The Library of Congress opened its catalogs to the world. Here’s why it matters

File 20170705 28939 r7aodn
The Library of Congress is in Washington, D.C.
Valerii Iavtushenko/

Melissa Levine, University of Michigan

Imagine you wanted to find books or journal articles on a particular subject. Or find manuscripts by a particular author. Or locate serials, music or maps. You would use a library catalog that includes facts – like title, author, publication date, subject headings and genre.

That information and more is stored in the treasure trove of library catalogs.

It is hard to overstate how important this library catalog information is, particularly as the amount of information expands every day. With this information, scholars and librarians are able to find things in a predictable way. That’s because of the descriptive facts presented in a systematic way in catalog records.

But what if you could also experiment with the data in those records to explore other kinds of research questions – like trends in subject matter, semantics in titles or patterns in the geographic source of works on a given topic?

Now it is possible. The Library of Congress has made 25 million digital catalog records available for anyone to use at no charge. The free data set includes records from 1968 to 2014.

This is the largest release of digital catalog records in history. These records are part of a data ecosystem that crosses decades and parallels the evolution of information technology.

In my research about copyright and library collections, I rely on these kinds of records for information that can help determine the copyright status of works. The data in these records already are embodied in library catalogs. What’s new is the free accessibility of this organized data set for new kinds of inquiry.

The decision reflects a fresh attitude toward shared data by the Library of Congress. It is a symbolic and practical manifestation of the library’s leadership aligned with its mission of public service.

Some history

To understand the implications of this news, it helps to know a bit about the history of library catalog records.

Today, search engines let us easily find books we want to borrow from libraries or purchase from any number of sources. Not long ago, this would have seemed magical. Search engines use data about books – like the title, author, publisher, publication date and subject matter – to identify particular books. That descriptive information was gathered over the years in library catalog records by librarians.

Card catalog at the Library of Congress.
Rich Renomeron/flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

The library’s action sheds light on this unseen but critical network. This infrastructure is invisible to most of us as we use libraries, buy books or use search engines.

For many, the idea of a library catalog conjures up the image of card catalogs. The descriptions contained in catalog records are “metadata” – information about information. Early catalog records date back to 1791, just after the French Revolution. The revolutionary government used playing cards to document property seized from the church. The idea was to make a national bibliography of library holdings confiscated during the Revolution.

For many years, library collections were organized individually. As the number of books and libraries grew, the increased complexity demanded a more consistent approach. For example, when the Library of Congress purchased Thomas Jefferson’s personal library in 1815, it arranged its collections around Jefferson’s personal system organized around the themes of memory, reason and imagination. (Jefferson based this on Francis Bacon’s own model.) The library sought to arrange its collections on that model into the 19th century.

Books on my shelf, marked with KF and HB. The K indicates that the book relates to law, the H that it relates to social science. The second letter indicates a subcategory.
Melissa Levine, CC BY

As the number of books and libraries grew, a more systematic approach was needed. The Dewey Decimal System appeared in 1876 to tackle this challenge. It combined consistent numbers (“classes”) with particular topics. Each class can be further divided for more specific descriptions.

In the 1890s, the library developed the Library of Congress Classification System. It is still used today to predictably manage millions of items in libraries worldwide.

Catalogs, cards and computers

By the 1960s, systematic descriptions made the transition from analog cards to online catalog systems a natural step. Machine-Readable-Cataloging (or MARC) records were developed to electronically read and interpret the data in bibliographic cataloging records. The structured categorization coincided naturally with the use of computers.

Now, MARC records too are on the way out, making room for more modern and flexible standards.

The Library of Congress remains a primary – but not the only – source for catalog records. Individual libraries produce catalog records that are compiled and circulated through organizations like OCLC. OCLC connects libraries around the globe and offers an online catalog. WorldCat coordinates catalog records from many libraries into a cohesive online resource. Groups like these charge libraries through membership fees for access to the compiled data. Libraries, though, typically do not charge for the catalog records they produce, instead working cooperatively through organizations like OCLC. This may evolve as more shared effort and crowdsourced resources can be combined with the library’s data in ways that improve search and inquiry. Examples include SHARE and Wikipedia.

One month later

In the short time since the Library of Congress’ data release, we see inklings of what may come. At a Hack-to-Learn event in May, researchers showed off early experiments with the data, including a zoomable list of nine million unique titles and a natural language interface with the data.

For my part, I am considering how to use the library’s data to learn more about the history of publishing. For example, it might be possible to see if there are trends in dates of publication, locations of publishers and patterns in subject matter. It would be fruitful to correlate copyright information data retained by the U.S. Copyright Office to see if one could associate particular works with their copyright information like registration, renewal and ownership changes. However, those records remain in formats that remain difficult to search or manipulate. The records prior to 1978 are not yet available online at all from the U.S. Copyright Office.

