Library catalogs

The Librarian in Black posted recently about a blurb in Library Journal on OPACs (online public access catalogs — online library catalogs). Basically the LJ blurb says that OPACs are improving by adding features like allowing patrons to pay fines or make donations to the library online, via the catalog. LiB notes that this is really not that much of an improvement.

I find this interesting because of the cataloging homework I’ve been working on the last couple of days, which has me comparing OPACs. So far I’ve used the Simmons catalog (vendor is Innovative) and the North Carolina State University catalog (vendor is TLC) and it’s amazing how different they are, and how much more usable I think the NCSU catalog is — it has more search options, which makes it easier for the patron broad search term and a simple limiter and have the initial results be pretty relevant. It also has a ton of what I think of as “search helpers” that the patron can use to refine and limit the search results once they’ve been displayed. Things like topic, subject heading, language, format of the resource (book, ebook, video, etc.), where in the library it is, whether it’s available, etc. The Simmons catalog doesn’t have that much flexibility, and some things that I experienced in testing it would frustrate the non-LIS candidate. Your “average undergraduate” doesn’t want to sift through “weird” Library of Congress Subject Headings to find the resources that fill their needs. He or she just wants some resources to be displayed on the screen immediately.

Anyway, at this point, people want to search library catalogs the same way they search Google. I’m not sure we’ll ever quite get to that point, or that we want to get to that point, but I think librarians need to look at library catalogs as the way the user finds information, not the way we present the information to the user. (Another way of saying that is that librarians need to demand/develop catalogs that reflect how people search, not how we organize the information.)

For example, I think it’s useful to be able to limit your search to keywords in a title vs. author’s name. You can search for “shakespeare” in the author field to find things he wrote, or you can search for it in the title field to find things written about him. With a search system like Google, you just plug in “shakesepare” and everything containing that word will come back at you — and then you have to sift through it or limit the results somehow to find what you want. That’s time-consuming when you think about it in terms of the time you would then spend looking at results to find a specific resource, or a specific type of resource.

What do you non-librarians think about library catalogs you’ve used recently? Were they easy to use, or wonky and annoying?

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One thought on “Library catalogs

  1. Hmmm…. The local public library’s website rocks. It’s located at http://www.icpl.org. They’ve got all sorts of pretty easy-to-navigate features, and they even have an index of all of the local newspapers, including the university newspaper (which the university’s library site doesn’t have…). The brick-and-mortar library is also awesome, but they rebuilt the whole thing in the last few years, so it’d better be awesome. My only complaint is that their selection of crochet books isn’t quite what it could be (the knitting selection is awesome, though). And I know lots of cheap college students who only “rent” DVDs from the public library 🙂

    The university’s online catalog, http://infohawk.uiowa.edu, sounds like it’s pretty well organized compared to others you mentioned, but I had a lot of problems figuring it out. I still have problems trying to get it to pull up a book I know exists at the library, even when I do an advanced search by author or title, and I know others who have run into the same problem. It does a good job of identifying electronic resources, which help when you need to gather a bunch of articles. And the fact that I can access the complete online OED from the site? I love it.

    And props to librarians, one of whom taught me the search filter “site:” which I am forever using on Google when I want to search knitty without hitting their archives.

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