The Knuckle-Cracker's Dilemma: A Transaction Log Study of OPAC Subject Searching

By Ferl, Terry Ellen; Millsap, Larry | Information Technology and Libraries, June 1996 | Go to article overview

The Knuckle-Cracker's Dilemma: A Transaction Log Study of OPAC Subject Searching


Ferl, Terry Ellen, Millsap, Larry, Information Technology and Libraries


This report presents the results of an online survey of users who access the University of California's computerized union catalog, the MELVYL(*) Library system, from public access terminals in the libraries of the University of California, Santa Cruz (UCSC). The report includes descriptive statistics on user status, affiliation, anticipated focus of system usage, judgment on ease of system use, and need for assistance. The transaction logs of respondents to the survey are analyzed and cross-tabulated with demographic data on the same group of users. Particular attention is given to subject searching and to the dilemmas that confront users of a system in which heuristics are largely absent. Comparisons with data collected by the investigators in an earlier study of users who accessed the MELVYL Library system from remote sites are also included.

* Introduction

The MELVYL Library system, a pioneering OPAC developed by the University of California's Division of Library Automation, has evolved from a prototype catalog launched in 1981 to a vast system that is now a gateway to an ever-increasing number and variety of bibliographic resources. It also serves as the union catalog for the University's nine campuses.

In a study conducted in 1991, the investigators surveyed users who logged on to the MELVYL system from remote sites. They analyzed translation logs of those users and reported their findings (Ferl 1992; Millsap 1993). The present study was undertaken to capture similar information about in-library users of the system and to examine in more detail the search behavior of users performing subject searches.

The study focuses on the users of the two libraries that constitute the University Library at the Santa Cruz campus. Over the past decade at Santa Cruz, the MELVYL system had come to serve as the primary catalog. The catalog database within the MELVYL system has been described at length in the authors' studies cited above. It may be best characterized as a second-generation, command-driven OPAC in which there is a high degree of normalization of user search statements before they are processed for retrieval purposes, but in which heuristics--active guidance of the user in the search process--have been purposely kept to a minimum. The user, therefore, remains in virtual full control of the progression of his session.

Approximately 10,000 students, including 900 graduate students, are enrolled at the Santa Cruz campus. The library collection of one million volumes is housed in two libraries--one devoted to the humanities and social sciences and the other to natural sciences. Students are offered programs in the arts, humanities, natural sciences, and social sciences, as well as 22 graduate programs. Several research units in the sciences are based on the campus. The investigators use of their home institution as the focus of the study afforded them optimum methodological control, and at the same time provided a site that is generally representative of many academic institutions in the United States.

* Subject Searching in the Catalog

The authors were particularly interested in investigating subject searches performed by in-library users in the MELVYL system's catalog database. Their study of remote users (Millsap 1993, 331-32) yielded the finding that a much higher proportion of undergraduate students (51.3 percent) are likely to perform subject index searches than are faculty (14.6 percent), graduate students (17 percent), or library staff (19.7 percent). This finding supported Ray Larson's hypothesis (1991) about the disinclination of more experienced users to perform subject searches. The failures in subject searching that the present investigators found in manual analysis of the remote users' logs served as the catalyst for examining more closely the subject searching of undergraduate students. They expected this group of users to be the most populous in an in-library study, and that expectation was warranted. …

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