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Geographical searching in library catalogs October 17, 2006

Posted by McStorian in ClioWired.
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It took me a while to think of something to write about this weeks’ readings.  That usually means that it was too technical for me to figure out or that it made so much sense as to be pretty obvious.  But I have been thinking about geographical library searches.  I know we’ve all gotten used to searching catalogs based on LOC subject headings – and to me they generally make sense.  But I thought that the idea was “kinda cool,” especially since, as the article states, political boundaries change.  I could see how that would be pretty useful if you were only interested in issues that took place in a certain area.  But then I thought about Colonial Virginia.  When  I was working on my undergraduate and graduate “theses,” which we both based on roughly the same geographic area, I had to learn the political boundaries of the early 18th century.  County names were different, their land masses were bigger or smaller than today, and town and road names varied.  So, theoretically, a geographic search on Germanna, Virginia would be great since a. there’s no town by that name anymore, b. it’s now the name of a community college, which scews searches, c. the same name exists in other states, d. the location of the Germanna colony has been a part of 4 or 5 different counties since it was first established.  Information about it is therefore scattered amongst Virginia courthouses – whichever one had jurisdiction at certain times.  The problem is that the person creating the geospatial catalog is going to have to know that and it’s going to take someone a lot of time to gather that information.  So, if one were do to a search on that part of Virginia, all the information about it from a courthouse 100 miles away might not be included because how is the designer supposed to know that the information is there?  Maybe that’s a moot point, but much of American history is the story of westward expansion and I don’t see the need to waste so much time and effort to get everything packed into a geographic search engine when its certainly bound to miss something.  A researcher can do a search, but it seems so impractical.  Obviously, doing a search on the current system is the same way, but at least you’re not under the impression that you’re getting absolutely everything under the sun about that location.  Maybe I’m missing something, but it seems that both systems are lacking and that one is really no better than the other – either way, the library catalog search shouldn’t be the end-all, be-all of your research, but the starting point.

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