From whence Gulliver?
March 24, 2008 9:08 PM   Subscribe

Why are library search engines always given first names?

NYU's library search engine is named Albert. Georgetown Law's is named Gulliver. The Library of Congress uses Thomas. Where does this tradition come from. Just a little itching curiosity in my brain.
posted by My Bloody Pony to Computers & Internet (26 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
I've kinda noticed this too. My university's library search engine was called Merlin. The tradition might have been started by the Archie search engine.
posted by zsazsa at 9:22 PM on March 24, 2008

NYU's library search is named Bobcat. Albert is the name of NYU's student information system.
posted by sdsparks at 9:39 PM on March 24, 2008

At Stony Brook University the library search engine is called STARS, and my local library search engine is called WebPAC.
posted by kosmonaut at 9:41 PM on March 24, 2008

Yeah, I dont think your premise is airtight here.

Harvard's is called HOLLIS which is a last name (there's a Hollis Hall used as a dorm) and is an acronym for Harvard On-Line Library Information System.
posted by vacapinta at 9:44 PM on March 24, 2008

People have been naming guns, rockets, vehicles/crafts, machines and computers for ages.

Computers on a network must have unique names to identify them. Smaller organizations often follow conventions based on themes, such as famous people, places, mountains, etc. I'm not a computer expert, but I think that protocols or something usually prefer that the first character in a computer title is a letter and that numbers not be used. People probably also personified their computers...a nickname is an easy way to identify a computer or search engine or whatever.

The library trend was likely started by ARCHIE, a play on archive. It was followed by VERONICA and JUGHEAD, which were plays on Archie comics. The Gopher protocol led to those coming about, but it was based more on "Go fer", even though Gopher is a (nickname) first name too. I think Jughead was a summary of the titles in the Gopher menu.

I don't think all libraries use first names as a convention. But early naming conventions may have paved the way for the first names you are seeing.
posted by acoutu at 10:21 PM on March 24, 2008

I think ARCHIE's relevance is pure speculation here and might be putting the cart before the horse.

Electronic library catalogs went online long before there was an Internet to connect them. In the case of HOLLIS, I mentioned above, it went live in 1985:

On the network front," Robinson continued, "back in 1985, there wasn't one. By July of 1985 we had installed 130 terminals. They were used for HOLLIS only and they were connected to the computing center at 1730 Cambridge Street over 30 dedicated telephone circuits.

posted by vacapinta at 10:30 PM on March 24, 2008

Also Gulliver isn't really a first name. Or at least it's much, much more common as a surname (e.g. Lemuel Gulliver) than it is as a first name.

And as long as I'm posting...I looked up a variety of schools' systems from the top of my head and only three were first names (Stanford University's Socrates, USC's Homer, UC's Melvyl). Yale's is Orbis, Swarthmore/Bryn Mawr/Haverford's Tripod, BC's Quest, Northwestern's NUcat, MIT's is Barton (primarily a surname, Coen Bros. notwithstanding) and many systems don't appear to give their online catalogs cute names at all.

So the real question is clearly, why are library search engines in California always given first names?
posted by phoenixy at 10:37 PM on March 24, 2008

Electronic library catalogs went online long before there was an Internet to connect them. In the case of HOLLIS, I mentioned above, it went live in 1985

Which predates the web (early 90s), but not the internet (early 80s transition from decade old ARPANET).
posted by nakedcodemonkey at 10:45 PM on March 24, 2008

Here in Sweden my university has namned the public search cataloge JULIA and the backoffice-system ROMEO.
posted by Rabarberofficer at 10:57 PM on March 24, 2008

Which predates the web (early 90s), but not the internet (early 80s transition from decade old ARPANET).

I was merely pointing out that these systems became electronic and that should not be confused with what we know as the Internet. Archie was from 1990, of course.
posted by vacapinta at 11:01 PM on March 24, 2008

And, ehum, I don't know about the rationale behind the namings. I do recall the library to have some kind of open suggestion-box.

(I do need to learn to read the whole question, the question and nothing but the question before I try to put my .2 in.)
posted by Rabarberofficer at 11:08 PM on March 24, 2008

The system has to be called something, and different naming conventions apply to the names mentioned so far. Often the name arises from an acronym, as in the case of HOLLIS. Some of the names mentioned above (Horizon, AquaBrowser) are merely the names of the software the library uses for its catalog - like calling a spreadsheet "Excel". "Thomas" is for Thomas Jefferson, founder of the Library of Congress.

More to the point of your question, though, if the catalog system gets a name like a person, or a name that utilizes the word "cat" (Bobcat is NYU's mascot, but "cat" is short for catalog...get it?) it's probably a combination of librarians' innate desire to make a complex system seem friendly and manageable, and their horrible, awful, often pun-centric sense of humor. I can say these things, I'm a librarian. My school's logo is the powercat, and I give thanks every day that our system is no longer called the PowerCATalog.
posted by donnagirl at 11:13 PM on March 24, 2008

I sat in on a meeting where a research organization was trying to come up with a name for their search catalogue - I think just so they'd have something to call it, rather than having to put plain ol' "Search catalogue" on their website. No deeper reason that I can remember.

We were encouraged to pick a name that had some relevant meaning, like naming it after a local figure or having it be an interesting acronym.
posted by meadowlands at 11:38 PM on March 24, 2008

Harvard's is called HOLLIS which is a last name (there's a Hollis Hall used as a dorm)

More to the point, Thomas Hollis (1720-1774) was one of the major early donors to Harvard College Library.

