The OPAC Strikes Back

July 3, 2006

Walt Crawford, from Walt at Random, recently asked What’s a known item? In the post, Walt specifically tries to avoid becoming embroiled in the recent “OPAC wars” (which of course did inspire the title of my blog post – as a huge Star Wars fan, I couldn’t resist). However, he argues that

any decent OPAC is also good for something other than known item searching that matters to quite a few library users: “What do you have by this author/composer/musical group?”

Regardless of whether you put this type of question in the known search category or not, I think that Walt is making an important point about the OPAC in his post. The OPAC is the interface to the physical collection of the library. I agree wholeheartedly that there are some serious issues with searching – especially via subject. And I also agree that we need to seriously overhaul how we do business in the library. Yet despite this, I do not believe that the OPAC is the root of all evil. It serves a very important purpose in the library. Does is work best for staff who understand how to search it and how to find information? No question that it does. Learning to search the library catalog is often too much work for many library patrons. Yet, I do not believe that we should be chucking our systems out the window – because 1)we need the OPAC – especially from the library staff perspective 2)we have nothing good to replace it with despite all of the recent conversations about nexgen catalogs and 3)it is a quick way to find out if a specific item is available – whether one is searching for a known item or to unknown items by an author/composer/musical group (and I would add actor/director).

Ultimately, in any redesign or rebuilding of the catalog, we need to make sure that we preserve the ease of discovering known items – including the discovery of the “what do you have by this author/composer/musical group/actor/director?” In my opinion, we have learned a great deal about what works and also about what does not work for our patrons. But, we have a decent basis upon which we can build a better interface – whatever form that interface takes.

Update: Comments on post via Life as I Know it via Blogger.