Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Technology and Libraries Part II - The OPAC sucks

Many people, including many librarians, are not very happy with Online Public Access Catalogs, or OPACs. These are the computer systems that replaced card catalogs. Most people just call them online catalogs, but I catch myself at least once a day referring to them as card catalogs, much to the amusement of the students and faculty where I work. When I read Pandabonium's comment in my post "March of the Librarians", I immediately thought of the video I'm sharing with you tonight.

As I suggested yesterday, there is a growing debate about what libraries need to do in order to make their online catalogs better. Some librarians are arguing that catalogs should emulate Amazon's commercial web site. Others are clamoring for better instruction so patrons understand how to use what currently exists and others are saying the current system needs to be replaced entirely, (something totally new and not a copy of Amazon's system.)

Once upon a time, libraries were at the forefront of using technology to catalog their records. The system that most libraries use today, based on the MAchine Readable Catalog record, or MARC record was developed in 1965. Yes, that's right, 1965! Obviously, not all libraries had computer catalogs in the 1960s, but the Library of Congress understood computers where not going to be a flash in the pan. Now, instead of leading the pack in technology use, many librarians and libraries seem to be dragging their heels when it comes to using technology. As Pandabonium stated in a more polite way, the OPAC sucks. Which brings us to tonights video.

The Laughing Librarian posted this back in November of 2006 and I use it as an introduction whenever I teach a class about our online catalog. I tell the students our system isn't perfect, but it's what we have, so hopefully I can help them get the most out of it. Maybe in time we'll get something that is superior, but in the meantime, this one's for you Pandabonium. (Lyrics are at the bottom.)

the OPAC sucks, that's all i gotta say
you're outta luck if you can't spell "Hemingway"
i'm getting bad results
don't act like it's my fault

the OPAC sucks, a sad calamity
like it's stuck in 8 million b.c.
the title that i seek
is buried very deep

the OPAC sucks so bad that it's a crime
the law is broken: "save the reader's time"
what does it want from me?
i'm stumbling blindly

the OPAC sucks, people are confused
it runs amok, committing its abuse
years and years and years ago, computers replaced cards
how come finding what i want is still so goddamn hard?

the OPAC sucks, that's all i gotta say ...

(Lyrics and music: Brian Smith)

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Pandabonium said...
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Pandabonium said...

Oh, wow. Thank you info geek! I thought I was "so old" that my comment would not seem relevant to anyone reading it, but I am obviously not alone. I got so fed up with the computer system that I stopped using it and just went to the desk and had a librarian find whatever I was looking for.

One of the major problems with libraries in the US (and no doubt elsewhere) is lack of funding. It irked me to no end that after 911 they installed a metal detector and a frickin' GUARD in the Kihei, Maui (population 16k) library. How about some books instead? Was there really a big terrorism threat to Kihei? Were they losing so many books to theft that it justified the cost of the equipment and a full time guard? Sorry to rant. Libraries, to me, are sacred places and they are so under-appreciated.

If they want to help kids use the library, teaching a computer system is second in my book. Teach kids the Dewey decimal system first. A good grasp of that and most of the time they can go right to what they need and scan the shelves to find a book faster than they could ever look it up on the computer. I did like the computers in Hawaii for the ability to reserve a book from anywhere in the state... but now I'm rambling....

Thanks again.

The Moody Minstrel said...

Panda, my senior high school library had a metal detector. That thing tended to go off a lot, too. It was almost always due to either pranks or forgetfulness, but getting the librarian to believe you wasn't an easy thing to do.

Luckily I thwarted every attempt to make me gate-bait. I never got beeped.

ladybug said...

Hmmm, I think this is the reason I don't ever do a search on a library computer.

I think the last time I did was at the Milwaukie Ledding Library when I was in Jr High! (now everybody has "Middle Schools"...but I digress)

I usually just wander the stacks or if it's something specific, ask the librarian, just like pandabonium.

Although I'm probably not as familiar w/the Dewey Decimal System as he is, I just follow the signs that usually accompany the numbers (Fiction or Non-Fiction, and then the subject heading)

Don Snabulus said...

I think that the problem is that information is usually sorted and stored hierarchically but the database searches are flat, non-hierarchical searching devices. It seems to me that a hierarchical database system would be more appropriate for libraries.

I guess I will have to invent one. ;)

Seymour said...

You can tell that video was made by librarians because all the pictures and films included are well referenced. Take that YouTube! ;p

Swinebread said...

Searching at libraries is like pulling teeth...

Pandabonium said...

Moody - well, I would expect YOUR school to need security. (just kidding). A metal detector and the strips for the books isn't all that expensive - if there is a demonstrated need for it. What irked me was the guard. I think it had more to do with the security company's financial ties to the governor than to any real problem. And at the same that time they were paying that clown (who looked like he couldn't outrun a Monk seal anyway) the library needed all kinds of materials - like BOOKS.