Catalog by Design

Aside from paying very little attention to visual design and not caring about the impact of horrible typography, the big problem with library catalogs is that they are not designed to help people accomplish library tasks. Instead, they’re designed to expose catalog records.

I’m not even talking about lofty library tasks like learning, creating, and connecting. I’m not referring to semi-interesting library tasks like discovering exciting content. I’m talking about very basic library tasks: finding items in a specific location, reserving items, and renewing items. Of course, people can do these tasks with our catalogs but only because the functionality has been clumsily bolted onto catalog ­records.

Correct me if I’m wrong, but this is totally backward—prioritizing the collection, not people, results in a user-hostile interaction design and a poor user experience. Imagine the reverse: a tool that prioritizes helping people accomplish their tasks, whereby bibliographic data exists quietly in the background and is exposed only when useful.

Starting from Design

I wondered what this would look like, so I sketched out some examples. I’m certainly not the first to complain about OPAC functionality, but taking this as an explicit design challenge rather than as a software architecture or cataloging challenge led me to emphasize readability and ease of use.

Beyond that, there isn’t too much to explain about these designs. Here’s a very plain bibliographic record and illustrates how simplifying them would make them easier to use.


The following hints at eliminating the need for a dedicated view of a single bibliographic record; in this mock-up, nearly everything a member needs to do with an item is available without it.


The ability to link directly to a single record is missing from this example, but that would be easy enough to sort out. This one is similar but uses a swipe-friendly layout that could be effective on mobile devices.


An effective catalog design would obviate the need for how-to screencasts and handouts. Designs like this would not only make our libraries easier to use, but, by freeing up the time we spend helping people with our catalogs, they would make librarians’ lives easier, too.

While these examples aren’t fully featured, they illustrate how focusing on people and tasks would change our catalog. When bibliographic data plays second fiddle, the page calms down and is easier to understand and use. What’s more, by employing some basic principles of graphic design, these creations instill more confidence in library services than our current ­catalogs.

Members in Mind

This is just one example of how focusing on our members’ motivations and goals can transform what we do. Members will be better served if all of our services are designed as responses to their motivations and goals. With regard to catalogs, this focal point leads to improvements in usability. For library services, this emphasis makes libraries more worthwhile.

The deeper libraries dive into the lives of their members and explore opportunities for improving their lives, the more impact we can make and the more valuable libraries will become. This sort of listening, not shouting, is the best form of library advocacy.

This first appeared in “The User Experience,” a column I write for LJ.

8 thoughts on “Catalog by Design”

  1. I like your idea and think that a lot of library patrons would really respond well to this design. I think the challenge would be in selecting items about a particular subject and exposing more in-depth information from the record in the same manner without having to go all the way to the original record.

  2. I posted this to a internal chat group at my library school. Something that came up, that I’d like for you to address, is whether what you are proposing is great when you are searching for a known item, but less so when you are searching a topic. For the former, the most important thing you want is how to get the item. For the latter, the most important thing off the bat is you want to know why this particular item was suggested, and once you know why it is actually what you want, then you want to know how to get it. Maybe you don’t need to link to a full catalog record to get that information, but you need a lot more than what you’re giving.

  3. Great post Aaron, I still haven’t seen a catalog that’s closer to a user centered focus than a collection centered one. It’s funny because your first sentence made me think of the horribleness that is airline boarding passes. Both as a librarian, and in my new(isn) role as a product manager for a cloud computing company it’s crystal clear that our careers exist because of our users.

  4. Great idea, and I think patrons would respond positively to it. However, I’d like to see an option that you can set right up front that would automatically display details for those seeking a particular edition of, say, a literary work. The librarian or patron would want to distinguish among different translations or editions of a work.

Leave a Reply