Monday, December 4th, 2006

Is your OPAC fun? (a manifesto of sorts)

A few weeks ago I spoke at a conference on “The Future of the Catalog,” hosted by the ACRL Delaware Valley Chapter, and I’ve been meaning to blog about it since. It’s to late to blog it overall*, but one topic keeps bothering me.

At the close of a panel discussion, we were asked how a reinvented online catalog (an “OPAC”) could serve a nineteen year-old. All I had to do was put “findability,” “millenials,” “Google,” “ease of use,” “anywhere” and “now” together, and I was done.

Well, I snapped. Here’s what I said or wished I had:

What distinguishes LibraryThing from other OPACs isn’t tagging, user reviews, book recommendations, RSS or any of that. What distinguishes it is this: Everyone else’s OPACs people have to use. LibraryThing is optional. LibraryThing is an OPAC people WANT to use. They even pay. LibraryThing is the fun OPAC!

OPAC conversations center around “findability.” The OPAC’s job is to help you find and get what you want–and get out of the way. It’s the job of a dental drill. A good dental drill does not dilly-dally; nobody ever has a “driveway moment” with a dental drill.

It’s also the logic of the card catalog. The card catalog was there to help you find something, not to be fun.** And like so much else, this principle was translated to the digital world, perhaps too successfully. For all their drawbacks, OPACs do exceed card catalogs in finability. But they really come into their own in being surpassingly unfun!

Sure, it would be nice if OPACs made things findabile. A findable OPAC is at least not torture to use. But why not aim higher than findability? Nineteen-year-olds may use Google because it’s easy, but that doesn’t explain MySpace.

Why not be fun? The library itself is fun. (I simply don’t care about the library experience of people for whom books are a “task.”***) The catalog is a condensed representation of that fun. It’s not the books, but it has a lot to say about them, and it can be the springboard for so much more. I enjoy reading and thinking about books. I want to remember what I read, much as I want to remember my vacations. I want help finding new ones. I want to put my books out there for all see. I want to express myself about them. I want to find people to talk about our books. I might even want to date someone who reads the same things I do.

Surprise surprise, but I’ve just described what LibraryThing does. It is the fun OPAC.

How can your OPAC be fun? (No, not with Flash animations.****) Here are some first thoughts:

  • Provide blog widgets and RSS feeds so patrons can show off what they’re reading and what they thought of it.
  • Let people find what they want, but let them also get entertainingly lost. Encourage exploration, serendipity and lost-ness.
  • Give authors, subjects, languages, tags and other facets their own pages. That stuff’s interesting, and can lead one delightfully astray.
  • Allow patrons to interact with the catalog via tags, ratings and reviews. (And would it kill you to give them patron pages?)
  • Link outward. The web is fun. Point to it.
  • Allow (static) inbound links. What are you, a bouncer?
  • Let patrons access your data via API. Some clever patron will do something fun you hadn’t thought of.
  • Give patrons a reason to check in every day—something about the books, and ideally about them and the books, not some “trick” like free movie passes.
  • Talk to patrons in their own language (eg., with tags), not in some crazy argot, where “cooking” is “cookery” and “the internet” is “the information superhighway.”
  • Give patrons fun, high-quality recommendations.
  • Give patrons enjoyable metadata. I don’t intend to read any of the books in today’s NYT Book Review, but I loved reading about them.
  • Let users interact socially around the books they read. (Obviously, anything social needs to be voluntary.)
  • Make it usable and finable too.

Am I crazy? Discuss?

*It was a blog-worthy one. The panel included Thom Hickey of OCLC, Emily Lynema of NCSU and Karen Calhoun of Cornell and the Calhoun Report. Hickey presented some very exceptional work, including (fun!) author pages for WorldCat. I had not met Lynema or Calhoun before, and found their presentations and company most enjoyable. Emily and I shared a cab back to the airport. (I hope she gets a blog soon, so I can keep up with what she’s doing.) Others blogged about the conference here, here (Hickey), and here (ACRL).
**Going all the way back to (my hero) Cutter’s Rules for a Dictionary Catalog (1876). The same applies to today’s Functional Requirements for Bibliographic Records, summarized as “find, identify, select, and obtain.” (How about amuse? Waste some time? Get laid?) In retrospect, card catalogs seem fun. Hard-core bibliothecophiles***** “miss the feel”–flipping through the cards, sliding the drawers in and out, occasionally sliding one all the way out and carrying it with you to devour it in private, like a cat.
***Students who hate learning shouldn’t find their books quickly. The OPAC should spit out a nonsense call numbers, and they should wander in circles until their eyes light upon some other book–the book that changes everything–or until they collapse to the ground in punishment for their sins.
****Witness the Orange County’s Library’s snowman, much praised in liblogger circles. It’s not that I dislike it—I liked it—but what does it have to do with libraries? Someone there has a real sense of fun. Why waste it on some separate, siloed Flash ap?
****A perfectly good word as far as I’m concerned, but Google has only two uses, both in French.

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