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.

Online Newsstand Project Shutdown by EBSCO

Remember that “really neat project that shouldn’t have to exist” I posted about the other day? Shut down.

EBSCO asked Steve to shut it down citing pressure from a publisher and a violation of contracts. I’m unsure if the contract in question is between the publisher and EBSCO or EBSCO and libraries.

Even though the articles are behind a login perhaps displaying the covers violates copyright? It’d sure be interesting to know what the problem is.

Library Terms That Users Understand Archived

John Kupersmith writes:

The “Library Terms That Users Understand” website, sometimes mentioned in these discussions, is now 10 years old. While it’s still relevant and useful, I believe it has pretty much made its point.

So, I’ve updated the resource list and condensed the site into a single page. It’s still available, but won’t be updated with new material.

I remember first seeing this site forever ago and getting really excited at the user-centered thinking. Definitely an inspiration!

I’ll disagree with John, though. I’m not quite sure that the site has made its point since there’s still a ton of confusing labels on library websites.

The Online Newsstand Project

This is a really neat project that shouldn’t have to exist.

The goal of the Online Newsstand Project is to increase usage of libraries’ electronic resources by library patrons, and to do so by making access to them easier and more enjoyable. The founder of the project is Steve Butzel, a website and database developer whose real job is serving as the assistant director at the Portsmouth Public Library in Portsmouth, NH.

Patrons don’t have to know what a database is or how to search one. They just get direct access to the articles they want to read. Simple!

I just learned about this via The Swiss Army Librarian where he writes:

So, instead of libraries paying to use the Online Newsstand, participating libraries “adopt” a magazine, and they are then responsible for adding the new article titles and links to the Newsstand whenever a new issue is published.

Doesn’t this make you feel happy?

For more information and to get involved check out The Online Newsstand Project.

Writing for the Web: Save the Time of the Reader

If your library has a website, you are in the publishing business. Taking your role as website publisher seriously means taking writing ­seriously.

Librarians are already experienced with many types of writing, having written reams of pages for school and thousands of emails on the job. But writing for the web is different and requires a special skill set that isn’t necessarily intuitive or offered as part of a librarian’s graduate studies. Luckily, these skills are easy to understand and can be developed with a bit of practice. Good thing, too—featuring appropriate writing on your website is a kindness to users, a time­saving mechanism that will let them find what they want with greater ease.

Below are seven tips for web writing, but you don’t have to wait for new content to get started. Rewriting content already on your site is an extremely effective way to make big improvements and a good way to take stock of what you’ve got online. Just as collection development librarians periodically take stock of the materials in a library’s collection, think of this exercise as the best way to keep relevant info for your users close at hand.

1. Use fewer words
People are impatient and dislike when they’re forced to comb through a mess of words to find what they want. Be economical. Don’t bother writing marketing fluff, and judiciously use modifiers. Instead of telling people, “We’re really committed to providing the most excellent service!,” just give them what you’re promising.
2. Write like a journalist
Very few people will voluntarily read an entire web page when they’re just looking for one piece of information (cf. “people are impatient”). Web writers can borrow from the journalism world and place the most important information at the top of the page where people are most likely to see it. This is known as the “inverted pyramid” and places supporting information next, followed by any background or historical data. People who are interested in this ancillary information will seek it out even when it’s neatly tucked out of the way.
3. Make pages easy to scan
Large blocks of text are impenetrable. Instead of writing essay-length instructions or descriptions of services, break things up into discrete chunks or steps. People then will be able to skip over the sections they don’t need.
4. Use headings
Be sure to label your easy-to-scan chunks of information with a heading. Headings should let the reader know what they’re about to read so they can determine if it is relevant to what they’re trying to accomplish. Don’t let headings and body text blend together. Set the headings apart with basic graphic design techniques like increasing their size or making them bold.
5. Employ lists
Since they are easy to scan, lists and tables are an effective way to present information. Any time you’re contending with a series in a sentence—just look for that serial comma—ask yourself if converting the sentence to a bulleted list makes sense. Your loan period and late fee specifics are obvious candidates for this treatment.
6. Use images judiciously
While images can add visual interest to a web page, they can also be distracting and add clutter. Use images when they’re relevant, authentic, and add value. Avoid clip art—full stop.
7. Be friendly
You don’t have to be bland or institutional when you’re writing for the web. Conveying friendliness and making people feel welcome is just as important on the web as it is in your physical library.

Where to Start

Spending one or two days rewriting your website’s most visited pages is a great way to tune up your site—no tech skills required. Take a look at your website analytics and choose which pages you want to edit in order of their importance.

A typical rewrite process can look like this:

Assess accuracy. Check in with the owner of the content to make sure all of the facts on the page are correct.
Remove words. It will be possible to simplify sentences while conveying the same ­information.
Remove information. Web pages don’t always need to be as explicit as possible. Consider further simplifying pages by removing extraneous information. If you have trouble assessing what information people need on a page, just ask them. Spend an afternoon talking with patrons about their top questions on a topic. It will be clear what you can remove to increase the visibility of important items.

A Step Beyond Publishing

Though we began with the notion of taking our duty as publishers seriously, there’s one important difference to our benefit: our content isn’t canonical once it is published online. Plan to review it constantly and, if possible, improve the most important materials on your site.

Consider your site as a point of dialog and interaction with your users. Like any good conversation, it will develop over time and take new shape as the context around it develops. Your users’ needs will undoubtedly evolve and with them so should the copy and materials available on your site. Where once patrons needed explicit driving and transit directions, now an embedded Google Map might replace a section of text. Likewise, if your library offers streaming music or video services, see if the amount of text devoted to those is commensurate to the traffic they receive. Meanwhile, if you still have long pages dedicated to VHS lending guidelines, it might be time to revisit.

The goal here is to take writing for the web seriously but not to treat it as a blunt instrument bereft of life and unable to evolve. As you add and edit content, consider how your users are reading your site and how to save them time and hassle whenever possible—they’ll thank you by making the most efficient use of what you publish.

This first appeared in The User Experience, a column I’m writing for Library Journal.