Searching North Carolina State University’s Library Catalog

August 6, 2006

Notes on my experiences searching North Carolina State University’s Library Catalog:

  • I did a search in the “search for words:” box leaving the default limiter to Anywhere for computer juvenile. There 106 results matching my search criteria.
  • On results display page, my first reaction is “where do I look?” “where do I go?” There is SO much (too much) information on this page. It took me a bit to be able to process this page and figure out what everything was.
  • From results page, I can limit my search to available items. This option is in small wording at the top of the results – very hard to see, but a nice feature.
  • Results are sorted by relevance. The user can change the sort order to Pub Date, Title A-Z, Author A-Z, Call Number and Most Popular. The most popular is a neat feature that I like.
  • The ability to do new searches is available on all pages – at the top of the screen in the top navigation area. Patrons can send their search to a variety of places – UNC-CH Libraries, Duke Libraries, NCCU Libraries, OpenWorldCat, Google Scholar or a Quick Article Search.
  • In results display, results default to full view – can be changed to brief view. In the full view, the Title, Author, Published, Format and Availability information is displayed. Local information is displayed – the library, location and call number. There is no availability information for online resources, but there is a link to the resource.
  • Above the results display, there is an area where patrons can browse their results by subject category (by call number).
  • Under the subject category on the left-hand portion of the screen, there is a box where patrons can narrow their results by several categories including, Subject: Topic, Subject: Genre, Format, Library, Subject: Region, Language or Author.
  • In the item display, there is additional bibliographic information and item information. On the right-hand portion of the screen, there is a link to browse the shelf (at NCSU or several other libraries). This is a cool feature which allows one to browse items shelved close by.
  • There is an option to use subjects to find similar titles – and 3 similar titles are displayed. There are also links to “more titles like this,” “more by the same author,” “save record,” and “marc record.”
  • I did a “search as words:” search limited to author index for “mark twain.” There were 307 results. A search for “Twain, Mark” retrieved the same number of hits.
  • Using the “Search begins with:” search box in the author (last name, first name) index is akin to traditional catalog author searches – where the search needs to be inputed as “Twain, Mark.” This brings the user to an “Index Hitlist Display” of authority-type records. This is just as confusing as in most library catalogs. Technically, it returns the same number of hits as using the “Search as words:” search. NCSU has two authority records for Mark Twain: Twain, Mark and Twain, Mark 1835-1910.
  • The advanced search allows for searches in words anywhere, words in title, words in author, words in subject headings or ISBN, ISSN. There are limiting options: Library, Language, Format, Published from and limit by format (government documents, reference materials, or all others). These searches restrict a search to the indexes indicated. They are fairly straightforward search options (if one is familar with OPACs). There is also an area to do boolean searches.
  • The browse tab allows users to browse the collection by subject. There is an option to browse new titles within the last week.
  • From the home page, there is a drop down box with the Most Used library resources: Catalog, Reserves, Find Articles, Journal List, Citation Builder, Tripsave and then the Top 10 Databases. This is a nice feature.
  • Overall, the keyword searching capability of NCSU is superior to most library catalogs. I would use this search above any of the others (except when looking for something specific in one of the other indexes). The other great part of this catalog is that it seems to be a seemless part of the NCSU library’s web site. You do not feel as if you have left the library web site and ventured into a different system. I think this is the number one strength of the design and something other libraries should try to emulate. The biggest problem with this catalog is the overabundance of information and text that is displayed in the primary search results screen. There is way too much information for most people to be able to digest quickly by scanning the page. It takes definite thought and careful reading in order to familiarize oneself with everything that is offered.

An Overview of the Paper

July 17, 2006

I have submitted my paper. YEAH!!! If I weren’t dying of heat, I would probably be much more excited. As it is, I’m having trouble keeping the sweat that is dripping off my forehead from landing on my keyboard (I bet some ice cream might help). Anyway, I thought I would summarize the paper that I just submitted. I will probably be adding it to the site with the rest of my work from my MLS program, but maybe not until it is graded. I’m a bit of a scaredy cat in that respect.

