A library catalog is an index of all the information a library has in its collection. Library card catalogs were the preferred means libraries used to make this information available to the public for generations. As computers became more and more popular, libraries have switched from the card catalog method of indexing their collections to more modern, computer-automated library check-out systems.
Libraries were originally organized alphabetically by manuscript or folio lists. This method slowly evolved into the catalog system. In the year 800, the first catalog of books organized by genre was created. It wasn't until the late 1500s that the first dictionary catalog--a catalog in which author, title, subject, series, ect. are all interfiled and arranged alphabetically--was printed. The dictionary catalog set the foundation for current cataloging systems. The first card catalogs didn't appear until the 19th century. When computer technology caught on in the 1970s and 1980s, libraries began automating their card catalogs. Automation allowed libraries to make their collection easily assessable to patrons on the computer and online through online public access catalogs (OPACs). OPACs are more user friendly and more efficient than card catalogs and are available both on site and online, allowing patrons 24-hour, 7-day-a-week access to a library's holdings.
OPACs have significantly enhanced the usability of catalogs in the library environment. In the 1960s, the creation and adoption of Machine-Readable Cataloging (MARC), a uniform computer language librarians use to catalog their library records, helped set the foundation for standardization of library catalogs in the U.S. and abroad.
Automated catalogs in libraries have many functions. First, they provide one central location to store and display a library's complete holdings. Second, they are standardized and user-friendly making it so that most libraries in the U.S. catalog their items by the same standards. If a patron knows how to use one library's catalog, he has the skill set to use any library catalog in the U.S. even if they are not exactly the same. Third, they provide key word and subject search, allowing a patron to search for a book even if she is not sure of the title or author.
There are as many types of library check-out systems as there are libraries. The type of automated system a library chooses for their collection will depend on the size of a library's collection, the types of materials they have in their collection, the size of their user base, circulation statistics and the features that are important to the unique library environment the check-out system will be used in. Some systems allow librarian access only, while other systems allow patrons to check out books themselves.
While automated library systems are commonplace in today's libraries, not every library has one. There are many federal grants available to help libraries update their card catalogs to automated library systems. Automated check-out systems benefit everyone. They make a librarian's job regarding circulation and statistics collection much easier. They also make it easier for patrons to find the material they are looking for themselves, making them more self-sufficient.
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