Monday, March 30, 2009

OPAC 2.0... and beyond!

Presentation from Dave Pattern of Huddersfield University.

Started with a brief overview of the history of the library catalogue - from the card catalogue, to "OPAC 1.0" in the 1980s and web-based OPACs in the 1990s, which were arguably just displaying the card catalogue in a web browser.

Dave talked about MARC21 being a format optimised for printing catalogue cards, and introduced his first "conspiracy theory" - that cataloguers are gearing up for sabotage of web-based OPACs and the return of the card catalogue!

Looked at how OPACs are currently designed, and what librarians think users want. Showed some examples of ludicrously complex advanced search forms, requiring pages of instructions. Also mentioned the problems with expecting users to use Boolean logic in their searching - example of searching for "Oranges are not the only fruit" via the BL catalogue - title only came up if you searched "Oranges are the only fruit"! Catalogue search interfaces that require expert searchers, and over-complicated notification systems, led Dave to his second conspiracy theory - that we are trying to turn our users into mini librarians!

Went on to a reminder of Ranganathan's 4th law - saving the time of the user. Quoted Roy Tennant - "create a system that doesn't need to be taught". If the OPAC is too complex for our users, that is our fault [sidenote - thoroughly agree with that, it irritates me to hear colleagues criticizing the students for not knowing how to use the catalogue. Why should it be their responsibility to find ways around our clunky and antiquated OPAC?].

Talked about the results of a 2007 survey on OPACs - on a scale of 1-10 (ten being best), the average rating for "how happy are you with your OPAC" was 5.1; the average for "how well does your OPAC meet your users needs" was 4.5.

Moving on to OPAC 2.0, began by mentioning the Ann Arbor District Library catalogue, which has features like tagging, rating and reviews, and the option to bring up an image of the catalogue card for the item - which users can add "graffiti" to. Then went on to talk about the work done on the OPAC at Huddersfield university. In deciding what features to add, they looked at user suggestions, web 2.0 inspired features, and successful ideas from elsewhere. Dave described the OPAC as being in "perpetual beta" - new features are added as and when they come up, and are removed if unsuccessful.

Keyword searching was monitored, to find out how the system was being used. This showed that 23% of searches gave no results, and that users frequently gave up if they didn't get any results from their first search - probably because there was nowhere else to go from that point. Users expect suggestions and prompts for unsuccessful searches, not dead ends. Introduced features such as a spell checker, keyword suggestions for terms not in the catalogue (cross-referenced with answers.com) and suggestions of popular combined search terms for general searches with too many results. Also added a keyword cloud of recent searches on the first page, and a "virtual shelf browser" - originally as "eye candy" but both tools turned out to be very popular and useful. Several other features mentioned such as recommendations, RSS feeds for new titles, and the ability to add ratings and comments.

Looking at usage statistics - borrowing peaks in October, but usage of keyword suggestions and borrowing recommendations peaks in November - maybe when all the reading list books are checked out so users appreciate the recommendations. Also showed increase in the range of unique titles borrowed - suggests users are checking out books they may not have looked at before.

Dave concluded this section by pointing out that what is required is more than just cosmetic changes, otherwise it's just "putting lipstick on a pig". He also pointed out that the changes need to come from vendors, as many libraries do not have the resources to do the kind of work he has by themselves.

He went on with some suggestions for libraries who did want to try 2.0-ing their OPACs themselves, including encouraging ideas from staff, listening to user feedback, not being afraid to make mistakes, and monitoring usage - if a feature isn't being used, get rid of it!

Dave talked about what is needed for OPAC 2.0 - relevancy ranking by default, faceted browsing, spellcheck, RSS feeds - and what is still missing - more serendipity, in the form of tailored borrowing suggestions and "just in time" recommendations, and social features to allow users to build a community.

Session finished with some suggestions of some commercial products, open source and web services available for OPAC 2.0, and a reminder of the benefits for students (better recommendations), librarians (collection development) and academics (improved reading lists) of OPAC 2.0.

Slides available: www.slideshare.net/daveyp

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