Colleagues at the University of Michigan Library are studying the recently released records as a way to practice map-making and explore geographic patterns with visualizations based on the data. They are thinking about gleaning locations from subject metadata and then mapping how those locations shift through time.

There’s a growing expectation that this kind of data should be freely available. This is evidenced by the expanding number of open data initiatives, from institutional repositories such as Deep Blue Data here at the University of Michigan Library to the U.S. government’s The U.K.‘s Open Research Data Task Force just released a report discussing technical, infrastructure, policy and cultural matters to be addressed to support open data.

The ConversationThe Library of Congress’ action demonstrates an overarching shift in use of technology to meet historical research missions and advance beyond. Because the data are freely available, anyone can experiment with them.

Melissa Levine, Lead Copyright Officer, Librarian, University of Michigan

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


Unstacked: revealing the hidden gems of the State Library of NSW

Elisa Lee, University of Technology Sydney

What are people looking for when they browse the State Library of NSW’s collection of six million items? The Conversation

There are books in there, of course, but also photographs, soldiers diaries from World War One, locks of childrens’ hair, a vast array of paintings and sketches, maps, diaries from First Fleet officers and soldiers, Aboriginal artefacts and even floppy disks from the 1980s.

As winners of the inaugural DX Lab Fellowship at the State Library of NSW, we wanted to reveal the breadth and diversity of this collection (most of which is held in the library’s underground stacks), and show what odd and interesting items pop up when people search the collection online.

The result is Unstacked, launched this week by the library’s DX Lab, Australia’s first cultural-heritage innovation lab. DX Lab aims to build and support new ways of design thinking, experimentation and research with digital technologies.

So what is Unstacked? It is a webpage that updates to show what items people are accessing from the State Library of NSW’s collection. When people look at a collection item, it pops up on Unstacked. It is essentially a window into the collection, and an insight into what people are interested in at any given time.

Unstacked because it presents in a visual form items which are physically or digitally coming delivered from “the stacks”; the underground space where the library stores holds much of their collection.

You can view Unstacked on your computer, mobile phone or device. The plan is to display this project over a large space in the library for everyone to see. We’ve found that when it is shown in a public space, it provokes conversation and this was one of our aims.

What are people searching for?

The work reveals that the library’s users have very different interests and this highlights the diversity of the collection.

People use the library for all types of research. On any given day you might see searches ranging from Shakespeare, the psychology of teenagers or HSC papers to subdivision plans, kisses, houses in Lilyfield in the 1970s, or mosquito management.

For example, if you were looking at Unstacked when someone accessed a photograph of colonial houses from the collection, then you would see that photograph appear.

If you were interested in finding out more about this photograph then you could enlarge it and see more details. You could then click on the link to its record in the library’s online catalogue.

You may well see this photograph displayed alongside a book on The History of the Bean Bag, war diaries or Snugglepot and Cuddlepie. It depends on what other people are looking at, at that moment.

And because people access the collection chiefly through the library’s web-based catalogue, the search queries displaying on Unstacked could be coming from anywhere – in the library, in regional NSW or on the other side of the world.

Visualising the searches

In respect to design, we wanted to showcase items with minimal fuss and let the contents of the collection speak for themselves. We thought a lot about how much information to show and when to show it.

In consultation with the library, we settled on a visualisation that balances communication and aesthetics. In other words, it looks good but is still easy for anyone to understand what they’re looking at. One of the challenges we encountered was how to deal with items from the collection that don’t have images attached to their records.

For published items including books, we used a palette of colours created by Chris Gaul for the UTS Library, which represent the different Dewey Decimal topics. For example, blue represents social sciences and orange represents geography and history.

We’ve had responses like “I had no idea the State Library of NSW had things like that” and “I’m going to look that up too”. People have been surprised by just how interesting and diverse the State Library’s collection is. They’re also amazed that anyone undertaking research can go into the library and look at the originals whether they be rare books, photographs or drawings.

We hope that Unstacked will increase the number of visits to the library both virtual and physical and inspire people to explore the State Library of NSW’s incredible collection.

This article was co-authored by Adam Hinshaw, a creative technologist specialising in interactive installation and a co-creator of Unstacked.

Elisa Lee, Lecturer and tutor in Visual Communications, University of Technology Sydney

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Most Popular Library Ebooks in the USA for 2016

The link below is to an article that takes a look at the most popular library ebooks in the USA for 2016. Do any of our readers read library ebooks? If so, what has your experience been like? Let us know in the comments.

