Friday, July 14, 2006

The Library Catalog

Many librarians, not to mention library users, have been unhappy with the online public access catalog, or OPAC, since the inception of such systems in the 1970's and 80's. Steve Bell, in a recent post on ACRLog, questions whether users are unhappy with OPAC, but I think he mistakes users' low expectations of OPAC functionality for satisfaction.

The explosion of web-based systems aimed at consumers (think Amazon.com, e-bay, or Google and their easy to use and powerful search interfaces) has led to a recent intensification of the debate, at least amongst librarians, about the future of the OPAC. Practical changes in system design and functionality arising from this debate will come from the commercial vendors of such systems and their competitors in the software industry. For a quick intro to this debate take a look at Roy Tennent's Digital Libraries column in the 6/15/06 issue of Library Journal (go here to access it via Rollins.) For a more in-depth, and controversial, treatment read the Calhoun Report.

These changes will be driven by the demands of large libraries. Frankly, college's like Rollins don't have the market power to make much impact at this level, but we do have a great opportunity to take advantages of the changes that do come along. Rollins' Olin Library catalog runs on a system supplied by the SirsiDynix corporation. As SirsiDynix responds to the demands of librarians, library users, and their competitors, we need to be ready to implement those enhancements that better meet the needs of our users (a recent report from the University of California system recommended things like "provide direct access to an item; provide recommender features; offer alternatives for failed searches, such as with spelling errors; and find new ways to navigate large sets of search results." (as reported in Library Journal 2/15/06 p16.)

As a smaller and more nimble institution we also need to be ready to consider radical changes that meet the needs of our users in very different ways. If we are to be ready we need to keep up with the debate concerning the the future of the OPAC, but more importantly, constantly listening to our users and this is where Steve Bell and I agree.

So tell me, what do you think of our Olin Library catalog?

1 comment:

stevenb said...

Jonathon - It could be that my interpretation of the OCLC Perceptions Report is misguided, but when only 2% complain about the opac you could interpret that to mean that user expectations are so low they just take whatever we give - or it could mean that the catalog just does what they want - help them find the book they need when they have an author or title. Things get stickier when they need to determine if the library has a specific journal issue in the bound volumes - that's harder to interpret - but most students figure it out. As you said, we agree that our perogative should be making libraries better for users - but with limited resources we need to figure out where to put our energies.