I’ve used quite a few library OPACs. I’ve also used and sought out the best of the open web. You’ve probably done the same and like me, you’ve probably been dismayed at the disparity between the two worlds. The open web can be fun and inspiring. Would you say the same of our OPACs? I’ve thought about what OPACs should be like in bits and pieces and decided to assemble them here.

A Problem
Besides all of the small, simple usability enhancements OPACs need (listed way below) a big concern about library websites and OPACs is the distracting transition between the two. You know the routine. Ubiquitous “Click here to search the catalog” links take users from one place to another and create a disjointed experience.

A Solution
One way to provide a seamless experience is to put some OPAC functions into the website, letting people accomplish OPAC tasks without having to leave the library website. In my dream OPAC this go-between is essentially an ecommerce shopping basket but called a backpack or bookshelf in this instance. Just like on amazon.com, when logged in, a patron’s library backpack appears on every library webpage, whether it be the homepage, a book list, or the results list of a search. Any item cover on the website can be dragged and dropped into users’ backpack/bookshelf.

[drag and dropping a book cover – click for big on flickr]

Dragging and dropping triggers a dialog that allows people to get more information, find where an item is located or place a reserve. Here’s a concept of the resulting dialog from dragging an item to a backpack.

[resulting dialog, rest of screen greyed out – – click for big on flickr]

Patrons could be given the chance to customize what happens when they drag an item to their shelf. For instance, the backpack could be set to place reserves automatically. Speaking of customization, patrons should be allowed to choose which metaphor they want to use, a backpack or a bookshelf. The default should be associated with the patron’s age, giving young people backpacks and older people bookshelves.

The library backpack also serves as the basis for user profiles in the OPAC since patrons can choose to share their bookshelves with others. People reading the same book are given access to a dedicated book discussion room that has great content seeded by librarians. (This type of automatic affinity group creation is what happens on 43 Things.) When browsing people’s shared backpacks/shelves (naturally a nice graphical representation with item covers) patrons can drag items into their backpacks to initiate the dialog. User profiles are important because they’re the basis for interactivity. There can be no community without individuals.

Here are some other features that should be part of the interface between our content and our people:

→ A relevant, modern (not looking like a geocities site from 1996) design built using CSS so that users can select from a few themes when logged in.

→ Options for browsing such as:

  • Text lists
  • Tag clouds
  • Item covers

→ Persistent URLs for bibliographic/item records

→ New title lists by title, book covers, genre

→ Display most popular items, highest rated items

→ Bib/Item Record Options

  • Favorite it
  • Get citation
  • Share/email
  • Add to book list

User generated content
→ User profiles. This allows people the ability to:

  • make comments/reviews
  • rate items
  • make, display and share book lists
  • mark items as favorite, review and display favorites, and see who else has favorite items
  • recommend items to others
  • record personal checkout history and display it

Finding options
→ single search box, with the option for “advanced” search

→ Ability to search

  • just the catalog
  • catalog and web
  • catalog, web and databases
  • web and databases

→ Sort results by relevance, date published, title, author, number of circulations

→ Filtering search options by material type, author, subject, location

→ Summary of book upon mouseover (with the option to turn off) [idea credit: Jenny Levine]

→ Where is this item located? (Display on a map all branches where the book is located, clicking on a branch loads a map of the library)

→ Links to related websites and databases on appropriate bibliographic/item records

→ Movies have a link to imdb.com entry, CDs have a link to allmusic.com entry, books lead to some relevant site or database. Novelist, perhaps?

→ New item RSS feeds galore:

  • entire collection
  • genre
  • material type
  • author
  • OPAC searches

The feeds should be modular in that the limiting factors should be combinable giving the ability to produce a feed for, say, new audiobooks from author John Steinbeck.

From Theory to Practice
All of this stuff could come together to make a modern, functional OPAC. Some would be easy to do (and in fact has been done) and some slightly more difficult. None of it comes even close to being impossible or too much to accomplish. What’s stopping us?

There is a good chance that an interface approaching this is going to exist within the next 6-12 months, one way or an other. That’s all I can really say except for that I’m pretty thrilled about it.

Please leave further suggestions in a comment. How would you like your OPAC to behave?

[In this post I used images from vufind, brooklyn public library, DC public library, and crumpler bags. I made up that totally lame logo all by myself.]