Monday, December 04, 2006

Is your OPAC fun? (a manifesto of sorts)

A few weeks ago I spoke at a conference on "The Future of the Catalog," hosted by the ACRL Delaware Valley Chapter, and I've been meaning to blog about it since. It's to late to blog it overall*, but one topic keeps bothering me.

At the close of a panel discussion, we were asked how a reinvented online catalog (an "OPAC") could serve a nineteen year-old. All I had to do was put "findability," "millenials," "Google," "ease of use," "anywhere" and "now" together, and I was done.

Well, I snapped. Here's what I said or wished I had:

What distinguishes LibraryThing from other OPACs isn't tagging, user reviews, book recommendations, RSS or any of that. What distinguishes it is this: Everyone else's OPACs people have to use. LibraryThing is optional. LibraryThing is an OPAC people WANT to use. They even pay. LibraryThing is the fun OPAC!

OPAC conversations center around "findability." The OPAC's job is to help you find and get what you want--and get out of the way. It's the job of a dental drill. A good dental drill does not dilly-dally; nobody ever has a "driveway moment" with a dental drill.

It's also the logic of the card catalog. The card catalog was there to help you find something, not to be fun.** And like so much else, this principle was translated to the digital world, perhaps too successfully. For all their drawbacks, OPACs do exceed card catalogs in finability. But they really come into their own in being surpassingly unfun!

Sure, it would be nice if OPACs made things findabile. A findable OPAC is at least not torture to use. But why not aim higher than findability? Nineteen-year-olds may use Google because it's easy, but that doesn't explain MySpace.

Why not be fun? The library itself is fun. (I simply don't care about the library experience of people for whom books are a "task."***) The catalog is a condensed representation of that fun. It's not the books, but it has a lot to say about them, and it can be the springboard for so much more. I enjoy reading and thinking about books. I want to remember what I read, much as I want to remember my vacations. I want help finding new ones. I want to put my books out there for all see. I want to express myself about them. I want to find people to talk about our books. I might even want to date someone who reads the same things I do.

Surprise surprise, but I've just described what LibraryThing does. It is the fun OPAC.

How can your OPAC be fun? (No, not with Flash animations.****) Here are some first thoughts:
  • Provide blog widgets and RSS feeds so patrons can show off what they're reading and what they thought of it.
  • Let people find what they want, but let them also get entertainingly lost. Encourage exploration, serendipity and lost-ness.
  • Give authors, subjects, languages, tags and other facets their own pages. That stuff's interesting, and can lead one delightfully astray.
  • Allow patrons to interact with the catalog via tags, ratings and reviews. (And would it kill you to give them patron pages?)
  • Link outward. The web is fun. Point to it.
  • Allow (static) inbound links. What are you, a bouncer?
  • Let patrons access your data via API. Some clever patron will do something fun you hadn't thought of.
  • Give patrons a reason to check in every day—something about the books, and ideally about them and the books, not some "trick" like free movie passes.
  • Talk to patrons in their own language (eg., with tags), not in some crazy argot, where "cooking" is "cookery" and "the internet" is "the information superhighway."
  • Give patrons fun, high-quality recommendations.
  • Give patrons enjoyable metadata. I don't intend to read any of the books in today's NYT Book Review, but I loved reading about them.
  • Let users interact socially around the books they read. (Obviously, anything social needs to be voluntary.)
  • Make it usable and finable too.
Am I crazy? Discuss?

*It was a blog-worthy one. The panel included Thom Hickey of OCLC, Emily Lynema of NCSU and Karen Calhoun of Cornell and the Calhoun Report. Hickey presented some very exceptional work, including (fun!) author pages for WorldCat. I had not met Lynema or Calhoun before, and found their presentations and company most enjoyable. Emily and I shared a cab back to the airport. (I hope she gets a blog soon, so I can keep up with what she's doing.) Others blogged about the conference here, here (Hickey), and here (ACRL).
**Going all the way back to (my hero) Cutter's Rules for a Dictionary Catalog (1876). The same applies to today's Functional Requirements for Bibliographic Records, summarized as "find, identify, select, and obtain." (How about amuse? Waste some time? Get laid?) In retrospect, card catalogs seem fun. Hard-core bibliothecophiles***** "miss the feel"--flipping through the cards, sliding the drawers in and out, occasionally sliding one all the way out and carrying it with you to devour it in private, like a cat.
***Students who hate learning shouldn't find their books quickly. The OPAC should spit out a nonsense call numbers, and they should wander in circles until their eyes light upon some other book--the book that changes everything--or until they collapse to the ground in punishment for their sins.
****Witness the Orange County's Library's snowman, much praised in liblogger circles. It's not that I dislike it—I liked it—but what does it have to do with libraries? Someone there has a real sense of fun. Why waste it on some separate, siloed Flash ap?
****A perfectly good word as far as I'm concerned, but Google has only two uses, both in French.