The Library Catalog Transformed [I’ve never been good at titles. I have very little creative ability and even less patience for the fine art of titling my papers.]

The catalog or OPAC as it stands today is inefficient as an information discovery tool – so inefficient that people have turned to other discovery tools to fulfill their information needs. In order to compete in the race to provide people with information, libraries need to rethink the way they do business and the ways in which they provide information. It isn’t enough to simply transform the catalog without looking at the entirety of information that a library makes available. The catalog is but a small and underutilized pointer to library materials. It is in effect, the library’s shelflist and useful to library staff.

We really need to abandon the current library catalog concept in favor of one interface or portal that the library presents to the world (with single sign on). This one system should index everything available including the physical items owned by the library, the virtual items owned by the library, the sum total of all physical materials available to users at other libraries (via OpenWorldCat??) and internet resources. This one portal should also include access to interlibrary loan request forms, requests for library cards, online renewals, the ability to place holds, access to journal articles along with all other services that the library provides. Search engines and the like are global in scope and this is a trait that libraries need to copy. Z39.50 (too slow and clunky) may not be the answer, but it illustrates that this can be done.

In addition to adding a global perspective, library portals need to add a great deal of functionality in order to be able to transform into online communities in which patrons want to participate. People expect highly configurable systems with a great degree of interactivity. This would allow the public to be able to log into the library portal, see and interact with their circulation records, save their search strategies, save favorite publications (citations or actual links to full-text documents), create research bibliographies directly from the portal (rather than have to export citations to EndNotes or Refworks), track ILL requests, add their own tags to records, see book jackets, see book reviews, create their own books reviews and to interact with others from the library community. With RSS feeds, patrons could sign up for alerts to remind them about the material they have checked out, sign up for alerts when new issues of journals they are interested in are published or sign up for alerts when new books matching certain criteria (author, subject, etc.) they specify arrive at the library.

MARC structure needs to change. FRBR and RDA are in the works, but most catalogs are still formatted with this outdated standards. Simple things need to be improved for better search outcomes. Last name, first name conventions for searching for authors need to be more flexible. There is no reason why people shouldn’t be able to input author names in natural language format and receive results rather than see also references. LCSH need to be completely scrapped. If patrons need to consult a multi-volume set in order to figure out which subject heading to use, the system is way too complicated. Additionally, searching needs to be improved to handle natural language queries. Relevancy ranking is also important. Ranking algorithms need work – possibly a combination of how often an item is checked out, viewed (online resources), and saved to patron records along with analysis of patron ranking and reviews. This needs some serious thought in order to best serve the patron base.

A well built system that provides real services that library patrons need will attract users by itself. Marketing new and better services is key, but people who like a system will encourage its use among their peers. As for training, if new users cannot successfully use the new interface to execute a search and retrieve relevant information then there is a problem with the design. In addition to a well-built system, help pages and FAQs are a necessity – especially for more advanced search options and features. Libraries can’t forget that significant portions of their populations access library services remotely.

This is a pretty brief overview of the paper which ended up begin 13 1/2 pages. I decided to make the paper pretty basic given that it was an assignment for an beginning graduate course. I cut several points that I would have liked to have made, condensed several sections that could have used more explanation and included a great deal of basic description in the first several pages. This fact has me INCREDIBLY nervous and anxious. I can’t say I’m overly happy with the paper, but can also admit that generally when I complete an assignment I need some serious downtime to even be able to think about it with any objectivity.

OPAC Resources

July 11, 2006

These are more resources that I am using for my paper that is due next week. This list is by no means comprehensive – at this point, it is just a starting point.

