How OPACs Suck, Parts 1, 2 & 3

How OPACs Suck, Parts 1, 2 & 3.

If you're a librarian, Karen Schneider's series on ALA TechSource, “How OPACs Suck”, should be required reading. Certainly any vendor of library software should sit up and take notice. Library online catalogs have not adapted to the expectations of users familiar with features provided by sites such as Amazon, and that can't be good for libraries or vendors!

In Part 1, Karen starts by discussing the lack of relevancy ranking and discusses how it could/should be applied to library catalogs. We're all used to search engines that at least TRY to provide the most relevant results at the top of the list, but library catalogs make no such effort. According to Karen, the default order in most search engines is “last in/first out, in other words, whatever was most recently cataloged will come up first.

That explains a lot, including my typical experience with the L.A. Public Library catalog. I type in a couple of words from the title of the book into the search box, and end up with a long list of titles that don't even contain my search terms! The one I'm looking for is inevitably found at the bottom of such a list. Yes, I know, I could opt to search title only, but when I'm looking for something so basic, I'm like everyone else…I expect a keyword search should do it. The relevancy ranking doesn't have to be complicated, but if a search word appears in the title, don't you think that book would be more relevant than one where the word appears in the description or note?

There are better ways. Karen describes how relevancy ranking could be implemented. In our own catalog, I'd love to see an the option to rank the books most often checked out to the top of the list. Consider it a passive way of collecting knowledge about what books people find most helpful.

Part 2 offers Karen's wish list of features including spell-checking, support for popular query operators, duplicate detection, and sort flexibility, just to name a few. Search logging and reports, an administrative interface that let's you tweak the search engine and “best bets” are among my favorites.

The problem, as Karen describes it in Part 3, is that the catalog is based on the obsolete CARD catalog resulting in what she calls “literalisms.” I found her 4th literalism particularly interesting, that is, combining almost all library functions into one is counter-productive, creating an application that doesn't do anything well. I've been suspicious for some time that integrated library systems aren't really the holy grail after all. But I assumed that my view from a special library environment was peculiar to that environment. But according to Karen, “Lorcan Dempsey, VP of OCLC, has been making the case on his blog that the next-generation integrated library system should be dis-integrated. He points out that the modern ILS weds an inventory system with a discovery system—in the end doing poorly at both.”

Karen wants a revolution, and that may be exactly what we need. “It's time to dis-integrate the catalog, weave it into the Web, and push forward to the future.” That's truly a vision for the future.

How OPACS Suck, Part 1: Relevance Rank (Or the Lack of It)
How OPACS Suck, Part 2: The Checklist of Shame
How OPACS Suck, Part 3: The Big Picture


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