For more read:

World’s Oldest Library Reopens

The link below is to an article that looks at the reopening of the Qarawiyyin Library in Fez, Morocco.

For more visit:

A Wonderful Time We Live In

What a wonderful time we live in. Sure, there are always things to lament and probably in this day and age there may be more than in any time in the past. Yet there is still much to be excited about and to be thankful for. It may seem incongruous to both lament the current times, while still being excited and thankful for them. That this is a paradox is a given, but I can live inside it without feeling any contradiction. Now this may all seem a little heavy for late on a Saturday night (in Australia it is approaching 11.00 pm at this moment and is sure to be later when I actually upload this post), however I am not really looking for a philosophical debate – far from it. In fact, my purpose is to talk books.

OK, so that seems a rather strange jumping off point, but I trust it will appear relevant as I move along with my thoughts and develop my argument. You see I have a large library. Indeed, some would call my library massive by today’s ‘average Joe’ standard. I have several thousand traditional hard copy books in my personal library. I probably have close to double that in my digital ebook library. So together I am probably approaching 10 000 books/ebooks and that continues to expand rapidly (in the digital realm anyway, having largely stopped acquiring traditional books). Sure, it is unlikely I’ll come close to reading anywhere near that many books. I view a large percentage of these books as ‘tools,’ into which I mine on a regular basis, not necessarily reading each one cover to cover. A great many books I do read cover to cover and I would expect that somewhere between 10 to 20 percent of my books/ebooks will be read in such a manner should I live to a ripe old age.

So what makes me particularly excited and thankful about this current age in the realm of books/ebooks? Well, it is probably becoming a little clear to the bibliophiles out there and maybe not so much to those who read very little. I have limited physical space in which to store books. Indeed my space for storing books has really been exhausted. I have reached peak book storage in my home. I literally will struggle to find room for any future books here, not to mention any further bookcases/bookshelves. I have no further physical room for them. The exciting thing is that I no longer require the physical space in order to further expand my library. In fact, the fields in which I am able to collect books now has also increased and indeed there are no longer any limits in that respect. I can gather ebooks from any field whatsoever and in whatever numbers I could wish, should I choose to do so. Ebooks can be stored on gadgets of all descriptions, on external hard drives, on computers and even in the cloud. I have an incredible amount of digital storage space at my disposal and I am using it.

However it is more than that. I have a large collection of books from the past. Sure, most of these are reprints of older editions (though I do own old books themselves), yet they are still works from an era long past. I would argue they still have relevance for today and I know many people who would also passionately argue the same thing. So though I have a lot of ‘newer’ books/ebooks in my personal library, it is the older ones that I am most interested in here. I can now easily grab a digital copy of most of the older books I have via places like the Internet Archive and/or even Google Books. Most are available in a number of formats, including PDF and Kindle. So I have this great resource available that I wouldn’t have had before this time in which I live. This is an amazing time to live and I am so thankful that I am able to easily get a digital copy of most of the books I currently own. This is great for backup purposes, for you never know if one day I’ll lose the entire physical library in a fire or some other type of disaster. But more than that, I am able to downsize the physical component of my library, claw back some physical space in the home and yet still have these great books fully available to me and able to be used and utilized in a far greater way, not just in the home but wherever I happen to be via my tablet, phone or lap top. I can be on the top of a mountain in the middle of the wilderness and still have access to thousands of ebooks in my library.

Now for many bibliophiles this is an exciting thing, though many still can’t escape the past and live in the modern world where the smell of an old book or the feel of a physical page isn’t the best thing about the written word. For me, it is all about the value of the content. Sure, I appreciate the appearance, etc, of the ebook/book that I have. But it is the content that reigns supreme for me and now with the added functionality of that content, with its much enhanced usefulness – well, that is far more important to me than these lesser things.

That is still not all of it though. With the Internet Archive and similar sites, I am now able to expand my personal library beyond what I could ever have imagined 20 or so years ago. Now I can get digital copies of books that I never thought I could never get a hold of before. This is probably the most exciting thing of all for me. All of those works written by authors that mean a lot to me, I can now gain access to their entire extant works. I can pretty much gain access to all of the works I want and have them in my own home via the various gadgets the modern world allows me to have. Now that is just incredible! And it just gets easier with each passing day – and better. At some point in the future my own personal library may be greater than that of the entire ancient Library of Alexandria and will take up nowhere near the amount of room that that ancient building in Egypt once occupied. Yeah, this is a wonderful time we live in.


