What would your dream catalogue look like? And following up on PW’s Best Books of 2012, Nancy offers her list of favorites

Q: Discoverability is the buzzword of the digital age, and the role of libraries in helping readers discover books has become a selling point for them and a chip to bargain with as we attempt to break the impasse over digital lending. Which brings us to the library catalogue. Clearly, technology is changing how the catalogue is organized, and how it is used by readers. What are your thoughts on the state of the library catalogue—and where it needs to go?

A: I’m so glad this question was asked, as I’ve been thinking a lot about the online public access catalogue. (What a nerd I am.) I suspect that I’m not the only one with this on her mind, because I believe that making the catalogue more useful to readers is the next big thing in libraries, and I’d like to think that others feel the same way.

It’s particularly important to make library catalogues as attractive, as simple to use, and as reader-friendly as possible at a time when many library customers seem to be setting foot in the library only to pick up their holds. While there are still browsers at my neighborhood library, I sense (perhaps wrongly) that there are fewer than before, and certainly there are many fewer than there were before it was easy (or even possible) to access a library’s catalogue from the comfort of one’s own home, find the book you are looking for, and put it on reserve. Just as libraries work hard to build relationships with the people who come into the library, we need to find a way to give the catalogue a kind of stickiness it has never had before: to make it into a one-stop shopping experience for the reader, if you will.

Now, please keep in mind that I’m describing a Platonic ideal of a reader’s OPAC. I’m not a programmer or a cataloguer—I have only a passing acquaintance with MARC records and was always too busy perusing novels to further the acquaintance. In short, I approach this as my dream catalogue. Some of what I’d like to see is already available from one ILS (integrated library system) or another, while others don’t seem to have occurred to anyone to implement, although I hope I’m wrong about that. So strictly as a reader, what do I want in an online catalogue? Well, let’s suppose your book club just discussed John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. During the discussion, one member mentions a Ken Burns documentary on the dust bowl. Another member mentions Timothy Egan’s book The Worst Hard Time. Both of these sound intriguing, but, like many of us, you don’t have time to leave work to go to the library during the day to look for Egan’s book, and you’re too busy with the kids to get to the library before it closes in the evening. So that night, when you finally get a chance to sit down and visit the library Web site, this is what I’d want to see when I type in “The Worst Hard Time,” whether I choose to read it in print form, audio, or as an e-book. (Whew, lucky it’s published by Houghton Mifflin, a company that makes its e-books available to libraries.)

1. A brief description of the book. Self-explanatory, right?

2. An option to see reviews of the book. Yes, I know this is already possible, but often these are trade reviews. I’d also like to see us link to more reviews from the Washington Post, the New York Times, O Magazine, People, the New Yorker, and the Wall Street Journal, etc.

3. A brief biography of the author. And while we’re at it, links to his Web site and any interviews with him, both print and on YouTube.

4. Recommended further reading. With the important caveat that these recommendations be really relevant to the title you’ve searched for. If the book is a biography, for example, I think it’s silly to have a list of biographies with no connection to the person I just read about. For The Worst Best Time, for example, a list might include Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, The Big Empty: The Great Plains in the Twentieth Century by R. Douglas Hurt, Atlas of the Great Plains by Stephen J. Lavin et al., Willa Cather’s My Antonia, Children of the Great Depression by Russell Freedman, This Land Is Your Land: Woody Guthrie and the Journey of an American Folk Song by Robert Santelli, a book of Dorothy Lange’s dust bowl photographs, and Jonathan Raban’s Bad Land: An American Romance, among others. When a library owns one of these titles, there should be a link to the catalogue so that it can be put on hold.

5. Other appropriate links. Such as to Ken Burns’s 2012 film The Dust Bowl.

6. Social Interaction. Give me a place to write comments on the books and read comments by others.

7. An option to create tags for the book. And a way to search for other books via the tags.

A lot of this is already underway, and there are surely other things we could add—but here’s another crucial element: I’d like to see libraries offer regular classes for the public on how to search productively in the library’s online catalogue. I don’t believe that anything will ever replace the effectiveness of talking to library patrons face-to-face in order to help them find their next good book or find information on their current read. But in the digital, socially connected world, we need to do all we can to make our catalogues sticky, useful, and friendly so we can keep readers coming back. And that includes teaching people how to use them.

What do you think? What are some great examples of innovation in library catalogues, and what might your dream catalogue look like?

Favorite Books of 2012

Q: PW’s Best Books of 2012 is now out and generating a lot of discussion, and more lists are sure to come as the year winds down. Seems like a good time to ask: what are some of your favorite books of 2012?

A: These lists are always so much fun to read and either nod approvingly or argue with, and I like to imagine the discussions (probably hot and heavy) that went into narrowing down a publishing year into a list like this. Many of PW’s choices are books I’m planning to read, but that haven’t yet arrived at either the book store or the library. I’m especially eager for Mark Binelli’s Detroit City Is the Place to Be: The Afterlife of an American Metropolis, because it’s my hometown. And like PW, I loved Louise Erdrich’s The Round House. So, in the spirit of PW’s Best Books, I’m delighted to share my favorite books of 2012. However, I have a personal preference not to label any books as “the best of.” I’m a librarian, and the use of “best of” always leads one to ask, “best of for whom?” So, I’ll just call them books I loved. The Class of 2012 It was tough to decide, but here are my top 10 favorite reads of the year.

The Round House by Louise Erdrich
Canada by Richard Ford
Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain
We Learn Nothing: Essays and Cartoons by Tim Kreider
Heft by Liz Moore
Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan
Shine, Shine, Shine by Lydia Netzer
The End of Your Life Book Club by Will Schwalbe
Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter
Enemies: A History of the FBI by Tim Weiner

Nancy Pearl, a veteran Seattle librarian, is a regular commentator about books on National Public Radio’s Morning Edition.