Requiem for the National Bibliography? The Implications of Internet Access to National Library Catalogues

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1 Australian Academic & Research Libraries ISSN: (Print) X (Online) Journal homepage: Requiem for the National Bibliography? The Implications of Internet Access to National Library Catalogues John W East To cite this article: John W East (1999) Requiem for the National Bibliography? The Implications of Internet Access to National Library Catalogues, Australian Academic & Research Libraries, 30:1, 1-10, DOI: / To link to this article: https://doi.org/ / Published online: 28 Oct Submit your article to this journal Article views: 111 View related articles Citing articles: 2 View citing articles Full Terms & Conditions of access and use can be found at

2 Requiem for the National Bibliography? The Implications of Internet Access to National Library Catalogues JOHN WEAST ABSTRACT This paper begins with a brief survey of the nature and use of the printed current national bibliography. It then provides an overview of the national library catalogues which are at present freely accessible via the Internet. The usefulness of the printed national bibliography and the Internet-accessible national library catalogue are compared. The author concludes that the printed national bibliography is being supplanted by the national library catalogue, but that there is still a role for national bibliographies published electronically. T en years ago, the reference collection of most large academic or research libraries would have included substantial sets of national bibliographies from many countries around the world, and some of these titles would have been duplicated in the acquisitions or collection development department. Although little consulted by the library's patrons, national bibliographies held a firm place in the esteem of library staff, who regarded them as a valuable resource. Today the situation is somewhat different. With the development of telnet and web access to the catalogues of an ever-increasing number of national and research libraries in countries on every continent on the globe, the importance of the traditional printed national bibliography has diminished noticeably. As the records in the national bibliography are usually extracted from the catalogue of the national library which publishes the bibliography, the question arises as to how useful the printed publication is when there is free online access via the Internet to the catalogue of the national library. A recent consultation paper on the future of the British National Bibliography stated that 'a catalogue of a country's national library and its national bibliography have overlapping, but separate, needs and requirements'. 1 This is clearly so, but it begs the question as to how far John W East is a reference librarian at the University of Queensland. Address: Social Sciences and Humanities Library, Duhig Building, University of Queensland, St Lucia

3 AARL, March 1999 the function of the national bibliography overlaps that of the national library catalogue. It is the aim of this paper to examine both this question and the question which follows from it: does the printed national bibliography have a future? Characteristics of the National Bibliography In its broadest terms, the role of the national bibliography has been described as the 'recording of a nation's cultural, political, social, historical and scientific heritage'. 2 In this sense, the term 'national bibliography' can be applied to a variety of publications: some monographic in nature and some published serially, some aiming at retrospective coverage and some focusing on current publishing output. In this paper, the term 'national bibliography' will be used to refer to serially published listings of recent publications, but some of the points made will also be relevant to retrospective bibliographies. It is interesting to note at the outset that the United States, although an economically and technologically advanced country with a huge publishing industry, does not produce a current national bibliography, and the Library of Congress (the de facto national library of the USA) exhibits no sense of dereliction of duty in this regard. On the other hand, there are a number of small countries, with very limited publishing industries, where the national library sees it as a matter of pride and duty to produce a regular (if infrequent) national bibliography. This striking contrast in priorities raises an obvious question as to the value of the national bibliography, but in most countries the importance of the national bibliography has been taken for granted, at least among the library profession. There has been only the occasional iconoclast who has dared to question the value of such a tool. 3 Most librarians will be familiar with at least one or two national bibliographies, especially those from countries with large publishing industries, such as the United Kingdom, Germany and France. Typically, the major titles are published weekly, list items in some sort of classified arrangement, give full bibliographic descriptions (including price), contain an index, and will either be replaced in due course by a cumulated edition or complemented by a cumulative index. National bibliographies are produced by some national bibliographic agency (usually the national library), often relying on legal deposit legislation to acquire as complete as possible a collection of the national publishing output. For all national bibliographic agencies, 'comprehensiveness' and 'currency' are the twin goals to be pursued-with varying degrees of success. In all cases, the major constraint is the cost of production, both in terms of creating high quality bibliographic records and of printing a 2

