Re-Thinking the OPAC (and many other things)

OLA 2012 – Session 1202 – Re-Thinking the OPAC: From Black Hole to Centre of the Universe
Speakers: Jennifer Stirling, Manager of Digital Services, Ottawa PL; Micah May, Director of Strategy, New York PL; Michael Colford, Director of Resource Services and Information Technology Boston Public Library, Boston PL

Traditionally, the OPAC has been a “black hole” – that space where most of the library’s online activity takes place, but which has always been isolated from the rest of the library’s online user experience. They go in – and they never come out! This panel will explore the ways in which three large urban libraries have been working with BiblioCommons to re-position the library’s online catalogue as the central platform for unifying the online user experience.

Bibliocommons is a discovery layer for catalogues that expands the role of user-supplied content. Bibliocommons is also a platform to unify the user experience of discovering library content.

Presenting on the underlying design principles of Bibliocommons were three people from three different large libraries: Jennifer Stirling, Manager of Digital Services at Ottawa Public Library; Micah May, Director of Strategy at New York Public Library; and, Michael Colford, Director of Resource Services & Information at Boston Public Library. While Bibliocommons was a major topic in these presentations, the three presenters also described a range of initiatives at their respective libraries that showcased how the user experience is being enhanced.

At Ottawa Public Library, the web site ( has been enhanced over the years using the Drupal content management system. The goal was to eliminate silos of content and integrate access to resources. A 20% increase in usage per month was cited as an indication of the success of the approach the library took. Content was made more interactive as well, such as a Kids Book Club where space-themed avatars could be created.

Ottawa Public Library also introduced a single login, which allows immediate access to all resources and patron info which can be displayed on the main web page. “On the Go” access was provided through the development of a multi-platform mobile site. Wherever it could, Ottawa Public Library set itself the goal of removing silos, integrating access, and simplifying the process for users.

Projects for 2012 at Ottawa Public Library include e-payment of fines, registering and renewing memberships online, RFID, an iPad pilot, and more work connecting Bibliocommons to their SirsiDynix catalogue. Of particular note was Ottawa Public Library’s “Virtual Desktop Infrastructure”. This initiative will allow library computers to be reconfigured rapidly through the use of image files on the library servers. This means, for example, a lab computer can be quickly converted into a public Internet station. (Some background information on this technology for Microsoft environments can be found here:

The plan for the virtual desktop infrastructure extends into other areas. One idea is to have people bring in iPads and pull down virtual images that can be preset to accessing library resources. Creating flexible space for computers is a major goal at Ottawa Public Library. If they could hang computers from ceilings they would, and they have done something comparable by having tethered iPads available for people to access specialized content such as online magazine subscriptions, teen resources, and homework clubs.

Tethered multipurpose tablet computers (which can be used by groups collaborating) and virtual images to quickly reconfigure computers—I found these two ideas to be fantastic uses of technology in libraries!

One perception by users that concerned Ottawa Public Library was that many considered the catalogue to be “the library”, when in fact it was a silo among multiple resource discovery mechanisms. In addition, library catalogues can appear outdated quickly and they suffer from slower development cycles than other web resources. Integrating catalogue data with other data was a major goal of Ottawa Public Library. While Ottawa Public Library had not yet integrated their Bibliocommons catalogue with OverDrive e-books (New York Public Library and Boston Public Library had in January 2012 made the change to their Bibliocommons catalogue), Ottawa Public Library did manage to enhance their OverDrive ebook catalogue inteface with links back into their library web site resources, such as NoveList.

Ottawa Public Library’s OverDrive site, with links to NoveList on the right.

Boston Public Library has had a lot of experience digitizing library collections, working with Internet Archives and Flickr, but it was only in recent years that the library created a dedicated web services division. Similar to Ottawa, Boston Public Library had problems with their catalogue. Switching to Bibliocommons improved the search experience with features such as better relevancy ranking. Users spent more time online by making use of the social networking features in the Bibliocommons catalogue. Boston Public Library found that 80% of web hits were on the catalogue— people often mistake the catalogue for the library web site. To enhance the user experience, Boston Public Library committed itself to allowing users to immediately download, reserve, or buy items from the catalogue. These features were considered essential for a true discovery platform, and Boston Public Library was one of the first libraries to integrate the OverDrive e-book service into its catalogue.

Boston Public Library’s catalogue – Bibliocommons and direct access to downloading OverDrive e-books.

At New York Public Library, a “Director of Strategy” position was created. A major goal was to connect digital strategies with overall strategies. There were uphill battles—staff buy-in was a challenge. Workshops were held to find ways to engage users more directly. In the past, users came and left the catalogue, and this was good for anonymity and privacy. But the focus began to shift to letting users decide if they were ready for a deeper library experience. Today’s users are more connected and collaborative. New York Public Library switched to Bibliocommons to allow for users to add comments, rate and review books, and contact each other directly.

A significant consideration was that user-generated content in Bibliocommons is shared globally by all participating libraries. This represents an audience that can get others, such as publishers, on board. Considering the competition for user attention is from sites like Amazon, Facebook, and GoodReads, it was felt that libraries could uniquely leverage the Bibliocommons user audience. Add to this the physical footprint of libraries which could accompany on-line space, and more strategic planning options became available. New York Public Library found ways to engage users more directly. The library was becoming like a concierge, where it could do things like link people to experts directly, using on-line space or physical space.

The catalogue became not an end in itself, but a means to engage users. Aggregating participation means users leave something behind and value is being added continuously. The public has an ability to contribute to intellectual work, and New York Public Library found success in a project to have digitized restaurant menus transcribed by the public.

Micah May of New York Public Library made an excellent point when he pointed to paradox that while libraries are being used more than ever there is a perception problem in that many view the library as less relevant today. In New York, libraries have found solutions and partnered with schools to enhanced access to reading material for children. Having material to read is a necessary pre-condition to high literacy, and a point was made that a child is likely to become more literate if surrounded by 500 books at home. The library can be an important aid in this process, and online access helps especially with those who can’t easily get to a physical library.

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One Response to Re-Thinking the OPAC (and many other things)

  1. theszak says:

    Our Boston Public Library would do better to make available more information about how to select the database(s) you need where there are merely lists of databases… How about an interactive Guide to Problematical Boston Public Library Use !

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