M. Kathleen Kern, Editor
Jenny Emanuel, Guest Columnist
Print version (Adobe Reader required)
Jenny Emanuel is passionate about the user search experience. She is young (well, younger than me) and her experience growing up with networked libraries informs her views. She doesn’t rest on generalizing from herself or reading what Millennials want; she conducts usability studies and talks with a range of users to better understand which changes to library interfaces are improvements and which are just change. I asked her to set her views and research findings to paper after many conversations over our cubicle wall.—Editor
For the past several years, there has been much discussion about the future of libraries in the digital age. Most of this discussion involves librarians’ fears that we are falling behind technologically in meeting our patrons’ information needs. As a result we’ve begun work to transform libraries. We have built elaborate websites incorporating electronic resources, tutorials, and social media such as blogs. We have begun to digitize collections to make them more accessible to users at a distance. We have moved from print indexes and paper journals to a system of electronic resources, giving us instant access to a plethora of both scholarly and popular media with only a few mouse clicks. Although no one can argue that these systems are perfect and will not continue to evolve in the future, one library system has continued to remain relatively unchanged from the past decade: the Online Public Access Catalog (OPAC). Or to use the language of our library users: the catalog. When I started library school seven years ago, no one questioned the library catalog and its status in the library; it was ubiquitous. I grew up with the catalog being networked in some capacity, and my visits to the library usually started with a text search on dumb terminal. There was no mouse and no navigating a fancy user interface; I navigated using a series of text commands to get to the proper menu to search for what I needed. Today that seems so simple, and as I look back, I liked how simple it was. But information needs and expectations change, and by the end of high school I was online and searching for information in an entirely different manner. Websites such as Yahoo!, Amazon, and later Google, changed how I found information. Search engines replaced the reference librarians who previously seemed almost godlike at finding obscure pieces of information. I could find book summaries and tables of contents from Amazon that before I’d have to make a trip to the library to access. My information needs were evolving— because I both transitioned to college and spent an increasingly larger amount of my time on the Internet. When I started library school, I knew I wanted to be a librarian who focused on technology and how libraries will change as more of their resources go online. By then, most libraries had a Web-based catalog that basically displayed the same data in a similar manner to the earlier text-based online catalog. The difference was that this new online catalog allowed for hyperlinking between different records and had a shiny, colorful interface that made the library appear to be on par with the rest of the Internet world.
However, there were definitely grumblings about the online catalog in some library circles. It did not take long for librarians to realize that search engines such as Google and Amazon were getting better at meeting information needs while the library catalog remained static. Librarians assumed that the catalog could not change because of the underlying data; the complexity of a system that usually included acquisitions, catalog, and circulation modules; and the tangible and intangible costs associated with ongoing development. As an added bonus, library catalog vendors, knowing that they had no outside competition, continued implementing systems that were static at the time of installation and would remain static until the next major installation, which could be years in the future. Librarians did not like this system, but there was little that could be changed, since no library had the resources to develop its own online catalog. Nor did they have the resources to compete with the online retailers and search engines that were revolutionizing the way people searched and found information—leaving libraries behind.
The Next Generation Catalog Arrives
Then, in 2006, North Carolina State University announced a partnership with a commercial search corporation, Endeca, to develop a new catalog interface to overlay on top of their current catalog data. The Endeca project made libraries realize that yes, the current catalog systems are not user friendly, and yes, we can do something about it. It also made library vendors worry about outside competition and set them on a course to develop their own competing systems.
These systems were quickly dubbed “next-generation” or “nextgen” catalogs. They allowed the online catalog to break free of the rest of the library system and enabled libraries to make customizations to the catalog interface and make the search for library materials easier on users. However, these systems are not the end all to library catalogs. They are not Amazon, and libraries are still burdened by the template of the MARC record, which may not have all of the data patrons want to see about an item and may constrain the useful display of the data. Nextgen catalogs are a solution that libraries can use to make their materials easier to access and also to create some flexibility to improve the catalog in the future.
In the four years since NC State’s Endeca Project, many major library vendors have come out with their own version of a nextgen catalog interface: SirsiDynix’s Enterprise, Ex Libris’s Primo, Innovative Interfaces’ Encore, VTLS’ Visualizer, and Serials Solutions’ Aquabrowser. There are also several open-source initiatives as well, including VuFind, Scriblio, Blacklight, and the eXtensible Catalog Project. OCLC also has developed WorldCat into a local catalog and is using WorldCatLocal as a launching point to a new integrated library system. Most of these interfaces used not only a new user interface, but bring in streams of data to supplement the MARC record information, as well as integrate social media functions.
Long Live the OPAC
These new products are simply catalog interfaces. They are not integrated systems and therefore rely on antiquated back-end systems for functions such as acquisitions and cataloging. Therefore they still have many of the same issues online catalogs have had for years, but display the data differently. I cannot help but be especially critical of the nextgen catalogs provided by the major OPAC vendors because they are distributed as an additional product that libraries must purchase on top of their current system. I believe that vendors should be supplying these new interfaces as an upgrade to their current systems. However, because nearly all libraries already have an integrated catalog system that works for them and are not in a position to adopt a new system, nextgen interfaces have become an income stream for vendors.
Because libraries must pay to adopt a nextgen interface, not all library users have access to a catalog that is user friendly. I am beginning to see nextgen interfaces as a new digital divide between libraries. Ten years ago this divide was between automated and nonautomated libraries, and five years ago the divide was between online graphical OPACs and text-based OPACs. In the next several years, there will be a bigger divide between libraries with usable online catalogs and catalogs with outdated, clunky interfaces. Open-source nextgen catalogs may appear on the surface to bridge this widening divide, but it is important to note that open-source does not mean free; rather, open-source implementations can involve many personnel and large amounts of hardware that could near the cost of purchasing a commercial product.
Pages: 1 2 3
- Describing Vernacular Literacy Practices to Enhance Understanding of Community Information Needs: A Case Study with Practical Implications
- “The Rolls Royce of the Library Reference Collection”: The Subject Encyclopedia in the Age of Wikipedia
- What is a boutique? Meanings of Boutique
- A Generation in Transition: A Study of the Usage and Attitudes Toward Public Libraries by Generation 1.5 Composition Students
- Helen E. Haines: A Life with Books