Magazine article Computers in Libraries

Thinking about Your Next OPAC

Magazine article Computers in Libraries

Thinking about Your Next OPAC

Article excerpt

One of the hottest topics in the library automation arena is creating a vision of the next round of catalogs. I hear a drumbeat of complaint about the current offerings. While I think the criticism is often overstated, it's clear that the catalogs have lagged behind the interfaces found elsewhere on the Web. They've gained a reputation for being less than intuitive and lacking the features seen in other popular Web sites.

One of the most biting indictments of all is that I hear stories about users who find library OPACs so unfriendly that they often go to places like to look for books of interest, and then flip over to the catalog to see if those titles are owned by their libraries.

It's clear that today's typical library users are Web-savvy and have very high expectations. If we want to draw these folks in, we need to offer interfaces on our Web sites that match or exceed those found on the commercial Web. Paired with high-quality content that's selected and created by librarians, a state-of-the-art Web interface is a compelling destination for users.

Advancing the Interface

We're seeing a tremendous amount of effort being put toward creating new library interfaces, both by the commercial automation vendors and in the open source arena. Each of these endeavors focuses on a different set of assumptions, features, and functions related to the ideal library Web environment, but each of them advances the state of the catalog far beyond what we've seen in the previous round of offerings.

The following are some of the interfaces and products that I've seen over the last few months. They don't necessarily comprise a comprehensive list, but they're some prominent examples of library interfaces that are fairly radical departures from those of the earlier generation:

* Encore (Innovative Interfaces, Inc.)

* Primo (Ex Libris)

* AquaBrowser Library (Medialab Solutions, distributed by The Library Corp.)

* Endeca ProFind (Endeca)

* eXtensible Catalog (an open source project by the University of Rochester's River Campus Libraries)

* SirsiDynix Rooms, SchoolRooms (SirsiDynix)

* Koha and Evergreen (the latest Web OPACs created from open source ILS projects)

* SirsiDynix Enterprise Portal Solution and the latest version of Polaris from Polaris Library Systems (some of the latest Web OPACs from commercial ILS vendors)

I think it's urgent that libraries move quickly to implement more up-to-date interfaces. We just can't afford to offer stale, unattractive, and ineffective catalogs and search tools on our Web sites. I'm afraid that users will drift away to other alternatives unless they find interesting interfaces and compelling content at their libraries' Web sites.

As I look at the latest generation of interfaces, I see a lot of excellent ideas that address these issues. Each has its strengths, but I'm not going to assess each as a whole. Rather, let's think about some of the key concepts, features, and techniques that stand out as essential elements of a successful library search interface for the current era of Web-savvy users.

Good Relevance Ranking

One of the most important elements of a successful search interface is the order in which the results display. Google, Yahoo!, and the other global search engines have acclimated us all to the idea of relevance ranking--the best and most interesting items rise up to the top of the list. If everything goes well, even if you get thousands of items in a result set, the best come first.

Good relevance ranking isn't magic. It comes through careful refinement of the formulas that determine the ordering of results. It's very hard to achieve good relevance ranking. When performing a query against a body of information, there will be a number of records that technically qualify as valid results. The tricky part lies in determining which of these result candidates are most likely to be important or interesting. …

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