2006: Year of the phoenix OPAC?

Rising from the ashes...While I was on vacation last week, Michael Stephens posted an absolutely fantastic article, “Ten Techie Things for Librarians 2006“. As far as posts go, Stephen really puts the pedal to the metal with this one. What he makes so apparent is that technology is weaving itself around libraries now at a phenomenal pace. We just flipped our calendars to February and already I’m left a little speechless at what’s transpired in the first month of 2006.

One of 2006’s watershed moments has already happened in the unveiling of NCSU’s new online catalog. I’m going to forgo description of it since that’s already been done–I’ll just say that it’s too sexy by far.

Another great January moment was seeing Casey Bisson‘s WordPress OPAC project which poses some intrinsic questions about the nature of our relationship to the ILS and OPAC as well as with our vendors.

A little closer to home, Ed Vielmetti launched a new blog, Superpatron, and began developing a veritable suite of third-party library applications using the RSS feeds from AADL’s catalog. I’ve wanted to begin a patron development initiative for over a year now and his work has given me a kick in the pants to make that happen.

Toward the end of January, University of Huddersfield‘s Dave Pattern joined me in an effort to create a patron-oriented REST presentation layer to the OPAC. Dave has invited me to work with him on search suggestions. He’s already done some great work on it and when I get caught up, I plan to dive in.

While tinkering with PHP’s GD tools, I threw together a social card catalog feature on our OPAC which has been much more popular than I would have thought for a simple proof-of-concept, leading me to believe that the public is hungry for a social element to the online library catalog. (In just over two weeks, almost 600 comments have been added to the card system and over 50 unique users have begun building personal card catalogs with their library account–but more on that in another post).

What does this all mean? More specifically, what does this all mean for the OPAC? The OPAC hasn’t enjoyed this much attention since it’s inception–something is going on. The traditional model of a sterile, uninviting web catalog is dying quickly amidst a growing din of disdain and lust for something better, different. Yet, the darling in all this is the data that lurks behind these poorly designed, hastily conceived interfaces. We still love the data–our data–our public’s data. So there is a place for the OPAC, but the question is, what will rise from the ashes of these tired old catalogs as they are consumed by an iconoclastic fervor that sweeps in like a cyclone out of tornado alley?

Actually, that’s only one of several important questions to ponder.

What will the new OPAC look like? Well, we’re not quite sure yet, but it’s clear that forces like Web 2.0 and Library 2.0 are driving the design process. As you peel back the layers of motivation, you uncover a goldmine of ideas and charges for our next-gen systems. There is no template, there is no hallowed road to success this year. There is, however, miles and miles of uncharted territory and a wellspring of new tools to pluck from. That is why the OPAC is not being enhanced, it’s being reborn.

Where are the vendors in all this? Some vendors like SirsiDynix and Talis are giving a nod to these changes, but others like III (AADL’s vendor) are conspicuously silent and, in some cases, almost resistant to this movement. If you are a smaller library or a library who doesn’t have the technical expertise some others are lucky enough to have, your vendor is the only resource you can turn to for answers. You stand a good chance of not getting any from them. Ultimately, if you want to be an early adopter and innovator, you need to turn to the library community itself for support, which leads me to my next question.

Who is doing all this? I’ve mentioned some folks earlier in this article, but they are not the only group working to recreate the OPAC. A lot of great folks at code4lib are working hard to bring new services and features to bear–much of their work is aimed at expanding data availability. The blogosphere is teeming with great ideas and people willing to lend a hand. The problem is that in order to launch an initiative aimed at recreating your own OPAC, you need the expertise in-house–no matter how generous the community-at-large is. If you don’t have it, and are unable/unwilling to commit technical people to the task, you’re hand is forced to wait for your vendor to prefabricate a solution.

But isn’t the prefabricated OPAC exactly what we are dispensing with now? In many ways, yes. I think an important ingredient of this primordial mix is that the new OPACs we’re seeing distinguish themselves with their own ‘personality’. That is, there is something about them that is uniquely personal and characteristic of the institutions they represent. Public library websites are specially poised to provide a community portal. What other municipal service will create an online community where social data is aggregated at such a local scale? At the heart of those websites is the OPAC–it’s the nexus between the work we do and the outside world. It many cases, its the only way our mission touches those outside the physical boundaries of the library itself. Shouldn’t it be as unique as the people who work inside those buildings? Shouldn’t it be as unique as the community itself?

Well, then, how is it done? That’s the big question, isn’t it? Like I said, there is no easy road to the finish line. The key to success is having a vision and putting the right people in the right place to get the job done. A combination of talent, creativity, passion, and determination will get you most of the way. The folks at NCSU have shown that its possible to slam dunk these projects and I have a feeling we’ll see more innovation this year. The best tool we have at our disposal now are the social networks within the larger library community. It’s important that we work together and help each other out. Now is the time for collaboration. We also need our vendors to get on-board.

Start putting pressure on your vendors, even if you have no current plans to revamp your OPAC. It’s unfortunate that many vendors are refusing to even consider radical change. Ours certainly will not. Watch out for vendors who repackage existing features with new web/library 2.0 jargon. We were recently told that our ILS already has a sufficient API. We can still recognize the pig behind the lipstick. Ultimately, all we need are 4 simple requests honored. The more they hear it, the more likely they will eventually listen. In the meantime, get to know your ILS inside and out so when the time comes you’ll be able to hit the ground running.

2006 will not be the year we all adopt new OPAC features, but I think it’s shaping up to be the year a new OPAC vision is created. We will certainly see a lot of prototypes, I think. Say what you will about web 2.0 or library 2.0, but the discussions they’ve convoked are helping to initiate and compile some very significant work. We ought to be taking notice as the new public face of our industry begins to shine.

[tags]OPAC, Web 2.0, Library 2.0, Libraries, ILS[/tags]

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