Library nerd that I am, I ask a lot of people about how they use libraries. When I come across a library enthusiast—basically, someone who doesn’t ask, “Do they still use the Dewey Decimal System?”—I follow up with questions about how that person uses library websites. Almost without fail, people say they use our sites to put books on hold. Try it yourself, and see what happens.
The first time I heard this, I said, “No, I’m not wondering what you do with the online catalog but what you do with the library website.” When the person looked confused at the distinction, a lightbulb lit up above my head. I realized that I was the one with a distorted worldview.
Nonlibrarians (or “normal people,” as I affectionately refer to them) perceive our websites and our online catalogs as one ball of wax. Since they’re designed and paid for separately, we tend to see them as two separate entities. (Library organizational structures reflect this, too: not only are systems and the web departments often not integrated, sometimes they barely work together.) This disparity is a problem because, as usual, not thinking like our users prevents us from providing excellent interaction design. When patrons’ interaction is painful, that colors their overall library experience.
It is telling that patrons don’t draw a distinction between our sites and our catalogs, given that they’re completely different animals. My take: this is a reflection of people spending far more time using our catalogs.
Whatever the reason, this fragmentation is a problem. We’re expecting people to learn two interfaces — and often two suboptimal interfaces — when we should be providing a single great one. Throw all of our database interfaces into the mix, and there’s even more of a burden.
Rethinking library websites
Ideally, there would be no visual distinction between your library website and catalog (and, no, “branding” an OPAC with a library logo doesn’t cut it). Navigation should be consistent, and people shouldn’t be forced to click through to the catalog to reserve an item found on a booklist. But, since this would require changes to the integrated library system (ILS) or a new discovery layer, many libraries won’t pursue this goal.
Libraries can’t easily change their catalogs, but they usually have control of their websites. Previously I’ve suggested that you make your library website more manageable and less sprawling (see “Library Websites Should be Smaller“). This strategy can help solve our multiple interface problem as well.
[hang2column]This makes unusable OPACs yesterday’s problem. Looking forward, perhaps it’s time we let the current OPAC fade away and create usable collections of content from the communities we serve.[/hang2column]
If we accept that people come to our sites predominantly to use the online catalog, we should also accept that the tool used to connect people and library items should be displayed prominently on our websites. To their credit, many libraries wisely have a search box placed front and center on their homepage. Providing this shortcut to the catalog says, “You don’t have to wade through a bunch of content to find a search box. We know you’re here to place reserves.”
Of course, whisking people away from website content isn’t ideal, either. There’s content that we want patrons to see, and, occasionally, there’s information they might benefit from seeing. But providing the option to search and ignore everything else might be the most user-friendly thing we can do in a scenario of fragmentation. If people are ignoring most library website content anyway, it makes sense to have smaller sites with excellent, useful content.
I won’t spend any time decrying the state of the OPAC given the increased awareness of this issue in the past few years. However, how we got here is worth considering. Years ago, we were happy just to have electronic catalogs—and then have them online. Seduced by the siren song of new technology, we established dysfunctional relationships with ILS vendors that gave us very little leverage and almost no recourse to demand better visual and interaction design. These decisions have had a lasting negative impact on our ability to serve patrons.
Is there a way out? I wish I was hopeful enough to encourage libraries to collectivize and demand better interfaces and flexible ILSs. Sadly, that seems unrealistic. Libraries that recognize the importance of interfaces and have the technical expertise will employ catalog overlays such as SOPAC 2.0 and Vufind.
In the end, we might have to discover a solution whether we like it or not. All of this eBook handwringing reminds us that we can’t collect digital content in the same way we collect print content. This makes unusable OPACs yesterday’s problem. Looking forward, perhaps it’s time we let the current OPAC fade away and create usable collections of content from the communities we serve.
This first appeared “The User Experience,” a column I write for LJ.