Friday, June 20, 2008

Catalog vs. Index

I have a colleague, Phil Homan, who asserts that the most important thing college students need to know about the library and finding its resources is to understand the difference between an index and a catalog. He makes some compelling points.

Phil talks about the difference between a catalog and an index. He often begins his instruction sessions with a straightforward question like: "What can you find in the library?" He writes the answers from the class on the board: books, magazines, journals, maps, CDs, DVDs, periodicals, newspapers, indexes, etc. He then asks a question like: "What will you find in journals and books?" Answers might include articles, chapters, poems, short stories, etc. The chalkboard is divided into two sections, and answers to the two questions appear on either side. Again, he asks: "What is the difference between one side and the other?" Answer: one side shows parts of a whole, and the other side shows the wholes.

At this point he says that you will find the parts in an index or database, and the wholes can be found in the catalog. Therefore, articles, poems, chapters, short stories, etc. and/or their titles will be found in an index or anthology, while titles to books, CDs, videos, magazines, newspapers, indexes, anthologies, journals, maps/atlases, encyclopedias, dictionaries, etc. will be found in a catalog. A library catalog, therefore, will tell you what that library has inside its building. (True, many catalogs include links to websites, especially government websites, since most of their "documents" are now "born digital.") An index will give you titles of articles, books, poems, etc., that may not be within the library itself, but which you can request via interlibrary loan.

An approach such as this seems pretty straightforward, yet it can really make sense to students and be just the thing to help them conceptualize the library and its resources.

Catalogs Contain Records about the Whole Item (This allows you to learn about as well as find items in the physical library.)
  • Books
  • Anthologies
  • Indexes
  • Maps
  • Videos (DVDs, videocassettes, films, etc.)
  • Journals
  • Magazines
  • Newspapers
  • CDs
  • Musical scores
Indexes Contain Records (and sometimes access to the full text) to the Parts
  • Articles
  • Chapters
  • Topics in the books (See the end-of-book index)
  • Poems
  • Songs
  • Short stories

"Card Catalog?OSU Archives.
Today's databases are article indexes; they tell you about articles that exist, offering the full citation information and usually an abstract or summary of the article.  Some article indexes provide full text, or the entire article in question.  These articles may appear in html or pdf formats.  Some databases only function as indexes and provide no full-text access to the articles: Web of Science, Biosis Previews, MLA International Bibliography, Abstracts in Anthropology, Library, Information Science & Technology Abstracts, et al.  These are great finding tools, especially useful for graduate students and other serious researchers.

Today the instruction librarians met for a meeting. We talked about a First Year Seminar [FYS] instruction request form, which is being coded today. It includes a menu of options for the instructors in the FYS program. They are no longer required to bring their freshmen students to the library for instruction, so we hope that giving them more options and flexibility will entice them to come. Students need to feel comfortable in the library; those who do tend to succeed more than those who do not.

Anyway, two librarians graciously demonstrated signature components of their teaching sessions. The first drew an inverted triangle and began to explain the research process with the use of her illustration. Anyone starting a research project (especially a project on an unfamiliar topic) would do well to consult the reference resources. As my colleague mentioned, professors assume that students have basic background information on their topics--that they are consulting encyclopedias before doing their research, yet we librarians see that students do not take advantage of these resources--at least not the ones in print.

Students frequently hear their professors condemn encyclopedia articles as sources worthy of citing. They understand that they must cite X amount of articles and-or books, so they skip the step of consulting an encyclopedia article when it could be extremely beneficial to them in a number of ways. First, it gives them a basic backdrop for understanding the article or books they read later. Second, it can identify keywords they can use later in their database searching. Third, it contains a list of references they can then consult to further their research.

Anyway, the broad base of the triangle is where you begin the research with reference materials, such as textbooks, encyclopedias, dictionaries, etc. Books fill the second portion, and journal articles fill the last tip of the triangle. In sessions I have taught, I included another segment to the triangle for personal interviews and personal experience. Students ought to reference their own life experiences and compare and contrast them with the ideas encountered in their research process.


Anonymous said...

Hi from another grad of UIowa SLIS. Nice blog. I found it when searching for "the difference between an index and a catalog" and I really like the description you provided.

My interest is in using "subject cataloged" to describe an index: "The National Library of Medicine subject catalogs biomedical articles for the Medline index." I think this is one way to describe the strength of the index, but maybe all indexes could be considered to be "subject cataloged".

Catalog as a noun vs. index as a noun, the difference is pretty clear from your post.

But how about describing an index with the adverb "cataloged". Is there a better description that is less confusing for people?

The NLM fact sheet on their philosophy of subject cataloging (they do use the term "cataloging" to describe what they do to create their index):

Spencer said...

Hello, fellow Hawkeye,

You make some interesting points, and I appreciate them. Your idea of describing an index as a catalog of subjects or subject cataloging makes sense to me, but I'm a librarian who understands that catalogers look at books and other realia to describe that thing's aboutness. Then the cataloger assigns a subject heading that matches the aboutness of the object in question.

Do you think people outside of libraries would understand that "all indexes could be considered to be 'subject cataloged'"?

The word index often modifies the word finger, describing those digits on our hands that often point to things. An index (in a book anyway) does just that, points to specific pages where a specific word or name is mentioned without regard to the context of the content on the page. In other words an index does not worry about the aboutness or content, just when the words appear in printed form. Therefore, it might be misleading to say that an index is "subject cataloged."

Creating an index is less cerebral than assigning a subject heading for a book. An index might tell you which pages mention the name Alice Roosevelt Longworth, but that does not mean that each page where her name appears focuses on her specifically--she could be named merely as a person who attended a White House dinner when the pages focuses on the president = main subject.

What do you think?

Spencer said...

Oops, I should probably review my own post before replying. Most articles listed in "article indexes" have someone assign subject headings to describe the aboutness of the articles, so they are "subject cataloged" as you say.

Though I do like the distinction made that a catalog contains records to an entire object and an index contains records of the parts. Even if an article could be considered a whole entity, article indexes do not always include the full text, so access to the whole of the article is not always available. Thus, the article index just points to the article, so the researcher can go fetch it somewhere else, like interlibrary loan for example.