The OPAC: Yesterday’s Problem

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.

Doubly poor

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.

Relationship counseling

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.

8 thoughts on “The OPAC: Yesterday’s Problem”

  1. Coincidentally, this was one of my talking points in a presentation I gave at a job interview recently. The interview was at a public, academic university whose technical services department prided itself (on my phone interview) with making great advancements in their OPAC and website. I wanted to talk about that in my presentation because I see a lot of positive work being done in integrating library systems so that a patron will be less likely to get confused as to where to go to get what they need (just on example). The OPAC has stopped being “just an OPAC” and the website has stopped being “just a website” a long time ago and are increasingly less so with discovery tools being used. Every library has a website puzzle that they can manipulate in different ways, with differing amounts of pieces, but in the end, I am simply believer in simplicity and ease of use.

  2. You are soooo roght, once more. Thanks for this post. I’m currently involved in a website design+implementation project here in Turku, and i hope we can achieve some of this stuff, most importantly bringing te website and the database together. About some other stuff you said… well i have to say i disagree with our design goals. I wish i had more real power reg. this project.

  3. I haven’t got much time at the moment to comment in detail but there’s a lot of truth in your post. When we prepared the relaunch of our website in 2010 we asked our patrons what they were most interested in when visiting our site.
    The result was
    1. Our catalogue
    2. Our opening hours
    3. The renewal of borrowed items
    We decided to “really” integrate our catalogue into our website. Consequently a search can be started from each of our webpages.
    We’re currently preparing a redesign of our catalogue as well.

  4. Hmm, as an experiment i have been drafting and designing an alternative view of our library website, with one principle in mind: minimum amount of movement from landing on the page to satisfying most important user needs. These are exactly the three that Claudia Bodem lists. We have 44 brances, and opening hours for all of them, plus a list of items the user has checked out, plus a search field can all be fitted on the landing page, with no subpages and no scrolling. My drafts are really crude, but it’s possible. I would also like our website sessions to never expire, so once the user logs in once, the loans and reservations are always there on the front page.

    Too bad my organization doesn’t want this. Our frontpage is basically a huge navigation, which bombards the users with all sorts of stuff they didn’t come to the website for. Oh well…

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