Magazine article American Libraries

Access, Access, Access! the New OPAC Mantra

Magazine article American Libraries

Access, Access, Access! the New OPAC Mantra

Article excerpt


I am a public librarian whose children haven't really used a library for research purposes since 1998. That year the home PC entered their lives, complete with Internet access. They remain voracious readers, despite our rural library's lack of materials eclectic enough to suit their tastes, because of my willingness to buy them books ever since their middle-school years. However, their propensity for at-home, or in-dormitory, research remains well outside of my professional and parental preference. They rarely used their local public library for research and they don't use their respective college and university libraries now unless forced to by their instructors.

Today there is an Internet generation of children who, when they reach taxpaying age, may well ask themselves whether or not the public library is a worthwhile and necessary institution. Public libraries are in the midst of a sweeping cultural change that could, if we do not respond to it radically, change the perception of its value and the need for its services.

I am not talking about the need for books, or the value of information. I don't think that these will be threatened at all. I am talking about the need to pay for an institution that may not be particularly useful to its constituents, given the private and commercial alternatives readily available. If this happens, I believe we will have brought it on ourselves and have only ourselves to blame.

My children's disuse of the public library when they were younger was not their fault. From their viewpoint there was absolutely no reason to use a library catalog. They could have found search-engine links on a library home page, but why should they have gone to a library home page to use a search engine when they could just use the search engine?

Of course, in not using a library online catalog they never knew what other resources, in other formats, were readily available that might have really helped them. Their youthful mindset was that the public library was a place you had to enter to use, and their idea of the catalog was a list showing materials that the library owned.

My own mindset now is that of a loud and tenacious advocate for "evaluating, selecting, representing, and organizing information," as Martin Dillon put it in his May 1998 graduation talk at the University of North Carolina/Chapel Hill School of Information and Library Science. I truly believe that we must bring our patrons into our catalog so we can show them the diversity of information and formats available, before sending them out to the Internet. If we are doing our jobs, patrons will understand that all they have to do is a search in our OPAC to be presented with cataloged Internet resources they can trust. They also will know their search should yield beneficial resources in other formats that the library physically contains or can obtain for them.

To effectively do this job, public librarians and their institutions must successfully address several challenges. If we meet these challenges, our youngest patrons--and thereby their older siblings, parents, and teachers--may gradually develop a new, positive perception of what the public library, its staff, and online catalog can accomplish for them.

First, public libraries must abandon the traditional concept of the OPAC. When our patrons didn't have access to computers, we could hold to the idea that our OPAC was a finding tool for materials physically held by the library. Indeed, the inherent limitations of the integrated library software that we used (and many are still using) reinforce this concept. But the new-generation ILS affords us abilities for patron service that we never thought possible.

Software supplies service opportunities

Kanawha County (W.Va.) Public Library, where I am on staff, has just added Sirsi's iBistro product. This "electronic library" allows patrons to search cataloged Web resources (LibraryHQ. …

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