the librarian was to assist in the use of the catalogue to help you locate the book you wanted, as well as maintain it. 

Because card catalogues took up so much space, they had very few access points by which you could search for information.  Typically you had:

  • AUTHOR cards, to let you find out which books the library had by a particular author
  • SUBJECT cards, to locate books on a particular subject--as mentioned above, the synonym problem required the use of controlled vocabulary
  • TITLE cards, to locate books by title

The Card Catalogue Goes Online

This glosses over an enormous amount of library history, but take a look at this screenshot from our current library catalogue:
Notice anything familiar?  Those same card catalogue access points are still there! 

Partly this is because they're good access points.  Most people looking for a book (or a film, or a CD, or another kind of recorded information) are looking for it by one of three broadly defined things:

  • Who made it? (author)
  • What's it called? (title)
  • What's it about? (subject)

Past and Future of Library Searching

Libraries have been doing search technology for a very long time (long before computerized search systems even became possible), and to really understand why the modern-day library catalogue is the way it is, you have to understand some of that history.  The pre-amalgamation North York Public Library began doing computerized cataloguing in 1982, quite a few years before the World Wide Web even came into existence, and the earliest forms of computerized information storage for libraries basically just replicated the card catalogue in computer form (and in many cases were used only by the staff to maintain the catalogue and print new cards as needed, not by the public).

Our existing catalogue records still have a lot of value--it's hard to beat a library catalogue for precision searching, but they're not always very easy to use.  How do we make use of that precision in our records while increasing usability for our public?

As you've probably guessed one answer is faceted searching:


{Screen of the North Carolina State University Library catalogue, using faceted search}

In the next post we'll talk about what faceted searching is and how we envision it working at Toronto Public Library to improve the catalogue experience.


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