4 East: Requiem for the National Bibliography serial for which there is limited demand. Most national bibliographies are heavily subsidised by their issuing bodies. Uses of the National Bibliography The paper on the future of the British National Bibliography referred to above defined the role of that publication as 'to support cataloguing, selection and reference work in British libraries'. 4 To these three functions we could add another (often seen as a reference function), namely document supply. Let us examine the traditional uses of the printed current national bibliography under these four headings. Cataloguing The cataloguer will sometimes turn to the national bibliography as a source of copy cataloguing, but this is only feasible where local cataloguing rules and classification and subject indexing systems are compatible with those used by the national bibliography. The national bibliography is also used as an aid in authority work, especially when checking headings for personal and corporate names. Selection National bibliographies have been extensively used in libraries as a book selection resource. Weekly or monthly listings of new publications, in classified order, are a very convenient tool for collection development work. Back issues are also useful for checking bibliographic details and prices of titles identified from other sources. It has, however, been rightly pointed out that 'in order to serve successfully as a selection tool, the bibliography must appear frequently and on schedule'. 5 Many titles have failed to meet either of these objectives, which no doubt explains why librarians have long depended for much of their selection work on other sources of information, such as trade bibliographies, publishers' advertisements and vendors' catalogues. Reference In reference work the bibliographic checking function of the national bibliography is important. In addition, the role of the national bibliography as a record of a nation's intellectual output becomes apparent when one is trying to assemble a comprehensive list of all publications on a given topic or by a given author. Most usage of national bibliographies by library patrons (as distinct from library staff) would probably fall into this latter category. Document Supply For document supply purposes, the national bibliography is again a useful tool for checking of bibliographic details and verifying the existence of the required item. 3

5 AARL, March I 999 Internet Access to National Library Catalogues Let us now examine recent developments in Internet access to national library catalogues, and see how this has affected the role of the national bibliography. Arguably the most exciting development in bibliographical work in the 1990s has been the rapidly increasing access to remote library catalogues via the Internet. As the number of large libraries whose catalogues are freely accessible (either via telnet or via the web) increases every month, we are faced with an embarrassment of riches. Most of us probably have a preference for one of the very large catalogue databases, and find that one or two such catalogues can meet a high proportion of our bibliographical needs. However, no catalogue lists every item that has ever been published, and there will be times when we have to turn to catalogues of libraries with special strengths in materials on certain subjects or in items published in certain countries. It is at this point that we might turn to a national library catalogue. As all national libraries have special responsibilities for the collection and preservation of the publications of their own countries, they are an obvious starting-point when searching for items published in a particular country or region. So what is the current state of Internet access to national library catalogues? Making any firm statement about availability of Internet resources is always a risky business, firstly because the volume of resources available is so huge, and secondly because of the rapidly evolving nature of the Internet. The following survey aims only to give a snapshot of the situation as it stood in November A survey of this nature is further complicated by the problem of establishing exactly which libraries are 'national' libraries. There are a number of libraries which style themselves as 'national', but which have a questionable claim to the term. In this survey, only those libraries have been included which appear in IFLA's address list of national libraries. 7 Numbers and Geographical Distribution Currently the catalogues of 49 national libraries in 42 countries are freely accessible. These 42 countries span all continents, but Europe is the best represented, with 24 countries. These include virtually all of Western Europe (except Ireland) and a growing number of Eastern European countries as well. In Asia, the seven countries represented are mainly the technologically advanced economies of eastern and south-east Asia. In Oceania, Australia and New Zealand are included. In South America, the more economically advanced nations are represented (Chile, Argentina, Venezuela). In North America, Canada, the United States, Mexico and El Salvador all have national library catalogues accessible via the Internet. 4

