Hacking Your Library’s Catalog: SMS and RSS

card catalogIt’s probably been a long time since any of us have used an actual library card catalog, standing in front of the long wooden drawer, searching for a book by author, title, or subject heading. You don’t need to hear it from me that there’s been a revolution in the way we search our libraries for material.

I’m not so convinced, however, that what we do after we find our results has changed much. Do you still jot down call numbers on sticky notes before heading over to your institution’s library? Do you still rely on library slips to keep track of due dates? Do you still print a hardcopy list of your dozens and dozens of check-outs?

Many ProfHacker readers already know that Zotero can capture citations directly from an online catalog’s search results. But you don’t need a laptop and a browser to make the most of your library catalog. I want to highlight several lightweight tools that can complement Zotero, giving you new ways to keep manage your library life.


I’ll begin with a straightforward tool that more and more libraries are offering: the ability to send call numbers in a text message. Most libraries let you email yourself a citation, but again, that doesn’t do you much good unless you’re also carrying your open laptop all over the library. You could print the call number too, but why waste the paper? Instead, look for a phone icon similar to this:

text options

Type in your cell number and your carrier, and you’ll get something like this sent as a text message to your phone:

sms received

This is just like receiving a text message from your Aunt Mathilda, so note that standard messaging rates apply. But if you have SMS bundled with your mobile service, this can be a quick and easy way to keep your library wishlist with you at all times. And best of all, since text messaging works with even the most modest cell phone, you don’t need a fancy smart phone with a $30/month data plan. Just one more reason to hold on to that Motorola V60 from 2001.

If you explore your library’s site, you might discover there’s even more you can do with SMS. I am fortunate that my institution belongs to the Washington Research Library Consortium (WRLC), which offers a fantastic collective online catalog, allowing me to search (and request books from) nine research libraries in the greater D.C. area. The WRLC has been quite forward-thinking with its mobile services. For example, I can also sign up to receive text alerts about upcoming due dates and recalled books: text alerts


In addition to SMS, many libraries offer RSS (Real Simple Syndication) tools. RSS is the draft horse of social media. It’s now longer a sexy new technology, but it is nonetheless a powerful mechanism for receiving pushed content. In this case, check out whether your library offers an RSS feed of your library items. The Washington Research Library Consortium, for example, provides several feeds:

rss options

I subscribe to “All Checked out Items” in Google Reader, which means I always have a record of what I have checked out, even long after I have returned the books. This comes in quite handy when you’re trying to remember that book you checked out three years ago but which somebody recalled before you ever had a chance to look at it.

Notice that the WRLC also offers an iCal feed of your due dates. You can subscribe to an iCal calendar in a number of ways. In my case, I use Google Calendar. This means that as September 30, 2010 looms ahead, I can see everything due that day. Each book has its own icon, and you can display more information about a book by hovering over its icon.

calendar feed

Unlike SMS tools, the RSS feeds aren’t something I use every day. Rather, I see them as archival tools that let me look back in time and see what books I had checked out when.

How about you?

We realize that not every student, staff, or faculty member will have access to these kinds of tools. If not, have you hacked your library’s card catalog in other ways? If you do have access to SMS or RSS through your library, have you found other creative uses for them? Are we missing something? Let us know!

And keep your eye open for part 2 of “Hacking Your Library’s Catalog,” in which we’ll look at some helpful mobile apps that you might not know about.

[Image Credits: Catalog Card made by Mark Sample using John Blyberg's Catalog Card Generator; Other screen shots by Mark Sample]

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