Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Following the footsteps

Atalanta Fugiens emblem number 42 shows us the Alchemist. He is attempting to follow the footsteps of nature though the obstacles be many and difficult. The moral of this allegory is that by using the right tools and with careful perseverance, he may succeed in the Art. I would like to suggest that today's library customer is in a similar situation.

In the June 2008 podcast from the Library 2.0 Gang, available here, it was discussed how most of the OPACs widely in use were built for librarians not for the end user. The guest was Taco Ekkel, the Director of Development and Medialab Solutions, the company behind Aquabrowser. In discussing Medialab Solutions' decision to target libraries with their search tool, he had this to say:

But all these vendors were focused on products for librarians and libraries internally. So they had ILSs, library systems, that worked pretty well for staff and for [inaudible] in terms of cataloging and back office integration and things related to circulation, of course. And these systems also offered front ends for library patrons to use. Now what we noticed as we went in was that the usability for most of these front ends, called OPACs in this arena, weren't as usable to end users as the examples we had seen outside the library world.

If I may paraphrase, the OPAC sucks. Other search tools are much better at producing decent results relevant to what the customer's search. [As an aside, databases are worse. The librarians and vendors who rend their garments and lament that patrons insist on consulting Google instead of a researched and reputable database should at least consider this] Our poor customers are faced with a fairly steep challenge every time they attempt to find material on their own. Firstly, the OPAC is often opaque. "Do I search by subjects or keywords?" There is often times no help if they are not using correct spelling. If they wish to search for something very specific, it gets even more complicated. I helped a customer yesterday try to find picture books about time. My system uses an OPAC from Innovative (not Encore). I had to search by call number (E for Easy) then filter those results with the subject heading Clocks and Watches -- Stories, then filter by location to find what I had at my branch. I have a Master's Degree in Library Science with an emphasis on reference. Most of my customers do not.

We can do better.