Documents/Reports about the Library Catalog/Cataloging

FRBR Resources

Examples of Enhanced Library Catalogs

Enhanced Services for the Library Catalog

ILS Vendors

OPAC Blog Posts – A List

July 5, 2006

The latest assignment for my summer class is a 10-15 page paper about one cataloging related subject that we choose from a list of 15 suggested topics (due on July 17th). Although I haven’t made my final choice about the theme of the paper, many of the suggestions on the professor’s list deal with the automated library catalog and the user’s experience of searching. I’m interested in using some of the recent blog discussions about the OPAC/library catalog/ILS as part of my paper. As such, I’ve started putting together a list of relevant blog posts. This list is a work in progress. I intend to update the list – and start annotating it as part of my research.


  • More on XC from David Lindahl
  • Sudden Thoughts and Second Thoughts – A post by StephenB with a section entitled Gotten any complaints about your OPAC Lately? StephenB points out that when students are asked about how to improve the library, they rarely even mention the catalog – being much more concerned about improving the collections and technology. Posted on July 12, 2006.

Affording the Rock-N-Roll Lifestyle

ALA TechSource

  • 2006: the year of the phoenix OPAC? – In this post, John Blyberg points to several significant developments in OPACs: NCSU’s new online catalog, Casey Bisson’s WordPress OPAC project, Ed Vielmetti’sthird-party library apps with RSS feeds and Dave Pattern’swork with a new patron-oriented presentation layer to the OPAC. Blyberg’s own experiences also lead him to conclude that the public is “hungry” for social additives to the catalog. Blyberg writes that 2006 “is shaping up to be the year a new OPAC vision is created.”
  • ILS Customer Bill of Rights – John Blyberg details “four simple, but fundamental” needs from ILS vendors: 1) Open, read-only, direct access to the database, 2)A full-blown, W3C standards-based API to all read-write functions, 3)The option to run the ILS on hardware of our choice, on servers that we administer and 4) High security standards.
  • Library 2.0 websites: Where to begin? – John suggests five directives to help redesign library web sites: social software, open-source software, single sign-on, open standards and an integrated OPAC.
  • Why bother: the impact of social OPACs – Blyberg makes is clear that he does not “think we are doomed if we choose not to implement social software in our OPAC.” He contends that by adding social software and/or applications we can create a feeling of community within our OPACs. One key point is that “findability is not the goal, but the activity and the experience which is why I say that OPACs have the potential to be fascinating places to visit and browse.”
  • OPACs in the frying pan, Vendors in the fires– A round up of blog posts about OPACs, ILS and vendors for early June 2006.


Confessions of a Science Librarian

The Creative Librarian

  • Yes, OPACs suck. Now What? – In this post, Laura argues that we need to strip our OPACs down in order to get rid of those things that do not work and then add cool, new library 2.0 features. This post is from June 22, 2006.

Crossed Wires

  • Interfaces & Expectations of Users – In this post David Rothman responds to comments from an earlier post. He argues that Amazon has a good interface because people can quickly find what they need – and that this is how OPACs should work. David also expresses some skepticism about the usefulness of “social applications” as library tools – believing they may best serve as tools for outreach.

Disruptive Library Technology Jester


ex libris

Family Man Librarian

  • Library online catalogs and relevancy ranking[updated] – A post in which the Family Man Librarian disagrees with Karen Schneiders’ post How OPACs Suck, Part 1: Relevance Rank (Or the Lack of It). The FML takes issue with Karen’s points that most online catalogs don’t have relevance ranking and that ILS vendors are wholly to blame for this lack of relevance ranking. FML contends that we need to “look at both sides of the issue and especially do not be so quick to lay blame without truly understanding the reality of what vendors provide and what they do.” 

Free Range Librarian

The Goblin in the Library

Hinkle Library Technical Services Blog

  • Googleization – Joe Petrick discusses OPAC in relation to a news article from USA Today (Tuesday, July 11, 2006 by Jim Hopkins entitled Google expansion showcases universities as growth engines). This post is dated July 13, 2006.

