Monday, 24 September 2007

I [heart] OPACs: a rant

Or, more accurately, I [heart] what they could be. Since the dawn of time, OPACs have been modelled on card catalogues: you get your basic bibliographic details, a shelving location, and a bit of subject classification.

Admittedly, you get the occasional bit of descriptive text, or even an image of the book itself if your OPAC is really fancy. But that card catalogue metaphor is still there, and it bores me silly. I don’t mind giving the occasional nod to old-skool librarianship – I wear specs and can often be seen in corduroy – but we need to move on from that old catalogue mindset. I’ve never even used a card catalogue, but it’s still the model for our most important tool.

Amazon and iTunes do something that approximates the function of an OPAC. They’re finding aids: they help you locate the resource you’re looking for. But they differ from the current OPAC model in several ways. There are two broad categories here: eye candy and functionality. Each is as important as the other. The OPAC is our shop window, it shows the world - and I really mean The World, not just the people in ur library usin ur catalogue – what we’ve got to offer, and our users deserve something prettier and shinier than they currently have.

The iTunes-as-OPAC issue has been discussed on NGC4LIB. iTunes does a wonderful job of managing my media files. I can (but rarely do) search the database. I can sort by pretty much any criterion I’d ever want to. And the whole thing feels really well put-together, right down to the mirrored CD covers that make you think your Raconteurs album is floating on a pristine lake. Nice.

The Cover Flow browse function is great fun: big, hi-res images of your CDs (or, in the library context, any content) for you to flick through until you find what you’re looking for. Or, and this is a real advantage over the current OPAC paradigm, you’ll make some sort of serendipitous (re)discovery before you reach your original goal. At-shelf browsing is one of the principal advantages of using a real-world library, but it’s one that’s lost in the virtual surrogates we use today.

Amazon has, as far as I’m concerned, every book I’ll ever want to find. Amazon succeeds where every library and bookshop I’ve ever used has failed me: it has the book(s) I’m looking for, when I’m looking for them. My pet subjects change on a weekly basis. Bookshops and libraries can't keep up, but Amazon can.

I often find myself looking for, say, a mountain bike maintenance book, an underwear pervert graphic novel, something about Ubuntu and a semi-obscure (i.e. not Neuromancer, which is usually all I can find) William Gibson book. No single outlet has managed to satisfy all of those requirements at the same time, except Amazon. It makes everything seem easy to get hold of, which just doesn’t happen anywhere else. Bookshops will (sometimes grudgingly) offer to order books in; libraries can offer interlibrary loans; but Amazon has it there, waiting for you.

Your search options range from the simple, ubiquitous single box to the more complex search inside the book. Advanced options allow you to limit your search to author, title and so on. Or alternatively, a reasonably comprehensive category list allows for browsing. I’m never entirely happy with the taxonomy Amazon uses, but it’s a step in the right direction.

So I [heart] OPACs, but I would *really* [heart] a pretty OPAC with a wide range of functions to support serendipitous browsing, structured genre cataloguing, simple searching and advanced search strings. I don’t want too much, do I?