Jail For Overdue Library Books

A library in Alabama in the United States, is threatening people with jail time for overdue library books. The link below is to an article reporting on the story.

For more visit:

Libraries aren’t ‘dead in the water’ – even if some have given up

Briony Birdi, University of Sheffield

Having spent 15 years researching public libraries and trying to emphasise their contribution to education and society as a whole, you might expect that I’d be delighted at the good news that our public libraries are finally receiving the media attention and recognition they deserve? Sadly not.

The recent boon in media interest is of course linked to a large-scale BBC investigation into the “real” picture of library closures, staff redundancies and budget cuts which have taken place since 2010, the year in which UK Chancellor George Osborne “unveiled the biggest UK spending cuts for decades”.

I was one of a number of people interviewed as part of the investigation, and have been quoted in two two depressingly entitled articles: one on how a quarter of staff jobs have been lost as hundreds of libraries close and another entitled “Libraries: the decline of a profession?”

The first article presented some stark statistics – based on an extensive series of Freedom of Information requests by the BBC – which revealed the extent of closures, planned closures and job losses, as well as the concurrent increase in community-run libraries – where the local authority hands over the management of a library service to a group of community volunteers – and volunteer staff.

Libraries aren’t over, they will just look different. A similar view was expressed by Elizabeth Elford of the Society of Chief Librarians, who observed “there will be fewer public libraries when we come out the other side, but they will be better and more innovative.” I sincerely hope that she is right, but I question whether the closure of so many public libraries could be characterised as a positive development.

Of course, not all libraries have “closed”. In addition to the 343 libraries no longer in existence since 2010, the BBC also reported that 232 libraries have been “transferred”, 174 of which have moved from council control to management by community groups (whether or not these should also be counted as “closures” remains a point for ongoing debate).

For Ian Stephens, chair of the Local Government Association’s culture, tourism and sport board, it is testament “to how much people value their libraries that so many have volunteered to help keep them open.” This might well be true but it provides little comfort to those volunteers who would have preferred the library service to remain council run rather than being forced to fend for themselves without professional training or long-term council support.

Community run

Community-run libraries are also under no obligation to conform to council standards and, as I keep being told by people working in community-run libraries, they feel that they are in competition with other libraries in the city or county, and are certainly not connected to them as they originally thought they would be.

More colour in the community.
Libraries Taskforce, CC BY

This would appear incongruous with the public library service so familiar to many of us, with one large central library providing the greatest range of resources, and a number of smaller branch libraries serving the different parts of the community. The community-run service, at least in its current form, does not appear to replicate this service, and, as the statistics show, we now have an utter lack of consistency of provision across towns and cities.

Supportive role

Volunteers have long supported library services by supplementing existing work – shelving, routine enquiry work, storytelling sessions, and so on – or by adding value to a service with more specialised skills, such as cultural awareness sessions from members of local minority ethnic communities. This is extremely valuable work, and in no sense devalues the existing service. Many of our students will work as volunteers in library services before coming on the masters programme, and it serves as excellent preparation for an information career.

However, some politicians and other commentators seem to forget that there is an important distinction between volunteers used to supplement an existing service, and volunteers either replacing the specialised roles of paid library staff, or working in “community-run” libraries. The second of these seemed at the time to relate very closely to the coalition government’s Big Society ideology, the impact of which is still being felt, particularly in terms of the ongoing drive for local authorities to make the most of ever-decreasing budgets. Certainly before 2010 the community-run library was a very rare phenomenon.

Last year I was told that public libraries – and, by association, any research into them – were “dead in the water”. No such demise has occurred, as I wrote in a blog last year. Nevertheless, the recent media coverage is a clear reminder that we cannot be complacent about the future of public libraries. These are very difficult times for these organisations and those who work in them, and it would be naive to pretend otherwise.

People who have devoted their lives to supporting public libraries are now suggesting that we have gone past the point of no return. Yet there are still a huge number of individuals and organisations who still firmly believe in the role of the statutory public library service in a democratic society, and are working tirelessly to ensure that it remains.

To those fortunate individuals who appear not to have seen the extent of the contribution a public library makes to its community, I repeat a point made by David McMenemy, in his book The Public Library: “In all of the discourse around the diminishing use of public library services it is crucial not to lose sight of the fact that many people within our communities continue to need the services they offer.”

Public library services remain one of the most significant and democratising assets within our communities and should not be sacrificed for economic or political expediency.

The Conversation

Briony Birdi, Lecturer in Librarianship, University of Sheffield

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Whether stored electronically or written on calf skin, knowledge has never been more threatened

<Richard Ovenden, University of Oxford

Information is constantly under attack. The current debate around the longstanding use of vellum (a parchment made using calf skin) for printing key legislative documents highlights the continued concern over this. Some are advocating a switch from vellum to archive paper, which costs much less and can last up to 500 years.