Information Takes Over

Information Wants to Be Free

The Krafty Librarian



Librarian 1.5

Librarian in the Middle


Library clips

Library Garden 

Library Laws are meant to be broken

Library Web Chic

  • Where libraries are going – In this post, from February 8, 2006, the author argues that many people buy into the “fundamental mistake librarians make: assuming that the OPAC has to be part of the Integrated Library System (ILS). In my opinion to not treat the OPAC and the content therein as an essential and integral part of the library’s website it is like Amazon separating out the product search from their site’s content.”



Life as I Know It


Lorcan Dempsey’s weblog

Maison Bisson



  • To fopac or not to fopac? – A post by Jason Fowley from March 10, 2006. In this post, Jason ponders whether we should be adding folksonomies to our OPACs (hence, fopac).

One Big Library


The Other Librarian


Participation Literacy

Pegasus Librarian

PLCMC Emerging Technologies

Science Library Pad

Stephen’s Lighthouse

  • Radical Trust – A post from May 22, 2006 by Stephen Abrams which notes that the concept of radical trust with our operations and patrons will be key to the successful evolution of library portals and catalogs.


Swem Review of Technology



  • Online catalogs . . .  – A post from May 29, 2006 in which the author argues that most searches in the online catalog are either author or title searches. The author writes “The online catalog was being used mostly for information retrieval, not information discovery. For me this raises the question of whether the online catalog can compete with externally produced and supported information discovery tools.”

Walt at random

A Wandering Eyre

What I Learned Today

7/6/2006 – I added some additional blog posts to the list and started to annotate the entries.
7/7/2006 – I continued annotating some entries. I changed the formatting of the post to (I hope) make the post easier to read (using bold for blog names and bullets for posts).
7/8/2006 – I added some additional blog posts to the list and continued annotating.
7/9/2006 – I added some additional blog posts and annotations.
7/11/200 – More additions.
7/13/200 – More additions. I also started to alphabetize the list by blog title. This makes it easier for me to find entries. This may take a while to accomplish, since it is tedious work.
7/14/2006 – Finished alphabetizing the list and added some additional posts.

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.

Additional Thoughts on the OPAC

June 19, 2006

Helene Blowers at Library TechBytes points out that we, in the library community, share responsibility for the state of our ILS systems. She suggests that we have demanded that ILS vendors create specialized systems that are tailored to our individual organization with little thought of flexibility. I would agree. I think that today’s mind set of being able to customize programs and interfaces per library, but more importantly per user, is a relatively recent concept. Helene also points out how difficult it is to change people’s habits. Again, I agree. Many library people are not unhappy with their ILS systems and/or OPACs. They may accept them because “this is the way it has always been done,” because they actually don’t find a problem with it or for any number of other reasons. Many people do not like change – they will accept something the way it is simply because they prefer the devil they know to the one they do not. Overcoming this attitude is hard. It requires agents of change who can gently handly many types of personalities. Only when a group is ready for change, can we move forward. Achieving this desired change requires a great deal of self-examination (library as self). Re-examining circulation and collection procedures should definitely be revisited. A natural part of Library 2.0 (or just normal evolution – I like Meredith Farkas am not a big fan of labels) should always about questioning existing policies and procedures on a regular basis.

So ultimately, we aren’t just looking at ways to improve our OPAC. I think we are looking to improve our libraries and our way of business. Most of our policies and procedures were developed before the internet, before the advent of full-text resources, etc. Maybe we should be starting by looking at our mission statements, reexaming our services, question everything, think about all aspects of our day-to-day business. Only when we truly understand ourselves can we even begin to try and understand our patrons. Hopefully, if we do it right, we will be better able to deal with future changes in a more timely manner.

The OPAC Debate Continues. . .

