Intranet Professional

Volume 3 • Number 1
January/February 2000

Corporate Intranet: Heir to the OPAC Throne?
Debora H. Seys, Information Consultant, Hewlett Packard Labs, Research Library

All dire predictions aside, it’s time that we take a long, hard look at one of the paradigms of information organization, the library catalog. Is it long for this world? And if not, what tool or system will take its place? Stuart Weibel, OCLC Senior Research Scientist, said recently, “For the past 25 years, OPACs have been at the center of the library world. That era is over. Ask any patron how many times a week he uses an OPAC and how many times a week he uses a Web search engine. The answer to that question should scare us.”1

I would suggest that neither the answer nor the question should scare us unless we, as a profession, are wedded to a particular technology rather than to the methods and practices that guide us in our work. By deconstructing the catalog as a concept, we can use what we learn to determine what to do now that the library catalog seems to be reaching obsolescence. But before we do this exercise, let me take a moment to describe for you a recent project that was the catalyst for my thoughts around this subject.

It is by now an all-too-familiar scenario. A large organization, with many resources and the technical ways and means, implements a company-wide, Internet-type network behind a firewall. Individuals and groups are empowered to use the Web as a means of communication. They develop their own Web sites and publish documents, and the intranet grows quickly, with few guidelines and no consistency in standards, style, or organization. In response to a sense of the loss of control over the proliferation of information on the Web, the Information Technology group installs a Web search engine and indexes the intranet. It is hoped that this will help employees, who report that it is increasingly difficult to “find anything” on the company network. Of course, the indexed internal Web as revealed in the results of a query to the search engine remains as opaque, unorganized, and difficult to use as ever.

At this stage of the story at Hewlett Packard, I joined the Information Technology group as an information consultant on loan from the Research Library at Hewlett Packard Labs. My experience as a cataloger and systems librarian and my interest in information organization would aid me in working with them on the development of publishing guidelines and meta-data standards. We hoped that tackling the problem from this perspective would hold some answers to the problem, which was being described simultaneously as information overload and scarcity. In other words, employees felt that they were being inundated with information, yet they couldn’t find what they wanted when they needed it.

Sponsors for the project wanted information to be “one click away.” They liked the idea of a single, company-wide gateway modeled after the “portal” sites that were developing out on the Internet. At the same time, a dichotomy with a misleading either/or proposition began to take hold. This, too, is probably familiar to many of us in the information profession. It’s the comparison between the “handcrafted” or labor-intensive way that librarians do things (e.g., catalog every item in the collection) and the faster technology approach (e.g., crawl the Web and automatically create a full-text index of all your documents). In a Web environment in a large company, this is, of course, a losing argument. There are too many documents and there’s no time to do it the handcrafted way, even if we could find people willing and able to do the job. Therefore, our only choice was to use technology to try to organize the Web, no matter how badly it does the job. During this time I realized that this either/or argument was not only misleading, it was beside the point.

My premise, which I’ll get to in a moment, is that it’s not just cataloging that makes a catalog. If we are to truly lift the quality of information organization on a corporate intranet up to the caliber of a library catalog, then it requires more than choosing between doing things the “old way” or giving them up in the face of some “new way.” The development of an entirely different information tool that operates successfully for its users in the new environment is required. As I said earlier, let’s deconstruct the library catalog to see what we can learn and apply to the development of this tool.

Think of Boundary as the intended breadth or depth of the collection. What facets of knowledge are included—is this a layman’s resource or are we expecting graduate level coverage of the subject? What items are appropriate or inappropriate for the collection (i.e., children’s books; pornography; other languages, etc.)? Collection development decisions are influenced by this element.

Community refers to the user community or the mission statement of the collection described by the catalog. Who or what (e.g., posterity) does this collection intend to serve? Users are the fundamental basis for the creation of a collection and are also often involved in collection development decisions. 

What constitutes an Object in the collection? Is one instance in an edition of thousands enough to correspond to an accurate catalog description? If a user were to substitute one copy of The Metamorphosis for another, would it matter to the collection? (Labeling issues aside.) For some collections, yes, if it were the copy that had been signed by Kafka. This is an interesting question now that we are cataloging Web sites; a URL may stay the same, but there’s no assurance that the text on the page doesn’t change, perhaps repeatedly in the life of the catalog record. Even so, we still consider it to be the same object as originally described in the catalog record. Compare this to the intricacies of title change cataloging for serials; this is simply the argument over what constitutes an object in the collection. One more comment on defining the catalog “object.” Serials are generally not cataloged at the granularity of the issue (with some exceptions for special issues, conferences, etc.) or article level, but this has really been a matter of expediency and choice. Certainly some scientific journal articles are more “worthy” catalog objects than some of the ephemeral “books” that get complete cataloging.

