Posted by Lori Ayre on September 25, 2005

In her 1996 article entitled Why Are Online Catalogs Still Hard to Use? (Journal of the American Society for Information Science 47(7):493-503, 1996), Christine Borgman discusses the fact that OPACs are used for "querying" when in fact what the public needs is a tool that facilitates the complete process of "information seeking." She explains that researchers have found that "users formulate questions in stages, gradually coming to the point where they can begin to articulate a query." She goes on to say that the search process should be iterative so that "searching may serve to refine the question rather than build a set of documents that matches an explicit query."

When catalogs were computerized, they were developed for information professionals. Back then, the librarian served as the intermediary between the catalog and the user and the librarian's job was to conduct the reference interview and then, having identified the information need, construct a query responsive to that need.

But somewhere along the way, we have moved away from that model of librarian as intermediary and the tools originally designed for professionals are now in the hands of "perpetual novices" (Borgman, 1996). You see, vendors know how to leverage their products. They took the interface designed for professionals, added some neat new graphical elements like buttons and dropdown menus, labelled it an OPAC, put a big fat pricetag on it and bingo the public interface was delivered. [ vendor is actually trying to do something completely different that is more responsive to user seeking behavior...checkout TLC's AquaBrowser.]

So, what happened to that all important step of the reference interview in this new OPAC world? Hmmmm, bye-bye.

But at what point is it the responsibility of the information professionals to demand that the vendors actually design an OPAC for users. An OPAC that doesn't presume that our users are information professionals. That doesn't presume that our users are English speakers with a college education. That doesn't presume that our users have perfect vision and use of all their limbs. That doesn't presume that people understand Boolean logic or authority lists or how the author field is populated. And my personal favorite...doesn't presume that people understand the difference between a keyword and subject heading.

We need an OPAC that is designed for our users. An OPAC that is intuitive and easy-to-use, based on universal design principles and which doesn't disregard information seeking behaviors. But if librarians don't demand it, it ain't gonna happen. Let's stop letting the vendors determine what products libraries use and start demanding what we want.

Here's some ideas:

  • Include details of what we want in our system in RFPs rather than using RFPs to describe existing products.
  • Conduct user testing of interfaces and publicize the results.
  • Encourage librarians to become system designers.
  • Write Help Documentation for users that addresses the design shortfalls of the OPAC.
  • Train users whenever you can.