Searching in the CUNY Catalog not working for you? You are not alone!


One thing all graduate students have in common across disciplines is the huge amount of time we spend trying to find articles and books for research. At CUNY, it is especially bad. We spend so much time searching for these items that we lose time to actually read them. While some of our searches are successful, some of them result in multiple unclear results or no results at all. This happens quite often as we look up a book, author, article or any item using the CUNY Catalog.

For a very specific example, let’s say we want to search for a specific book titled, Strategies for Selecting and Verifying Hearing Aid Fittings. What we expect to find is one result for one item. On the contrary, what we get is more than 10,000 results. Now, we are left with the job of sorting through the 10,000 results to find the one we need. This situation is just one of the many problems we encounter related to the CUNY Catalog.

An especially troubling problem with the CUNY Catalog is the fact that CUNY is invisible to, or lacks a thorough interface with, shared catalogs such as WorldCat, ILLiad, and IDSSearch. This leads to lower use of CUNY resources by our own students and more costly inter-library loan requests. This is an issue of accessibility and transparency. State and city funds, as well as student tuition, go in to purchasing library resources. The resources must then be made available.

Many of these problems are very technical and partly due to errors in what is called the 035 linking field. The 035 (OCLC #) in CUNY records are filled with “dirty data” making linking between catalogs such as WorldCat and CUNY+ impossible. Fixing this problem requires a lot of computational effort. A short term remedy has been for CUNY+ to use ISBN fields to link an item to other resources, but ISBN does not exist for items before 1970s. Also, ISBN is not authoritative and not unique. For example, Italian publishers sometimes reuse an ISBN record, which means multiple records use a single ISBN. Finally, many CUNY+ subject and name searches produce multiple matches because indexing clean-up is done infrequently.

CUNY+ contains one record for each title owned by each library. As a result, the database is huge and duplicative. An evolution of the catalog is essential. CUNY’s shift to a single-record model, with one unique item record associated with individual library holdings, is best conducted in a vendor-hosted environment. Many other Exlibris /Aleph based libraries use Exlibris cloud-based hosting services. Cloud-based hosting service would mean timely maintenance, timely updates, freedom for customization, freedom for indexing, and incredible computational power.

The CUNY Library Catalog issue is not a new one. Librarians realized this issue long ago, years before even some of us entered the Graduate Center. Resolutions (LACUNY 2009, CUNY Graduate Council 2011, Doctoral Students’ Council 2011, 2013, CCL Letter 2012) have been passed in the past and present to improve the Catalog.

This past week, Mr. Curtis L. Kendrick, the University Dean for Libraries and Information Resources, responded to the DSC resolution (passed on March 15, 2013) and has addressed the issue. “We are aware that users have experienced some dissatisfaction with the system, and continue to make changes to improve. Last year we upgraded to new hardware to improve system performance.  We are currently in the midst of a project to re-index the database this summer, and we have initiated planning to migrate to the current release of the software.  Funding has been approved to procure a library discovery system that will enable researchers to search across multiple databases and the catalog at one time rather than having to work sequentially, and we recently introduced a service that helps users to discover relevant literature based on usage patterns of researchers around the world.  In January 2013 we made a mobile catalog interface available to all users of CUNY libraries on the go.”

A state-of-art, accessible, and useful catalog is possible for CUNY, and can happen sooner with vendor hosting. The students on the Doctoral Students’ Council would support any catalog that works well (as stated in their resolution). For CUNY students, and our reputation within the consortia, we must demand and receive a better catalog than what is currently provided.

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