Infomancy n. 1.The field of magic related to the conjuring of information from the chaos of the universe. 2.The collection of terms, queries, and actions related to the retrieval of information from arcane sources.

The Next Generation [INSERT WORD HERE] Trend

June 19th, 2007 by infomancy

All the talk about top library technology trends gets a geek thinking. Oh sure, there are the easy ones like the iPhone changing everything and more libraries embracing alternate worlds like Second Life, but what comes next? More importantly, what comes next when we look beyond the technology itself? Instead of focusing on tools like stone axes that we must master to sustain life, we are talking about tools that enhance and enrich communication. Or rather, we should be talking about communication that can be enhanced and enriched by new tools. Therefore, the next big trend in our use of technologies is probably going to be a move away from the tools to re-focus the discussion on the conversations.

My concern with the recent release and widespread celebration of an updated OPAC for the Phoenix Public Library is that they have released an OPAC. See, I was still under the impression that “the OPAC sucks.” Please understand, this isn’t an attack on the incredible undertaking from Phoenix, but rather a cautionary note about going half-way. It is my strong belief that the purpose of an OPAC is to connect users with MARC records. Even if we work wonders on the search/browse interface to include faceting and grouping…we are still connecting users with something for which they have no use. While improving the search is critical – we have left search in the hands of our inventory control software for far too long – we must also put as much much more work into creating a user-centered display of results.

This is something we can accomplish. The new tools for communicating information online are greatly enriched by languages (PHP, AJAX, etc.) and other tools (CSS, themes, etc.) that we can use to craft a user-centered experience. Instead of displaying the entire string for the descritpion of a book, we can parse out just the information that is most important for the user. We can leave out items like “col. ill.” and “24cm” that are meaningless to the user. In the same vein, we can discard the classic “View MARC Record” button that serves no purpose for most users. Let me emphasize, however, that user-centered also means creating a specific display for librarian users. If they need to quickly access MARC records, provide them with a direct link on their version of the site. The difference is in placing communication first and meeting the user’s (singular, dependent on the current authentication to the site) needs.

How can this happen? Here is my “dream” trend. I fervently hope that different types of libraries can work together on this huge task. Academic libraries specialize in powerful algorithms for searching complex meta data. Public libraries are reaching out to build communities around a shared library experience. School Libraries have a built-in audience of users with a wide range of interface needs that can be observed for usability studies. Special Libraries are experts in meeting individualized requirements for customization of information displays. Imagine the power if we all worked together to draw upon each other’s strengths in building a model for a next generation library portal.

In a way, it has already started. NCSU showed us the potential for faceting search results. Casey Bisson’s WPOPAC prototyped the model of building a database driven interface for extracted records. AADL’s SOPAC created an open community for interacting with library resources.LibraryThing helped us recognize the power of communities. All of these were inspirations for my locally implemented vision of the user-centered Fish4Info. The next step, the really big next trend, is putting all of this together.

So let me very publicly say thank you to Phoenix Public Library for an job very well done. Any constructive criticism I offer is meant purely as suggestions to self and others for next steps. I can assure you that your excellent integration of faceting has shown us that we need to make that the next item we tackle for our program.

3 Responses to “The Next Generation [INSERT WORD HERE] Trend”

  1. Kathy Miller Says:

    Chris,
    Maybe you are hung up on words. You say: “My concern with the recent release and widespread celebration of an updated OPAC for the Phoenix Public Library is that they have released an OPAC. See, I was still under the impression that “the OPAC sucks.”

    The user doesn’t knowor care that it is an “OPAC”. They might call it “the catalog”or book finder or even “library google”.

    The important factor is functionality and navigation, and on those scores, Phoenix does pretty well. Yes, it still has some unneeded information (cm.?!) but it also has upfront some very important user information – like- is it available for check out or can I download it.

    I did a search on my favorite “team of rivals” and it quickly got me what I wanted in the first few results, I didn’t have to know anything… I just put in words.

    Not only that, it just asks me to put in words, it doesn’t tell me “This is a catalog or even “search the catalog”…. just gives me a place to find “stuff”.

    The rest of the page layout is cool too, giving me what I want upfront – hours, subjects I might be interested in, programming, even Over 50 (that’s me!). They still need to combine a search so I can find articles as well as books. UR XC C4 does that pretty well as a prototype.

    Also, you are right that the user doesn’t want to be connected to the MARC record. But there is “gold in them there hills”…. there is “stuff” in the MARC record that can be mined to give the user the experience s/he wants. The user doesn’t care that the CD is 4 and 3/4 inches, you are right, but s/he does want to know how many hours (42) and whether it is unabridged. They also want to know who the reader is (not all users of course) since a good reader is really a good actor. So lets mine the data we have in MARC (and other sources) and the user doesn’t need to know that it is MARC, OPAC, Catalog, or whatever…

    I’ve always said… “this is what I want. Get if for me. Now.”

    Kathy

  2. K.G. Schneider Says:

    Chris, I didn’t say PPL was the be-all end-all; my point is that they ARE thinking around the curve by moving past Dewey and using bookstore-style BISAC topic facets. That’s innovative! Plus it’s colorful and tempting. Does it have some information that could be eliminated or modified? Probably. But PPL didn’t set out to overthrow MARC as we know it: they set out to improve service to their users. They are chipping away, just as we all should.

  3. Christopher Harris Says:

    Kathy, I love what you are saying, but I really feel that names are critical here. When we use the word OPAC it comes with a history and a pre-defined set of expectations that seem to include having a “display MARC record” button. The portal concept is spot on, but my real concern is that to build a portal around an OPAC (instead of redesigning the OPAC to fully integrate with a portal) is problematic.

    Karen, who said overthrow MARC? I am just saying never show it to the end user. The facets and color are excellent. I can’t wait for our team to be able to tackle facets as PPL is showing how powerfully user-friendly it can be.