6 East: Requiem for the National Bibliography On the African continent, only South Africa and Namibia have achieved this objective. There are clear links between economic development and Internet access to national library catalogues. Only three OECD countries (Greece, Ireland and Luxembourg) do not have national library catalogues freely accessible via the Internet. Of the 20 countries with the highest gross domestic product in 1994, only six (India, Brazil, Russia, Indonesia, Thailand, Iran) have not made their national library catalogues accessible. (The catalogue of the National Library of Brazil is supposedly accessible, but in practice seems not to be so.) Telnet or web access? Of the 49 national libraries in question, 11 offer telnet access only to their catalogue, 20 offer web access only, and 18 offer both. The normal trend used to be for a library to first offer telnet access and then progress to web access, but today libraries making their catalogues accessible for the first time are likely to begin with a web catalogue. There are several cases (eg Spain, Argentina) where telnet access has been withdrawn since the web catalogue was introduced. Stand-a/one catalogue or national network? Seven of the 49 national libraries actually offer access to the catalogue of a national network, of which the national library's holdings are only one subset. This arrangement has many advantages, as no national library is ever successful in acquiring all the items published in its own country. With a larger network of libraries, the coverage of the national publication output is improved. Language The primary language of the search dialogue or web form is naturally that of the country in question. However many catalogues offer additional language options. Thirty-four of the 49 libraries offer some English language access to their catalogue. Of course, subject headings are assigned in the official language of the country. Diacritics and non-roman alphabets present particular problems for foreign searchers, who may not be acquainted with the special character emulations in use, or may not have access to specialist software for inputting diacritics or characters. Some catalogues, however, have interesting ways of giving assistance here. The National Library of Serbia, for instance, allows truncation both at the beginning and at the end of the word. The National Central Libraries of Taiwan and South Korea allow searching of both works in the Roman alphabet and works in non-roman characters on a single web form. The National Diet Library of Japan allows records to be searched both in Japanese characters and in the official romanisation. 5

7 AARL, March 1999 Search Facilities It is probably impossible to make any general statement about the search facilities offered by the different catalogues. Even the most basic offer author, title and subject access. The most sophisticated offer a wide range of search, limiting and display options. Ease of Access Again, generalisations as to ease of access are difficult to make. Many of the libraries claim to offer 24-hour access, but others ( eg National Library of Scotland) are available only for fairly limited hours. For a searcher on the other side of the world, this can make the catalogue effectively inaccessible. Many catalogues are unavailable for at least a few hours every day to allow updating of the database. Weekend access is often more restricted than weekday access. Even within the official hours of availability, access to many catalogues can be a problem. There may be a restricted number of ports available to external users, or other recurrent technical problems may limit access. The National Bibliography and the National Library OPAC Compared To what extent have the traditional functions of the national bibliography been supplanted by Internet access to the catalogues of national libraries? Let us examine those functions (as outlined earlier in this paper) one by one. Cataloguing Providing that the hours of availability are not too limited, and that there are no technical problems with access, the OPAC must surely be more convenient to use when checking headings or searching for copy than a sequence of printed issues and cumulations of the national bibliography. A few national libraries (eg US Library of Congress and the Royal Library of the Netherlands) also give free access to their authority records, which is a bonus for the cataloguer. Selection It might be observed that, for selection purposes, the obvious competitor of the printed national bibliography is not the national library OPAC but rather the plethora of vendors' databases and Internet bookshops to which librarians now have access. While it is true that these are very heavily used resources, there are types of material ( eg government publications, publications of non-commercial organisations, free publications) for which they give little or no coverage. It is also the case that the subject indexing in such databases is often fairly crude, and few of them use any consistent form of controlled-vocabulary indexing. For selection purposes, the national library OPAC is probably a poor substitute for a weekly or monthly national bibliography in classified order. However, as many national bibliographies are published 6