The main Yale catalogue is called ORBIS, and the Yale Law Library catalogue is called MORRIS, which probably stands for something something Information System but is also (I assume) named after the former librarian, Morris Cohen. The New York Public Library catalogue is called CATNYP. The Morgan Library catalogue is called CORSAIR, after J.P. Morgan's yacht. No doubt the catalogue of the Charles F. Kane Memorial Library, if it existed, would be called ROSEBUD.

This seems to be just an American thing. In most British libraries, enquiries about the name of the catalogue will be met with a puzzled frown and 'I don't know, I think we just call it the catalogue'. The catalogue of the National Archives (formerly the Public Record Office) is called PROCAT. The catalogue of the manuscripts in the British Library is called MOLCAT (short for 'manuscripts online catalogue'). British librarians have no imagination.
posted by verstegan at 12:27 AM on March 25, 2008

The UC system's electronic library catalog MELVYL is named after Dewey Decimal System-creator Melvil Dewey.
posted by junesix at 12:58 AM on March 25, 2008

Some of the names mentioned, like Aqua Browser and WebPAC, are product names, as opposed to unique identities given to the system by the institution. Tripod, at Bryn Mawr / Haverford / Swarthmore is so-named for its serving the three colleges, and I know that its identity predates those campuses being connected to the Internet (well, maybe not Swat). I very much doubt that it's the same programmatic system it was back then, but the name remains.

Remember, these systems were the first experience some people had with computing, up-close and personal, so the less intimidating they sounded, the better. Choosing a locally-significant person's name was an attempt at user-friendliness, hokey though it may be.
posted by mumkin at 1:15 AM on March 25, 2008

Mumkin makes a good point at user-friendliness. I had never thought of that, but it sounds very plausible. My alma mater's OPAC is named Euclid*, which I always thought was supposed to sound smart.

* Emory University... Library...Database...argh, now I have to go look it up
posted by pointystick at 6:37 AM on March 25, 2008

Best answer: I grew up in Internet terms at the University of Washington which had a series of [in some cases] complicated acronyms for things so that they would spell names of trees. Pine, Willow and that's when I started using elm, though it's not from there. From my experience, everyone's "well you have to call it something" is really the best answer because if you don't give your online catalog a cute memorable name of some sort, you're going to wind up calling it the "SirsiDynix ibistro powerd by WebCat" which is what lot of public libraries in the US without custom catalog installs call their online catalogs.

Here are some librarians talking about this on a mailing list from 1991. My favorite is the librarian who insists on calling it "the catalog" which, if we were smart, is what we would have done all along. This email implies that at least early on they had names because the alternative at the time pre-raphical-web was to remember them by their URLs or IP addresses. Here's a list of all the library catalogs that were online in 1992 (here's another with connection/telnet details) and you can see there aren't a lot of first-name names at that point.
posted by jessamyn at 7:34 AM on March 25, 2008 [2 favorites]

The Library of Congress uses Thomas.

The LC's catalog doesn't have a cute name. Thomas is for legislative information.
posted by Horace Rumpole at 11:24 AM on March 25, 2008

From Jessamyns link:
A list of NOTIS catalog names is published on occasion in NOTIS in-houes publichaction, _NOTISes_. It is about forty line long, and I'm not willing to type it in.

I think there's your answer. People want short names. Hence the acronymns, and people-names, so they're easy to remember and type.
posted by blue_beetle at 12:12 PM on March 25, 2008

My current library has two catalogs, sort of. Maybe three, depending on how you're counting. The older one does have a name as a first name, but the other two do not. We usually refer to them as "the catalog" now.

The prevailing theory in library circles, at least as I see it, is to not single out the catalog for any special mention, as it's supposed to be part of your general web presence and not some monolith that sits apart. Back in the bad old days, an online catalog was a Very Big Deal, so it apparently needed special mention and nomenclature. Every library I've worked at has had a named catalog that eventually became an unnamed catalog.
posted by the dief at 12:28 PM on March 25, 2008

I have heard at least one of my colleagues in the library where I now work say that college and university libraries tend to give library catalogs names because they don't want them confused with the online course catalog.

Where I work now, the catalog is "Tiger," for the school mascot. Where I used to work, the catalog was "Roger" for Roger Revelle, founding father of the University of California, San Diego. Using his name was just another small way to commemorate Revelle, I believe. Neither of those names, thankfully, are atrocious backronyms.
posted by bevedog at 2:45 PM on March 25, 2008

It's worth noting that if you've had to work on the presentation layer of some of the electronic catalog systems in use these days, you probably came up with a few of your own creative names for the !@#$%@$ things. (I'm looking at you, CarlWeb)
posted by mumkin at 4:01 PM on March 25, 2008

I would guess that library catalogs were often given personal names for the same reason that the first wave of ATMs were: to make a new piece of technology seem a bit friendlier. I remember lots of ATM systems in the early 1980s that have female names, an effort to mirror the mostly female workforce at the teller windows inside the banks.
posted by stephenfrancoeur at 5:47 PM on March 26, 2008

If I remember correctly, Ohio University's was named ALICE 1992-1996 when I was there... I think it was an acronym for Athens Library & Information Catalog something something something I forget! :)
posted by at 7:54 PM on April 8, 2008

blue_beetle: People want short names. Hence the acronymns, and people-names, so they're easy to remember and type.

Michigan's godawful reach of an acronym is MIRLYN (MIchigan Research LibrarY Network), which has been transferred across successor systems for at least 15 years, which I think shows the lengths people will go to to find something to call a system that is also pronounceable.
posted by FlyingMonkey at 2:30 PM on April 9, 2008

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