Recorded information is certainly vulnerable: paper and parchment, and the inks and pigments that are written, drawn or painted on their surfaces, can decay and disappear if not stored in controlled environmental conditions.

And digital information is even more susceptible to degradation than that recorded on vellum. Operating systems and information environments change and develop rapidly, and as a result information created and stored on older systems easily can become unusable. It’s by no means certain that the digital information created by our parliament today will still be secure and reliably accessible in 200 years.

Books and manuscripts have been the targets of thieves for millennia. Whole libraries have been destroyed by invading armies and fanatical idealists. Even nature occasionally has played its part – the eruption of Vesuvius in 79AD caused the contents of the Roman library at Herculaneum to become illegible. Libraries and archives have been dealing with these threats for centuries.

But the growth of digital networks as a means of storing and sharing information has created new hazards. Cybersecurity is increasingly a critical concern for modern organisations. All face the potential of hostile attacks on their digital information from cyber-criminals. And as age-old protectors of information, it’s up to libraries and archives to safeguard this knowledge from such assaults.

The Bodleian Library.
Paul Cowan/

Guarding knowledge

Libraries and archives have tackled the threats to knowledge with great ingenuity for thousands of years. The archives of Merton College, Oxford, for example, were stored from the 14th century in a building purposefully made of stone, with flooring made from tiles rather than wood to eliminate the threat of fire. And the founders of Oxford’s Bodleian Library in 1602 required all readers to swear an oath that they would not bring the library into harm, for example by pledging not to “kindle therein any fire nor flame”.

Libraries and archives have also been at the forefront of preserving digital information. Groups such as the Digital Preservation Coalition work together to develop the skills and techniques we need as a society to help manage and preserve the vast amounts of information created in digital formats. They have developed disaster recovery routines, back-up strategies, policies and a host of other collaborative arrangements.

Scholarly information is being protected through physical networks of connected computers, such as LOCKSS – an agency built on the proposition that “lots of copies keeps stuff safe”. And non-profit organisations funded by the library and archive communities, such as Portico, have developed large-scale capabilities for preserving books and journals in digital form, with backups in multiple locations.

Texts are harder to archive than letters.

Personal information is also of great importance to society. Drafts of poems and novels, and the correspondence of politicians and scientists can help shine light on critical areas of history and science. Libraries and archives have always kept files of the letters of philosophers, such as Isaiah Berlin, or the drafts of speeches of Winston Churchill. But the intellectuals and political big-hitters of today are working in digital form, drafting their speeches using word-processing software, and exchanging emails and text messages with each other.

The preservation of this kind of information is much harder than the analogue equivalents. Librarians and archivists have therefore deployed techniques borrowed from fields such as digital forensics to ensure that these records are safeguarded for future generations to learn from.

Crucial role

But in the challenging fiscal environments of the early 21st century – a period hailed by many as the era of information – society runs the risk of endangering its future by neglecting the role of libraries, archives and museums). The global network of libraries and archives has been, and will remain, fundamental to the preservation and propagation of knowledge.

Society ignores the role of libraries and archives at its peril. Last year saw the 800th anniversary of that “great charter of liberties”, Magna Carta. It survives not in one copy but in multiple originals, distributed around the kingdom, as well as numerous later affirmations. Its survival as a potent set of legal and political concepts was in no small measure thanks to the role of libraries and archives in preserving the original documents.

William Blackstone, one of the most important legal theorists ever, was able to look at original engrossments of Magna Carta while writing his influential legal treatises, for example. His books went on to be read by Thomas Jefferson and the other founders of the American constitution.

A cello player in Sarajevo’s destroyed National Library, 1992.
Mikhail Evstafiev, CC BY-SA

In more recent times, we need only look at the actions of the army of Republika Srpska in Bosnia-Herzegovina. They deliberately destroyed the national library in Sarajevo as a means of erasing the uncomfortable truths of history – a perverse validation of the democratic significance of libraries.

The costs of maintaining such a system of libraries and archives are trivial compared to the costs of other state initiatives or the revenues of the giant tech companies. But across the globe, the funding of many of these institutions is under severe pressure. In an age of “information overload”, we are in real danger of failing to ensure that succeeding societies have access to the wisdom, and error, of their predecessors.

The Conversation

Richard Ovenden, Director of the Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

National Library of Australia – Trove

The link below is to an article reporting on the threat to Trove, the national archive at The National Library of Australia.

For more visit: