Some people eat, sleep and chew gum, I do genealogy and write...

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Card Catalog vs. Online Searching -- Which is better?

I realize I am a little late in raising this issue but I think we need to realize what we may have lost in throwing away all our card catalogs and going to online search engines. First, a little background. Early in my years at the University of Utah, I got a job as a bibliographer at the University Library. The bibliographer's job was to check book orders and requests from the various professors and departments around the University to make sure that the book requested was not already in the Library. Many of the books were in the library and day after day I spent searching through the huge card catalog for these books. If I was able to prove that the book was not in the Library, then we had to make sure that we had the correct name for the author, the correct title and other information so the book could be ordered. Of course, if we found that the book had a different author or title than that originally checked, they we had to go back to the card catalog and recheck the book.

The job was really tedious, but that is why they hired students to work in the Library. We prided ourselves in finding the correct information about almost any conceivable book. Proportionately, there were very, very few books we could not find. I had a permanent job, which meant any time I wanted to work I could, because I could verify the books in all the Western European languages and Hebrew.

Are we back to the question of what this all has to do with genealogy yet? Sure enough, it does. We are all like bibliographers, we are searching catalogs and on computers for the entries that may lead us to information about our families. The reason why I miss the old Card Catalog is very simple: it was organized by catalog entry. The biggest challenge in searching for information is knowing what it is called. Let me give you an example. I recently referred to the "Utah War" in a blog post. It is also known as the Utah Expedition, the Utah Campaign, Buchanan's Blunder, the Mormon War and the Mormon Rebellion. I am sure that there are many other references also. Now, here is the difference, if I were looking in a well maintained card catalog, all of those alternative names would have a catalog entry. If you didn't happen to know that all those names referred to the same event, you might spend a whole lot of time searching without success.

Oh, but you say, we have solved all that because we now can do an online search for any one of those terms and find the information we need. Do you really think so? If you do, try searching on the "Utah Campaign." Guess what you get? News about elections and fund raising in Utah, not a military expedition in the 1800s. Even if you are so fortunate to hit upon the right term to search for, online you will get only what you ask for. A card catalog entry for this subject might be found under the following headings:

Military History, Modern - 19th Century - Sources
Utah History, Utah Military Campaigns, Utah War (See also Utah Campaign, Buchanan's Blunder, Mormon War, Mormon Rebellion)

The advantage of the card catalog was that all of the pertinent source material was likely cataloged in the same manner and you would then be able to find additional material with subject headings you would never have thought about.

What did we lose when we went to Google searches online? We lost the advantage of the grouping of the resource materials into general categories. In my above example you are forced to guess which of the names of the event was the one most commonly used. As I indicated, I could find the entry for the "Utah War" almost instantly, but searches for some of the other names for the same conflict showed no relevant results without going through pages of results. Online searching forces you to be the cataloger and provide the proper search terms. Because of my experience from both working in libraries and searching online, I am usually able to guess accurate search terms. But if I did not have the vast amount of experience with both, I am sure finding things online would be much more difficult.

So, we may have thought we were progressing when we dumped our card catalogs, but in every technological change, somethings are lost and others are gained. I still miss the card catalogs.

So how can we proceed now that we are totally dependent on the electronic search engines? We can practice using different terms and try and guess how the items were put into the search engine's indexes.

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