Food for thought: The role of the library catalog in an Open Access world

The common way readers use library catalogs is to find out whether they have access to a particular resource through the library they are using. Catalogs of academic libraries thus provide information about what publications a student or staff member of a particular university has access to, and how they can access it – either by providing details about the location of a physical copy or by providing a link to the electronic version.

But what is the role of the catalog of academic libraries in an Open Access world, especially now that more than half of new journal articles appear in Open Access and more and more scholalry monographs are published openly as well? If the catalog only lists what the library is paying for, then it is no longer doing its job since students and staff members actually have access to a whole lot more than what is in the catalog (namely all Open Access publications as well). If, on the other hand, the catalog lists everything that students and staff members have access too, then it becomes massive, because it should incorporate all Open Access materials as well. It also becomes rather useless since the catalog of let’s say Leuven would not be that different from the catalog of let’s say Leiden – so why would we spend any time and energy keeping separate catalogs?

Of course, if you rethink the catalog of an academic library as a curatorial instrument listing publications which subject specialists have selected as particularly relevant for a specific research community – regardless whether these are publications behind a paywall or not – then they still might make sense. Or maybe we need to think further and conclude that managing a catalog is no longer the way to fulfil the traditional, curatorial role of the library, thus acknowledging that academic libraries’ role in both discovery and fulfillment have diminished and it is high time to focus on other tasks?

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