Why bother: the impact of social OPACs

I was reading a trackback the other day to my post, Library 2.0 websites: where to begin from Michael Dunne. He makes several very good points, but one, in particular, caught my attention as something I really haven’t articulated yet to myself or others. On the subject of the social OPAC, he writes:

I have to confess I think he may be right, our library web sites are not places where you want to spend any time, and our OPACs are not fun places to be either. But then again, why should they be? Why should our library web site be a place where our students want to spend time? Is there something missing from their university experience that only our web site can provide? Why this fear, this sense that, unless we soon get up to speed we are all doomed?

First, I want to be clear that I don’t think we are doomed if we choose not to implement social software in our OPACs. Libraries will not cease to function if we don’t address the shortcomings of our online catalogs. It is very clear to me, however, that the OPAC is an empty vessel, waiting to be filled. Since their inception, OPACs have done the job intended by usurping the card catalog with stoic efficiency. Let’s be honest, though and admit that something special slipped out into the ether when those large, cumbersome drawers were toted out and replaced by luminescent portal we now know as the catalog station. That’s just the way it goes.

Much of what we lost was not due to function, but to form. Nothing will replace the look, feel, and smell of a dusty, old, age-cured card catalog, but it’s been a decade, or two since we made the switch and I think it’s okay to consider making our OPACs special. We’ve got a unique opportunity now as the planets of technology, internal discussion, and market penetration align. Perhaps now is the time to overcome institutional inertia and do something unexpected, if not radical. A social element belongs in the OPAC, our users are waiting for it and they’ll soak it up like sponges if we give it to them. Web 2.0 provides both technology and a cauldron of ideas as to how to apply it. At the same time, a conversation that was once a distant murmur is gathering strength and it promises to disrupt policies and attitudes libraries have, for so long, conditioned themselves to be reflexive about. The public, meanwhile, has become inured with technology and complexity.

Let’s not forget the role libraries play in a community. Perhaps the view from inside sometimes is only a view of ourselves reflected back at us, when in fact, the truth is that the public comes to us in need. Sometimes that need is small, casual. Sometimes it’s the type of need that transcends record authority and can only be redressed by another in similar need. Are we really the final say on what the best resources are if someone wants help with teen pregnancy, domestic abuse, or cystic fibrosis? Can all of our collective training tell that needful person exactly what material best suits their situation?

Of course not. Our OPACs cannot be the golden kiosks we all want, but by inviting participation in the stewardship of a community resource, we can begin to build unique meta-collections that slide value, pertinence, and humanity into the search process. It may be that in that moment when a patron is about to turn away from the library, something catches their eye–a tag, a comment, some marginalia, perhaps, that puts the patron in front of the material they truly need.

The key component in growing social OPACs is community. Once you put the community you service into the process of delivering content back out into the very same community, you initiate a loop that will become exponentially richer over time as those neural connections glom on to each other. Findability is not the goal, but the activity and the experience which is why I say that OPACs have the potential to be fascinating places to visit and browse. They will not embody the comforting, muffled presence of the old card catalog. No, they’ll be their own individual entities–borderless, shapeless creatures that somehow fit the people they represent.

That’s a goal truly worth striving for.

[tags] library, librarians, library 2.0, web 2.0, OPAC, tagging, social software, search engines [/tags]

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