I blame the 1961 Paris Principles. Here's the relevant section:
2. Functions of the Catalogue
The catalogue should be an efficient instrument for ascertaining
2.1 whether the library contains a particular book specified by
(a) its author and title, or
(b) if the author is not named in the book, its title alone, or
(c) if author and title are inappropriate or insufficient for identification, a suitable substitute for the title; and
2.2 (a) which works by a particular author and
(b) which editions of a particular work are in the library.
Notice there is no mention of subjects, or formats, or navigation, or obtaining resources.
Of course, I'm not the only one to notice this. The Statement of International Cataloguing Principles by the IFLA Meeting of Experts on an International Cataloguing Code (I'm looking at a January 2005 draft), expands on these quite dramtically, adding in FRBR and putting subjects back in (Cutter had subjects and more in his Rules for a Dictionary Catalog in 1904, see footnote). Unfortunately, by the time you add in FRBR and subjects, and navigation, and formats, the text gets pretty long.
It's fair to say that we have catalogs that perform the functions laid out in 1961 admirably. There's no way of knowing this, but I would guess that the OPACs and union catalogs of the world are used to do more searches than the equivalent card catalogs ever were. In many ways our catalogs are a success. So why do we feel so bad about them?
The simple answer is that we are asking our catalogs to do things they weren't designed to do. They were designed to provide access to a library's collection, most of which was within a short walk of the catalog. That's not the case today. Now our catalogs are being coordinated, collated and collapsed into union catalogs of all types, and are trying to offer access to remote materials. Even the library's own catalog is, more often than not, being used remotely. Some of the problems stem from the union catalog aspects, but the main problems are the remoteness of our users and changes in their expectations and experience.
For remote access to work we need to be more like Amazon. We need reviews, cover art, and access to at least some of the book, such as tables of contents. Lots of people have noticed this and there have been a number of proposals. Pauline Atherton Cochrane was talking about this in the 1970's, but we don't seem to be making much progress.
Our audience is more of a problem. People used to have to use the catalog to find something, and many of them would eventually get past the initial trauma of bibliographic control, and learn to appreciate what we were doing to/for them. That's not true now, people have other options to find information, so more and more people never make that jump.
I'm convinced we can do much better, and that we'll need to if we want to reverse the 'market share' loss we are starting to see.
Charles Cutter must have been quite a guy. Here's a section of his 4th edition of Rules for a Dictionary Catalog:
I don't think you could do better in that amount of space.
Here's the title page:
Anyone have a copy of the first edition? I wonder if he changed his OBJECTS at all?
ALA must have been interesting in the late 1800's.
Thanks to Diane Vizine-Goetz for intelligent conversations about catalogs and making sure I rembered everything from Cutter to IFLA.