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

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Web Basics for Genealogists -- Catalog Searches

This post is an expansion of some topics I introduced in an earlier post entitled, "Web Basics for Genealogists -- Part Two: Beginning our Understanding of Searches." I decided that each of the different types of searches warranted its own post. This particular post will focus on catalogs and catalog searches. The other two types of searches, wiki and string search, will follow shortly.

Important to know. Most online catalogs are not accessible by a Google search. For example, the entries in the FamilySearch Catalog are searchable by the catalog search, not by Google. This is why this article was written.

If you are old enough, you probably remember working with a "card catalog" made up of drawers of 3x5 or so inch cards in long pull-out drawers. I vaguely remember sitting in the library during high school while the librarian gave us instruction about how to find things in the library. By that time, I had been looking for books in the card catalog since I was about 8 or 9 years old and already knew the subject areas I was interested in reading about. I guess it would make a good story if I could tell about how I was inspired to read and research by a dedicated librarian, but the reality was that they tolerated me and I mostly ignored them. Most of my early library experiences were in the Phoenix Public Library on hot summer days when it was one of the few air conditioned buildings that I could visit on my own without a parent in tow.

Two things about the catalog were easily understood and very apparent, books and other materials were organized by subject and and also alphanumerically. Many years later, I began a job as a bibliographer at the University of Utah Library in Salt Lake City, Utah. As I worked at the library over the next four years, I learned a lot more about library organization and cataloging. I realized that cataloging was partially a science but more of an art. I also found that in a large library, it was easy to discover that books with exactly the same subject matter were cataloged and therefore located physically in different parts of the library. If you really wanted to find books on a specific topic, you "walked the shelves." Walking the shelves consisted of walking slowly along the stacks of books and looking up and down to identify every subject covered and then randomly pulling out books of interest. Since my job was to find books ordered by professors and others, and verify whether or not the books were in the library before they were ordered, we spent a whole lot of time looking at catalogs and books.

I probably spent 20 hours a week or more for years, looking at the library's huge card catalog and other catalog sources such as the National Union Catalog. Here is the description of the NUC from the Library of Congress:
The National Union Catalog (NUC) is a record of publications held in more than eleven hundred libraries in the United States and Canada, including the Library of Congress. Major portions of the NUC are published in two principal series: one covering post-1955 publications and the other pre-1956 imprints. Since 1983, the NUC has been issued on microfiche. The NUC, an author catalog, contains some entries for works in the Library's collections that are not listed in its own general catalogs; consequently, it should be consulted in any thorough examination of the Library's resources.
Now, don't be discouraged. Learning to use catalogs does not involve a lifetime of experience, but it does help to have some experience. I relate my background so you will understand why I would be writing about this kind of subject.

The idea of a catalog is that a collection of information (historically books, manuscripts, periodicals etc.) is organized in some fashion to allow researchers to find what they are searching for. The Dewey Decimal System is one such type of classification. It began back in 1876 and was invented by Melvil Dewey. See Wikipedia: Dewey Decimal Classification.  Now, learning about libraries and cataloging systems is not likely on many people's must learn list, but as genealogists, we actually live and die with catalogs whether we realize their importance or not.

Now fast forward to the present. Many libraries still use the Dewey Decimal classification system. In addition, however, larger libraries are converting to computer-based classification and searching systems. The most prominent of these is the Online Computer Library Center, Inc. or the OCLC. Founded back in 1967, OCLC now operates the online catalog, easiest the largest catalog in the world.

Think for a minute. How many books about genealogy or containing genealogically valuable information have the words "genealogy" or "family history" in their title? Would you be able to identify a valuable genealogy book by the name of its author? How do you know if a book or other publication contains information about your family? In answering all of these questions, we rely on catalogers or people who look at books and tell us what they are about. If you want to know how complicated this can become, you can start by looking at the Library of Congress Classification Outline and then trying to find how genealogy is classified by the Library of Congress. Just so you don't get frustrated, genealogy is classified as "C -- Auxiliary Sciences of History" and the further as "CS -- Genealogy."

When you go to, for example, and then click on the Search link, you will find a further link to the FamilySearch Catalog. You will also see the follow link to the OCLC catalog and the Archive Grid.

Under the explanation about the contents, you will see the link that says, "Learn more about the catalog and how to access materials." How many times have you taken the time to read what they say? The link goes to an article in the FamilySearch Research Wiki entitled, "Introduction to the FamilySearch Catalog." Before you dive in and do another frustrating catalog search, I suggest you read about how the catalog works and what you can expect. The important thing to know about catalogs of all types, is that they require a lot of work from the user before they become very useful.

Every time you go to a website or actually visit a research repository, you are probably depending on some type of catalog to locate what you are searching for. Do you know how each of these catalogs work? Do you usually take some time figuring out how the catalog works before you start searching? How many times do you abandon your search because you can't find anything you think will help your with your research?

Remember, a catalog is an arbitrary organization of its contents. You may or may not find what you are looking for unless you understand how the particular catalog you are searching is organized and how it works. Every time you click on a website and it refers to "search the catalog" you are entering this world of catalogs. Unfortunately, almost every catalog is unique and requires you to learn about how best to use its resources.

The promise is as you keep working with catalogs and searches, the process becomes more familiar, never really easy, but manageable.

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