a modern, functional OPAC

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.]

10 thoughts on “a modern, functional OPAC”

  1. One thing thing we wish we could change is that when people leave our website to go into the consortium catalog, they have no way back to the website. Somehow staying in the website sounds good to us. Our users wouldn’t get so lost.

  2. I like it. I’m not sure I agree with you on the drag and drop concept; I like the features you want to deliver, but I wonder if that’s how people will think to access them.

    But, mostly I just want to add to your list:
    Selectable preferences for alerts from the library available hold items, items coming due and c. I might want SMS on those, you might want a Twitter DM, and Jenny might want an RSS feed.
    (Not so much an addition as simplification) You should be able to get an RSS feed based on any search/sort criteria; if you can display it on a web page, you should be able to get it via RSS.

    We still need to do more thinking like this about the services and interactions we want in our websites, instead of just offering an inventory of books.

  3. Sounds good. I like the display part. Very Web 2.0ish. Opac should start moving towards this direction. Its the only way you can transform the Opac from its current boring and stale existence to a more interactive, “user-friendly”, social OPAC.

  4. Wonderful…I wish we could do this. One thing…I think where you say “reserve” you mean “hold.” In every library I’ve been affiliated with, a reserve is an item that we keep behind the desk for limited checkout. A hold is when a patron asks for an item that is currently unavailable.

  5. Sorry, I just approved your comment. I didn’t know it got caught in my spam trap.

    You’re right to point out the language issues in our OPACs. I’m guessing your academic library background has you confused by my usage of the word “reserves” but some public libraries use the word to avoid the negative connotations of the word “hold.”

    All language needs a complete reworking, starting from square one. Some things might remain the same, but should only be in place if there’s justification.

  6. Hi Aaron,

    I’ve been following some of the things you have been talking about here for a little while. Great blog.

    I have a couple of comments on this post. First, wouldn’t it be confusing to have both “favorites” and “bookshelf”? Do you see a major difference in these metaphors?

    When we were working on the early stages of VuFind, we had two competing tools like this, one which was a kind of temporary basket for printing out a list that expired after your session. My fear was that users would throw things in there and be confused when it was gone when they came back… so we axed it. And really, it is dangerous to have functions that are too similar, it seems like when they are that similar, they should just be rolled into one.

    I looked at a few different ways to implement “favorites” and personally liked the lists feature within WorldCat, but ultimately decided that it made sense to do a del.icio.us-style favorites as a way to get tags on the records. This way when someone tags something in their own favorites, the tag gets attached to the global record. Otherwise I think the tag feature would go unused, without a real benefit for users to add a tag.

    I would also say that you are perfectly right that it is time for the catalog to be part of the library site, not floating off in its own world. That is something I really hope people will be doing with the new OPACs coming out.

    And as far as terms which users understand, that is a constant battle, but John Kupersmith has some great research on his page “Library Terms that Users Understand”. (http://www.jkup.net/terms.html)

    …woah, sorry for the longwinded comment…

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