The OPAC is Dead. Long Live the OPAC!

  • Jane Burke – Vice President and General Manager, Serials Solutions
Online resources have profoundly transformed research libraries. The paradigm shift is away from library management and toward the management of user services. Most research is done remotely, i.e., outside of the library, in offices, dorms, etc. This trend negates the research library's traditional "value add" to the research process. The library's value is not obvious when 18th century documents just show up in a dorm room, and they are not necessarily related to the library.

Serials Solutions hired a consulting firm to perform a study on how users conduct research. Students were recruited for the study through
Facebook ads, and the study was performed at
4 different universities within the last 10 months. A total of 60 undergraduates were observed conducting their own research projects. Each was paid $50 for their time. Some sessions occurred in dorms, some over coffee.

Based on this research, Jane had these observations and recommendations:

Research almost always begins off site (i.e., outside of the library). Students want to research and write at the same time. Multitasking is easy for them.

They will not tolerate learning multiple user interfaces. Three interfaces are about the most they will accommodate. Google and the university course management system are the two essential interfaces for undergrads, which leaves little room for complex library interfaces. Course management systems and Google are the lingua franca among the majority of students.

Most library ILS's were created to support the print-focused library. We perpetuate that model with a lot of instructions for users to absorb: how to access reserves, how to search the database, etc. Just to begin a search of the ILS, the user has to make several decisions: which search field? what "heading type"? start of title or keyword?

We have too many rules just to get started. The appeal of Google is that this kind of decision-making is not required. The researchers in this study observed that most user searches are single term keywords.

Digital millennials (referred to as "screenagers" in another session) don't understand different formats, nor do they care. We still bifurcate our resources; monographs, journals, and databases are treated as separate categories. We spend time teaching users the difference between the OPAC and databases, and they don't care!

On our websites, we put databases here, journals over there, and the IR is yet someplace else. To provide the kind of rich experience our users expect, we need to think of Flat Stanley. Our new discovery systems need to be flat, with content treated equally. The web is the platform through which we find content, regardless of format.

Commercial products -- Primo, Endeca, AquaBrowser, Encore, and WorldCat Local -- all treat content in a flat way (i.e., search across all formats). All use faceting and guide the user through the refinement process.

Content + Community + Technology = Discovery

We need search and discovery systems that behave the way users behave. Federated search is a good start, but we're bogged down with different metadata schemes in different resources, and speed is compromised. The good news is that publishers get it now; they understand why XML and connector technology is important (easier access drives usage), so we will see improvements here.

Jane emphatically urged the audience to give up bibliographic instruction. Our users already know how to search. The library message should emphasize the value of the content in the library, not how to search. "We have better information" is the message we need to get out there. Demonstrate the value of the expensive content that the library makes available just for its users.

Give print only the percentage of time it earns by circulation. Flip the mental switch (away from print). It will lead to the right behaviors and expectations.

The Toledo Lucas County website and discovery service was mentioned as a great example: a simple search box is prominent on the home page. Aquabrowser provides faceted search results, and the graphics and layout guide the user through the refinement process.

Change requires change. Librarians must sell their value – blatantly – to users.