Blogger joshua m. neff said...

Holy cow, Tim! YES! If you're crazy, then I'm right there with you.

I babble some more about this on my own blog, but basically, I think it boils down to this: using a library shouldn't be work, it should be play.

12/04/2006 3:30 AM  
Blogger Edwin Mijnsbergen said...


Please allow me to use these words here in Holland too. Allow me the fun of watching faces when talking about OPAC's and fun :-)


12/04/2006 6:18 AM  
Anonymous dchaikin said...

Good stuff. What you say here could should be more prominent. I think you should add something like this to the LT main page, or somewhere on the about page.

12/04/2006 9:35 AM  
Blogger RJO said...

Hard-core bibliothecophiles**** "miss the feel"--flipping through the cards, sliding the drawers in and out, occasionally sliding one all the way out and carrying it with you to devour it in private, like a cat.

Yes indeed. I think every library needs to maintain a room or niche as a card catalog museum, so younger people can feel what it was like and so the experience doesn't become extinct, like the feeling of holding the reins of a horse or dialing a rotary phone with your finger. (I remember that the Massachusetts Historical Society used to insist, when you took a drawer from the catalog, that you set a sheet of cardboard down first so the drawer wouldn't scratch the surface of their antique tables.)

One of the great pleasures of a very old card catalog was always the many hand-written annotations (and sometimes even the hand-written cards). Being able to see the impress of other's hands on the material is not possible in sterilized OPACs; but in a certain way, LT makes it possible again, as we each manifest our particular quirks in our uploaded images, tags, or descriptions.

****I also propose the existence of a new "condition" exhibited by many thingamabrarii, viz., bibliothecaphilia.

12/04/2006 9:48 AM  
Anonymous yoko said...

I'm very sorry I missed your talk and the chance to meet you-- I found out about it well after the fact, when a friend and fellow colleague who had gone to the conference told me about it.

As a full-time cataloger (or despite it?), I like the points you've mentioned. I'd like to add that it helps that librarians find it fun to use, too! Oftentimes, it's the reference librarians who are the ones who are using the OPAC to explain to students/patrons how to find things, and if the librarian can find the stuff they want and have it be fun to find, well, all the better, I think.

12/04/2006 9:52 AM  
Blogger Tim said...

A propos of card catalogs, have people see John Blyberg's card catalog creator?

It's open source, and I've been wanting to adapt it to LT for some time, but the combination of GD and what seems to me rather sophisticate use of objects has perpetually kept it on my back burner.

12/04/2006 9:58 AM  
Anonymous yoko said...

Here's my Blyberg card:

12/04/2006 10:37 AM  
Blogger DocMartens said...

Thanks so much for the "manifesto": our LIS class on information resources design & implementation for the web is finishing up this week, and what a great "last-minute read" for us to share!

12/04/2006 11:26 AM  
Blogger burlapwax said...

Love this little rant! Thumb the nose at the whole "OPACs should be more like Google" NGC4LIB silliness and replace it with "OPACs should be more like MySpace!"

[chuckle, chuckle]

12/04/2006 12:12 PM  
Blogger Faith Williams said...

So good! So much what's missing.

Faith Williams

12/05/2006 7:55 AM  
Anonymous SatansParakeet said...

Well, you're obviously crazy and overexcited, but that's a good thing. It's exactly why you are so good at promoting LibraryThing.

Making the catalog fun should be the dream of every librarian. However, we also need to recognize that many people don't care if the catalog is fun. That shouldn't be an impediment to making the catalog work, we just need to realize that not everyone will use the "fun" features. As long as the catalog can function without requiring fun, add all the more interesting features you want.

Librarians can't simply agree with Tim's statement that "I simply don't care about the library experience of people for whom books are a 'task.'" It is the job of Librarians to help everyone who comes in get what they need, even if they hate libraries and books at the core of their beings. Tim enjoys the freedom to design his site as he wants and if people don't like it they don't have to use it, but publicly funded libraries are supposed to serve the public whether most of the public likes libraries or not. Some people just want to find things and get out. Sometimes I'm even one of them.