8 East: Requiem for the National Bibliography infrequently and with a substantial time-lag, their usefulness as a selection tool is much diminished, whereas the OPAC will provide information on new titles as soon as they have been catalogued by the national library. Cataloguing-in-publication records can of course enhance the currency of both the printed bibliography and the national library OPAC. Many national bibliographies include information on prices of new publications. This information is rarely carried over into the national library's OPAC, presumably because it is considered to be only of shortterm interest or accuracy. If we consider the function of the national bibliography as a tool for checking bibliographic references, then it is clear that this operation is better performed by the national library OPAC, with its more sophisticated search facilities ( eg keyword, ISBN). Reference The comments already made concerning the advantages of the online catalogue over the printed bibliography as a tool for bibliographic checking also apply here. For retrospective bibliography the situation is less clear-cut, and depends on how successful the national library has been in automating its older catalogue records. Document supply As much document supply work is concerned with checking bibliographic references, the national library OPAC, as a single database, is again far superior to the printed issues of the national bibliography. For serials in particular, the OPAC may give precise details of holdings, while the national bibliography will probably only give a description of the first issue. As mentioned previously, there are some national library catalogues whose holdings are integrated into a national union catalogue of research libraries: Sweden, Norway, Austria, Portugal and Namibia are all examples. Such catalogues are particularly useful for document supply purposes. In this context, it is worth quoting some criticisms of national bibliographies made some years ago by Peter Lewis: 'Location and access are of equal importance with identification' and again 'Bibliographic control is only effective when it is based on actual collections of documents which are available for users'. 8 In summary then, the Internet-accessible national library catalogue seems to be superior to the printed national bibliography for most purposes except perhaps book selection. While few libraries maintain comprehensive sets of printed national bibliographies from all countries in the world, and while many of these titles are printed in very limited runs, the library catalogue, if accessible via the Internet, can be used by any researcher or librarian anywhere who is connected to the Internet. 7

9 AARL, March 1999 The cost of subscription to the printed bibliography is another disadvantage when set against free access to the OPAC. On the other hand, we should remember that Internet sites are not always available when we need them (often for no obvious reason) and that there are many libraries in the world which do not yet have access to the Internet. Does the National Bibliography have a Future? In an article published in 1993 under the title 'National Bibliographies-Do they have a Future?' Ross Bourne argued that 'telecommunications networks... could conceivably pose a greater threat to current national bibliographies, since the access that they facilitate to research library catalogues, and hence to bibliographic data for newly acquired material, may well lead to redundant effort at the NBAs [national bibliographic agencies] that have traditionally provided this service'. 9 Bourne's prediction that networks such as OCLC would supplant national libraries as providers of bibliographic data for the national publishing output is as yet unfulfilled. The large networks still rely heavily on records created by national libraries, and their member libraries provide original cataloguing for works for which they do not expect to obtain cataloguing copy from a national library. Maurice Line has pointed out that researchers 'want to know what has been published on topics of interest to [them] in languages [they] can read, irrespective of the country and the form in which it is published'. 10 His ideal is not a multiplicity of national bibliographies, but an integrated international database of all forms of publication, well indexed by subject. Those who have been involved in trying to negotiate standards for description and subject indexing in national databases may well have their doubts as to whether such an integrated international database can ever be achieved, but it remains a worthwhile objective. The role of the national library in establishing bibliographic control over the publications of its own country seems secure, for the time being at least. As more national library catalogues become accessible via the Internet and as the adoption of Z39.50 technology makes the searching of these disparate databases easier, the usefulness and usage of national library catalogues should increase. There is always the danger that free access to these catalogues may not be maintained, although the recent decision of the British Library to abolish charges for access to its catalogue was a favourable omen. But the future of the printed national bibliography seems much less certain, as its functions are increasingly supplanted by Internet access to the national library catalogue. To date, at least one national bibliography 8

