Wednesday, April 16, 2008

The OPAC is dead - long live the OPAC

Last week I went to a presentation by Jane Burke, of Serial Solutions and ProQuest, on the current state and future of the OPAC. Now, I've read heaps of blogs where people blog about talks or conferences that they attended, and I've never really done it - this has been more a personal musings-type blog. But the point of all this was to try new things, so here goes.

First up, I loved Jane's stated goal at the beginning of the presentation, which was to "make [us] mad". Granted, I didn't really end up mad, but it was a noble goal nonetheless. I've been mad about this issue before attending this talk - I've been mad that we've not had better OPACs, and mad that we keep making decisions to stay with the same old kind of software. I'm mad that we still think that our customers care what the measurements of the book are ("no, I want the 15cm version, not the 20cm one!") and that we're still using software that is designed for librarians, not customers. So Jane didn't make me mad about this stuff because I was already there.

Jane made the point that we talk about how the world of information is "changing", but that it's actually already changed - we are already in our digital world, it's no longer the future. So where's our jetpack, then? I don't mean to be facetious, but where is our revolutionary, 2.0-style catalogue?

ProQuest commissioned some research into the ways people are approaching libraries - and Jane had a few of her own observations. These were:

  • We tell ourselves that customers used to want to come to the libraries, but now they don't because they can get "everything" online. But Jane asked whether customers ever wanted to come to libraries - did they have a choice? I know there have been many that have appreciated the library environment, but on the whole - does it not make sense that the rapid uptake of remote access suggests that our customers never really wanted to come to us in the first place?
  • Libraries have not been good at branding their online resources - too often customers are using our products and services without knowing it. We may have to get a bit more aggressive about this.
  • The ProQuest research suggested that students, in particular, tend to compartmentalise their lives online, so they'll do research in databases and they'll socialise in facebook and Second Life. But there won't be much crossover. I liked this point, because it made me feel better about having never stepped into Second Life.

Much of Jane's focus was on software, but at the beginning she spoke quite generally. She asked us what percentage of our acquisitions budgets go to print resources - it's less than 50% for most libraries now, right? - and then asked us to consider what percentage of our workflow is based around print resources. Speaking for my library, it's way more than 50%. Jane pointed out that "librarians are very worried about keeping up with all the things they need to do", so she suggested a revolutionary idea - stop doing some of it!

Again, I know this sounds like I'm being facetious, but it's a valid point. Jane was trying to get us to question which of our services and resources are highly valued by our customers, and then consider what we can stop doing. I think that most libraries have moved away from the "just in case" model of collection development, but perhaps we're still stuck there when it comes to our services - we seem to think we need to offer lots and lots of services just in case someone wants to use them. And maybe we don't - maybe it's okay for us to say "sorry, we don't do that anymore. Here is the alternative."

One of Jane's suggestions was that libraries ditch "bibliographic instruction". Now, I know I'm wading into dangerous territory here, and I did consider not mentioning this - my brief stint in academic libraries taught me this is rather core to what they do. So I'll say that I'm not able form an opinion on this one - but Jane's suggestion was that instead of bibliographic instruction, libraries deliver marketing pitches. There was an audience member who questioned whether she was saying that information literacy wasn't important, but Jane countered by saying that it's like financial literacy - people only want it once they have some money. So her angle was that we should make the library very, very accessible in the first instance, and then when the customers have some information already, they might then want to know more about what to do with it.

So, back to the software. Jane's problems with the current library management systems is that they are essentially inventories, very well suited to a large print stock. And they give the customers way more information than they want. There is an important word there - "want". I know this isn't a new idea (as Andrew rather succinctly puts it, "we should fix our services to meet our users needs") but we really do have to look at what our customers want, rather than what we think they need.

So, Jane's recipe for a halfway decent catalogue:

  • Get federated searching, and make it the first thing your customers see. She acknowledges that it's not the answer to everything, but it's become a necessary tool. And remember that second bit - here's a good example of this in practice.
  • Use visualisation. This could be the old EBSCO visual search (which they ditched a few months back) or something like a tag cloud.
  • Use post-search clustering rather than pre-search limits. For those readers who are at my level, what this means is stop asking people upfront if they want books, journals, articles, etc., but after the search is done have a way they can then click on the 50 articles they retrieved.

I'll be honest with you now - my library will be moving to a new LMS this year, and the decision on the software was made before I started. I'm a little disappointed about that. I feel as though we're making a safe selection, and perhaps not allowing ourselves to evaluate some of the more innovative tools on the market. Now, if we had the opportunity to do so, we may well decide to go with the system we have chosen, but our next chance to do this process of evaluation isn't going to be for a long time. My boss was receptive to the idea of questioning our decision, but at the same time we need to be realistic - we need new software, we need it now, and substantial work has already gone into this process. We're not prepared to start again.

Allright, time to make dinner. In other news, I managed to break one of my own resolutions within a week of making it - I looked at my beautifully crafted abstract for NLS4 and thought to myself "I really shouldn't let this go by, I really have some ideas and perspectives to offer on this topic" - and I submitted it. No news yet as to it's success, but I hope I've done the right thing! Ah, self discipline. Such an absent friend.