12/05/2006 11:09 AM  
Blogger jmnlman said...

See that's the thing we constantly hear from librarians.... "Library 2.0!!!" over and over but they never seem to pull the trigger on anything just spin their wheels with definitions. At least you guys actually managed to show them the way. Now the question is what will they do.

12/05/2006 6:40 PM  
Blogger Tim said...

Satan's parakeet: I agree with your larger point. *I* am not focused on those people, but a library—particularly a public library—must focus on all. What a public library does should at some level "resemble justice," something available to all, not those whom we may think deserve it more or less.

That said, libraries too often bend and scrape to get people in the door, garnishing or even hiding what they do best and underplaying the radical, transformative power of a book (or a movie, recording, etc. but not, I think, an eBook). Serving patrons ought to have a "justice element" as well—serving educational and cultural needs first. As I've complained before, the Portland Public Library has virtually no Latin or Greek (despite arising from a great 19c collection) and is similarly weak on many other topics, but has an absolutely gorgeous floor-to-ceiling set of this years' "Let's Go" guides. We should care about every patron, but I care a lot more about the student who can't find a Latin grammar in the state's largest public library than I do some middle-class skinflint who won't buy a $25 book to take on their $2,500 European vacation.

12/05/2006 8:08 PM  
Blogger Mike said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

12/06/2006 10:22 AM  
Anonymous Laura said...

Even my pokey little branch library has, at least, a Latin dictionary, though no Greek (if you want that, you must come to the librarian/former Classics major directly). But that's neither here nor there.

Anyway, I've been saying for some time that the OPAC needs to be both more useful *and* more fun. I think subject headings are fun, but I see no reason that we should expect the general public to feel the same way. Good stuff here.

12/06/2006 10:33 AM  
Blogger LibraryThing said...

They've got a few things. The catalog shows more than you'd think, because their "Portland Room," a 19c collection frozen in Amber and under a special no-take-out-no-pens regimen has some great 18-19c stuff.

12/06/2006 4:28 PM  
Blogger Ryan said...

I strongly suspect that (as the recent Pew Center study confirmed about podcasts) most of these Web 2.0 features would go unused, or be used only once, if they were added to an OPAC. People are obviously overwhelmed by the amount of information and opportunities to interact being thrown at them, and I doubt most are going to invest much energy in tagging, commenting on, or otherwise embroidering *library catalog entries*.

That said, I think that the existing way of presenting subject authorities is useless for most lay users, and 2.0 applications such as tag clouds present possibilities for making subject searching easier and more a part of users' regular searching routines. Most "next generation" OPACs seem to go for the Amazon-like bells and whistles mentioned here, but don't yet deal w/authority issues. LC's control over authorities obviously has a lot to do with this, and it seems like leveraging the 2.0 possibilities will also mean recognizing how arcane, non-sensical, user-unfriendly, and unsuited to tagclouding the LC subject headings are (not abandoning them wholesale for local tagging only).

So I definitely agree w/your point on "natural language" - Sandy Berman was obviously saying this 25 years ago, and it's still a problem. But fixing it in a comprehensive way and moving OPACs to the next level in a substantive way is going to be a gargantuan, decidedly unfun task (subsidiary local tagging based on broad patron needs might be a good stopgap in the meantime).

12/07/2006 9:40 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Very good idea. Similar to a discussion I saw on this Travel Kit.

12/07/2006 2:19 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

And sometimes they try too hard and it all goes horribly wrong.

12/11/2006 1:03 PM  
Anonymous Arnaud Lelache said...


we're doing an open source projet of an OPAC that is pretty much in tune with what you describe !!!

it can be plugged on any Integrated Library System.

It's called AFI-OPAC 2.0.

Sorry, the project page is in French at this stage :-( , but we would be pleased to extend the community to the english speaking world lol ...

Feel free to visit & leave your comments !!!

1/03/2007 4:29 PM  
Blogger Anne said...

I don't think it's open-source, but you might see the faintest glimmer of fun in the Phoenix Public Library's new OPAC. Using endeca software, it brings some intuitiveness to the process. Users have been known to actually spontaneously select options and find what they need! GASP!

Take a look at:

If you click on Ask A Librarian on the green bar your message will go to an actual staff person and be routed to the team looking to refine and improve the site.

2/13/2007 12:19 PM  
Anonymous reisfun said...

greetings from holland

10/19/2008 7:12 AM  

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