June 19, 2006

John Blyberg over at put together a wrap up of recent blog conversations about the state of the library ILS/OPAC. This is a great post and worthy of a perusal or two – there are some good comments too. On the first subject regarding difficulty with ILS vendors, I feel compelled to keep silent. I do work in systems in an academic library – with a vendor supplied ILS. However, this blog is not associated with my place of work – and my opinions on the matter are only my own. Decisions about our ILS and our OPAC are made by a larger group of which I am but a small part (I may have more influence as the sys admin, but I do not work in a bubble). I do believe it is not fair for me to discuss my opinions of our vendor in this particular forum. I will say that blogs are revolutionizing the ways in which customers can do research about companies and their products. Vendors (as well as customers) need to be aware of the implications of their actions – especially those actions that deal with trying to stifle or intimidate people’s right to free speech (or for customers – actions that may unfairly malign a company name).

As for OPACs, John’s summation of Peter Murray’s Is the Writing on the Wall for the Integrated Library System? got me thinking about several things. Like John, I agree with Peter that the “ILS/OPAC” is an an asset management system tool – one which the library needs in order to operate. I would also agree that OPACs do get used – and add that this is the case in academic libraries as well. Students do tend to gravitate towards database aggregators to find full-text articles first, but they do use OPACs to search for materials with remarkable frequency (remarkable given that recent debates often give the impression that OPACs are unusable). In the library where I work, we could not survive without our OPAC (sucky or not). This does make the OPAC a useful tool as an interface into our ILS. It may not be the best interface and it may not even be the right solution to meet the needs of our users, but right now it is really the only window into the ILS that we have.

Additionally, this post really made me think about the tendency to lump our criticisms of ILSs and OPACs into one bundle. I wonder if this is a mistake. The user doesn’t care one bit about our ILS and what it does (or doesn’t do). It cares about the interface and the ease of finding information. Users don’t want to restrict their search to just our asset management system. As such, I think it would be helpful to separate the two discussions. What we want from our ILS vendor or open-source systems is very different from what our users want/need in our interface into that system. I also think that by lumping the ILS/OPAC together, people tend to focus on the problems with the OPAC rather than on the back end of the interface. To build a better system, I really believe that we need to think of these two entities independently – because they both need revamping. Determine what the user needs. Determine what the library needs. Then, make sure your ILS the information required by both. Anyway, it helps me tremendously to think of the ILS and the OPAC as separate entities.

I do also like John’s take on my post Are We Really Ready to Say Goodbye to the Sucky OPAC? From my perspective in a small academic library, we are only just starting to develop the “vision, passion, and courage” that is necessary for change. Right now, I feel like the most important thing that I can do is to help get those I work with to develop a vision, a plan and a purpose. I’ve said before that without buy in from those with whom we work, we would only be imposing change – which I can only see as hurting the end user. Meanwhile, we work on small change within our current infrastructure – and this is the best thing that we can do for our users at the moment. Some have suggested that spending time on broken systems may be a waste. However, I can’t agree. Current OPACs can be made more usable. And I think this is also an important step in this whole process. If nothing else, it helps us define and refine the user experience.

Are We Really Ready to Say Goodbye to the Sucky OPAC?

June 14, 2006

Comments from Jane from A Wandering Eyre on my last post started me thinking about what our expectations for the OPAC and its reincarnation are (and even what they should be). I am extremely excited about the conversations taking place about library catalogs. They are a great step forward in the evolution of library systems. I personally believe that the OPAC needs a complete overhaul, but is this a realistic expectation for the immediate future? From my perspective working in systems in a small academic library, I am positive that our OPAC will be our main interface for the public for the forseeable future. This means that regardless of what we think our systems should be, we need to deal with the situation at hand. So, this leads me to ask – are we really ready to say goodbye to the sucky OPAC? 