Description, while related to the definition of the object, is more concerned with what specific identifiable characteristics are deemed important enough to include in the catalog record. For example, title and author, size, dates, etc., are familiar elements of a catalog record. AACR2 has dominated the thinking in this area, and even the more recent Dublin Core follows suit, but these are only arbitrary decisions; on the Web it may be more important for a catalog record to inform users that visiting a Web site will cause a cookie to be stored on their desktop, or that a particular business Web site provides this or another type of security software for e-commerce transactions. 

Location is the piece of information that tells us how the object relates to other objects in the collection. We do this commonly by identifying editions and series, for example, and also by tracking authoritative name changes. We also do it when we assign subject headings and classification information. We place the object into the catalog in relation to what is already there—literally on the shelf, and figuratively in the areas of subject and name access for collocation purposes.

To describe what I intend by the word Meaning, I borrow from Michael Buckland, who wrote about vocabulary in “Vocabulary as a Central Concept in Library and Information Science.”2 Each catalog matures into a vocabulary of its own and is able to convey the logical and internally coherent meaning of the collection in parts and as a whole. The collection as represented by the catalog becomes greater than the sum of its parts. Users benefit from the meaning of the collection as it is mapped in its entirety through the range or repertoire of valid terms in the thesaurus, of numbers in the classification scheme, of items gathered to cover a subject or convey a history. Meaning is an essential component of how a catalog enables the collection to successfully satisfy user needs. 

All these elements interact to produce a catalog that represents a collection of resources. A catalog is more than just a collection of catalog records. It is an evolving and rich repository of a certain approach to knowledge as it is intended to be used. This contradicts the belief that all we have to do to create a catalog out of a corporate intranet is to add meta-data to everything. It’s a mistaken notion to think that by simply improving our publishing standards and adding meta-data to Web resources, we have duplicated what “the catalog” does. 

We can carry this one step further by considering that the catalog represents a formal means of communication between the moment of acquiring and deciding what an object is and where it should go, and the moment of remembering—or the “moment of need,” as a reference librarian in my library called it the other day. 

Two Kinds of Librarians
In fact, there really are only two kinds of librarians: those who find things and those who put things away. The catalog has been the means of communication between them. Josh Duberman describes the search process, but this quote could equally well describe the putting-away process. “We’re used to asking these questions: If I were this piece of information, how would I be classified and indexed? Where would I be located? What questions could I answer? Who wants those questions answered?”3 Librarians who find things do so by defining the question and constructing a query. Librarians who put things away do so by describing the object and revealing its content and relationship within the context of other objects already in the catalog. At their worst, librarians who are good at finding things are passive consumers and critics of the systems available to them, while librarians who are good at putting things away become slaves to the internal coherence of the system rather than to its meaning or the users. At its best, the catalog provides a bridge between these two pieces of the process, creating a communication tool for these two moments or actors in the process.

What happens when we compare the basics of a catalog to the basics of an intranet? 

On an intranet, “selection” on the basis of boundary and community is replaced by simple “accumulation.” Contribution is done by a set of publishers that has technology, access, and authority. (On the Internet this contribution would be limited only by technology.) 
On an intranet, the “community” becomes  those who create the collection. The intranet operates in the service of contributor/publishers rather than at the service of a user community. (On the Internet there are simply the participants in the common technology—with no community at all.) 

In the catalog, as I’ve described, the “meaning” is defined in relationship to the user, who is anticipated by the vocabulary and location of the pieces in the collection. On the intranet, or the Internet, meaning is defined only by those who publish the information, which leaves the users to fend for themselves as they try to use the information with no intermediary. After it has been indexed, one could say that meaning on an intranet or the Internet is defined by those who try to organize or filter it after the fact.

When we take the elements of a catalog and reconstruct them in the environment of an intranet we can see that all of the same elements are there, but they take on quite different characteristics. We’ll need to re-examine our methods and procedures, develop new ones, and design processes that work in this new environment. It will be interesting to see how, with the proper approach, this kind of catalog can become the same means of communication between the moment that we “put something away” and the time that we need it again. 

1. Stuart Weibel quoted in Ron Chepesiuk, “Organizing the Internet: The ‘Core’ of the Challenge,” American Libraries, January (1999) 59-63
2. Michael Buckland, “Vocabulary as a Central Concept in Library and Information Science,” Paper for the Third International Conference on Conceptions of Library and Information Science (CoLIS3), Dubrovnik, Croatia, 23-26 May (1999). Also at:
3. Josh Duberman, “Reflections in a Fun House Mirror: Web Trends and Evolving Roles for Information Specialists,”Searcher, Vol. 7, No. 2, February (1999).

Debbie can be reached at Hewlett Packard Labs Research Library, 1501 Page Mill Rd. Palo Alto, CA 94303; 650/857-3895 or

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