10 East: Requiem for the National Bibliography (the Australian National Bibliography) has definitely ceased publication, and it seems likely that others will suffer the same fate. The demise of the Australian National Bibliography caused some controversy in Australian library circles, but its compiler and publisher, the National Library of Australia, argued in a press release that the needs of users were better met by the Australian Bibliographic Network (ABN), an electronic national union catalogue available only to fee-paying users. The National Library maintained that ABN provided not only a more powerful search facility than the printed bibliographx, but also a more extensive coverage of the national publishing output. 1 Interestingly, the National Library's press release made no reference to its own OPAC which, although a smaller database than ABN, is freely accessible to all users. Also of interest is the National Library of Australia's decision to publish monthly files of new Australian publications on its FTP server. The files are arranged by Dewey classification number (where available) and remain accessible on the server for three months. These listings have proved popular with some libraries, as they meet the need for regular lists of new publications in classified order which have traditionally been provided by the printed national bibliography. The files can be downloaded free of charge. There have been similar developments in other countries ( eg Hungary, Belgium) where recent issues of the national bibliography are also published on the Internet. In many ways this would seem to be the ideal solution: it provides rapid access to regular lists of new publications in classified order, which are ideal for book selection and current awareness purposes, but it removes the costs and delays of publishing in paper format. If the national library catalogue is also accessible via the Internet, then it can be used for checking references, identifying holdings and retrospective searching, so the user enjoys the best of both worlds. Many of these issues have been canvassed in the consultation p~er on the future of the British National Bibliography referred to above. 1 In that paper, the British Library casts some doubt on the long-term commercial viability of the printed bibliography. At the same time, it points out that the collections of the national library do not reflect the whole of the national publishing output and it suggests that there is a need for a new model for the national bibliography, incorporating records contributed by a number of agencies. This is an attractive prospect, but the paper does not examine the very real problems that would arise in trying to ensure that records created by different agencies were consistent in their cataloguing, classification and subject indexing practices. Nor is there any discussion as to whether such a distributed national bibliography would be freely accessible via the Internet. 9

11 AARL, March 1999 If this is where the future of the national bibliography lies, then Peter Lewis was very near the truth 11 years ago when he predicted that 'the day of the published national bibliography is coming to an end, and the day of the published national bibliography database will soon be here to take its place'. 13 Notes British Library 'The Future of the National Bibliography: A Consultation Paper from the British Library' 2 B L Bell 'National Bibliography Today as National Memory Tomorrow: Problems and Proposals' International Cataloguing & Bibliographic Control vol 21 no ppl M B Line 'Do We Need National Bibliographies Any More?' Catalogue & Index no p4 4 Loe cit 5 F M McGowan 'National Bibliography' in A Kent, H Lancour and J E Daily (eds) Encyclopedia of Library and Information Science vol 19 New York Dekker 1976 pp This information is based on the author's work in maintaining a web site giving links to and search help for national library catalogues which are freely and regularly accessible via the Internet. Links to all the catalogues referred to in this paper will be found at that site. See: 'National Library Catalogues Worldwide' 7 IFLA Programme for UAP 'National Libraries of the World: An Address List' 8 P R Lewis 'The Future of the National Bibliography' Library Association Record vol 89 no pp5 l R Bourne 'National Bibliographies-Do They Have a Future?' Alexandria vol 5 no pp99-l10 10 Line 'Do We Need National Bibliographies Any More?' p4 11 National Library of Australia 'The Australian National Bibliography' 12 Loe cit 12 Lewis 'The Future of the National Bibliography' p520 Swets Subscription Service Gains ISO 9001 Accreditation Swets & Zeitlinger is understandably pleased to announce that its Swets Subscription Services division has been accredited at ISO This ISO certificate is valid for 'serials management: subscription administration and consolidation service for scholarly and research journals-paper as well as electronic'. It is applicable to all Swets offices in 18 countries. 10

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