Breaking Apart The Union Catalog — Vol. 1

September 29, 2009

Google Books has been in the news a lot lately, and that inevitably prompts me to thinking about one of the main things people love and/or hate about Google: The centralization or unification of, more or less, everything. Communication, research, education, work, home, personal management, etc. It is not my place nor my interest to argue the relative beneficence or malevolence of Google. There are plenty of voices doing that, and plenty of people trying to work within or outside the system to help keep it honest. What my mind always comes back to in relation to this topic is the issue of centralization within the practice of archiving and preservation.

The advent and increase of computing tools in libraries and archives has held great promise for significantly increasing capabilities for the storage, discovery, and access of assets, whether they be digitized or not. Those of us that remember performing research projects before the widespread availability of online databases — or even before the subscriptions and portals for them became more streamlined — can attest to the partial fulfillment of this promise. There have of course been many other pushes throughout history to create a centralized repository of information or knowledge well before the digital age. The Oxford English Dictionary, the encyclopedic list of encyclopedias, national libraries, etc. We could be high-minded and discuss the human urge to organize and contain in order to deal with the uncertainties, the multiplicities, the messiness of existence. Or we could discuss it more in terms of efficiency — sure the chase of research is fun, but it can be a luxury to have the time to search so many sources and limits advancements to do work that has already been done before.

What we can say is that, though the universe tends towards decay, the human mind tends to turn away from it and back towards unity. However, we are a frustrating bunch and more often than not turn heel in the face of unity as well. I say this because, in spite of the beautiful dream of a union catalog, and despite the many well-intended and well-organized attempts over the years to create some sort of union catalog, the actualization of the dream and implementation of the various attempts have been a mixed-bag of results. At some point, the plan seems to lose steam or support or gets superseded by something else. Might this be a problem with the specific project, or might this be an inherent result of any such attempt?

Over the next few posts on this topic I will be looking at the issue of union catalogs in relation to media archives: What are some of the difficulties involved in establishing one? What other union catalogs have succeeded and what has contributed to their success? Is this an attainable idea or even a good one? And what kinds of solutions exist that archives can apply for internal use at the least, or for positioning themselves for the future? We may or may not gain a clue as to how to design and implement the ultimate union catalog, but we will definitely gain a better understanding of the process and how planning and execution relate to any project within the archive, whether large scale or not.

—¬†Joshua Ranger