While I know that there is a whole group of library bloggers who would shout YES to this question, I really can’t imagine that most libraries would be able to ditch their OPAC in the immediate future. Most of us are not at this point. First of all, there isn’t enough buy in from library staff. And this is a big point. As much as forcing change on users is not a good idea, it isn’t any better to force it on library staff. Second of all, major changes require planning (many people have commented about the pace of change in libraries) be it for budgetary support, technological support or just for good implementation. And at this point, there isn’t a good consensus about what it is that we need in place of the OPAC. There is no system in place from which we at smaller institutions can use to build upon. Third, the amount of money we have invested in our current library system means it isn’t going anywhere soon. Regardless of whether this should be the case, it is.

So, this is why I think it is important to spend time tweaking our current systems to make them more usable.  Just because the system is sucky doesn’t mean that we should just accept it until we come up with something better. I think just giving up on our current systems would do a disservice to our users. 

Ultimately, for those who think we need to chuck our sucky OPACs out the door and move on, I would be incredibly interested to hear their views on what would replace it. What is the vision? How does it work? How do we implement it? Do we even know what it should be? (I know I don’t know enough about the users needs and search habits at my library to think I have a handle on this.) I’m obviously still formulating my thoughts on this issue – and haven’t gotten far beyond the realization that our current systems are not cutting it. 

The Main Reason I think OPACs are a Problem

June 14, 2006

Adding the discussion about why OPACs suck, Jane from A Wandering Eyre elaborated on her belief that her OPAC sucks with some solid reasons why (in a post entitled Actual Reasons Why My OPAC Sucks). All of her reasons are right on the money. I would have to add that the Main Reason I Think OPACs are a Problem is simply because it isn’t clear to most users what they are designed to do. We certainly point them to the catalog to find hard copies of materials, but users do not come into the library understanding how this works.

The function of OPACs is not clear to average library users.

Anyway, I like this part of the “Sucky OPAC” debate the best. In order to find ways to improve our systems (or build better ones), we have to have a solid idea of what we need (or at the very least what we need to get rid of). We can’t fully predict what funtionality would make our users think more often of using library systems. For many of us, it is apparent that we need to do something in order to provide better service to our patrons.

The theoretical debates about OPACs are somewhat centered around the perfect system to replace OPACs. However, I think that we need to be seriously thinking about what we can do to improve the situation with our current systems. My OPAC is not going away, so I need to try and figure out creative ways of working with it to provide better service here and now.

The Motivation Behind the Search

June 12, 2006

In reading different blog posts, articles, listserv emails, etc. about problems with library search mechanisms, one will inevitably come across conversations regarding the debate over dumbing down library web sites. There are many who believe that users need to be taught to use library services and that we are “dumbing down” our systems if we remove or reconfigure little used functionality. While I personally understand the arguments on both sides of the debate, I find the overall debate to be a bit off-putting. A recent post by Iris at Pegasus Librarian included the following phrase:

. . . “What’s Better? Dumbed Down or Loaded with Functionality” (don’t get me started on the ideology of “either-or” that’s inherent in this question).

This phrase made me realize that I am bothered by the debate because of the inherent “either-or.” Trying to make search mechanisms easier to use for our patrons isn’t dumbing them down. By the same token, there may be some things that a user needs to learn to use a library effectively. We can’t expect users to learn complicated systems (subject searchine with Library of Congress Subject Headings comes to mind immediately), but they will probably be able to learn how to use intuitive and friendly systems with decent interfaces. People do learn how to use search sites such as Google, Amazon and Ebay – even though they may not realize they are learning as they search. This makes the learning process seemless to the patron – something that we should strive for in designing library systems.

Iris makes another point about the motivation of the user. Someone who believes that a system has the information they need may well make several attempts to find the answer. The problem here is that the majority of library users don’t know or don’t believe that our library systems have any information they need – but they do believe that Google has answers. While I am not specifically trying to say that users would be able to successfully use our systems if they knew what they contained (we still need better systems), I do think that this highlights the need for better marketing. Better marketing is an integral piece of this whole puzzle.