OPACs Is Twelve Canadian Academic Libraries: An Evaluation of Functional Capabilities and Interface Features

Article excerpt

OPACs (online public access catalogs) in twelve Canadian academic libraries were evaluated using a checklist. Particular emphasis was placed on evaluation of functional capabilities and interface features which have been suggested in the literature by researchers. The findings of the study suggest that, among the ten areas evaluated, "Screen Display" is the best developed area, whereas "Subject Search Aids" is the weakest. Possible directions for the future development of OPACs are identified and areas for future OPAC research are suggested.

* Introduction

Numerous studies of OPACs have been conducted since their introduction in libraries in the early 1980s. Many studies have been devoted to the investigation of public acceptance, satisfaction with, and success in the use of OPAC systems. In other words, they have investigated the attitude and behavior of OPAC users. In this regard, the OPAC studies were fruitful. They revealed that the 1980s had witnessed the overwhelming success and growing popularity of OPACs in the minds of both librarians and the public, even though some technical problems remained unsolved.(1)(2) On the other hand, as Peters observed, "The development of online catalogues in the [1970s and] 1980s was governed by bibliographic networks, vendors of automated systems, and technical services librarians, not by the needs and expressed wishes of the library patrons."(3) There were many studies of the capabilities and features of individual OPAC systems. The purpose of these studies was to enhance the capabilities of specific OPAC systems or to create special functions for special uses. Developed by different OPAC vendors or library institutions, various OPAC systems were produced, and are still undergoing change. Hildreth, in 1982, noted that "the systems [the OPACs] not only differed in the range and complexity of their functional features, they [the OPACs] used different terms to describe them and different commands for invoking them."(4)

Previous Research

Several researchers have been engaged in the analysis and evaluation of the functional and interface features of existing OPACs. Hildreth and his team investigated ten OPAC systems.(5) They collected data through firsthand use of each system, by sending questionnaires to system producers or owners, and by reviewing the system documentation in each case. Numerous checklists were used to analyze the ten systems. This was the first comparative OPAC study that involved a large number of OPACs. The methodology provided a model for describing and comparing OPACs in later research projects, including the present one. The major findings of Hildreth's study were:

* Little similarity existed in command language vocabulary or syntax among the ten OPACs studied;

* Display formats of the ten OPACs varied significantly;

* The number of available help features and displays varied considerably across the ten systems.

Salmon,(6) employing Hildreth's conceptual framework and features classification, observed and compared the functional characteristics of twenty OPACs in U.S. libraries. In his paper, screen displays of various systems were used to illustrate the functional features of these OPACs. He presented feature comparison tables that showed that the OPAC field had evolved rapidly. As a result of his study, Salmon presented a list of features he suggested OPAC systems should offer.

Fayen discussed, in general, the types of OPACs available in terms of their approaches to searching.(7) She briefly described features of twelve OPAC systems she thought were representative and suggested a list of factors that should be considered when planning to build or buy an OPAC. These included the size of the database, computer equipment available, costs, authority file capabilities, display options, and retrieval features such as Boolean operators, truncation and wildcard operators, browsing features, and numeric value searching. …