Online Public Access Catalogs

The first area I want to look at in my review of these four libraries is their Online Public Access Catalogs (OPACs), since they are in many ways the most widely used electronic resource offered by public libraries. Librarians and scholars of library science have had a lot to say about OPACs and the directions they are evolving in libraries of the future, but for the most part these discussions are hidden from users. They may see the changes that are debated, and may even participate in using them, but the actual discussions of Library 2.0 and trends in OPACs are less important then how well they can figure out how to use the catalog in practice. This ease of use is what I’m interested in in looking at the OPACs of the four libraries I’m reviewing.

 

It is difficult to determine “usefulness,” particularly when taken in abstract from actual patrons, so for the purpose of this review, I’ve broken this down into several categories.

  1. What tools and interfaces are available for accessing this resource? If the resource is the library catalog, the database of information about what books, audio visual, and other items are owned by the library, then the tools and interfaces are the ways that users find out information from this database. Some catalogs have multiple different interfaces to enter into searching their catalog–such as a children’s catalog, an advanced search page, an audio visual specific search. Each interface has different tools to aid the user in discovering information, that target specific areas of the catalog, from basic author and title searches, general keyword searches, to limits on publication date, location, and format.
  2. What type of assistance is available to explain or guide the use of the resource, in this case the catalog? In this, I’m looking at a wide range of tools, from a ‘help’ section with directions on how to use the catalog, to FAQ sections, as well as clues as to preferred formats to enter information. All of these things can help users learn how to use the tool, and can assist them in getting the most out of their searches, but they can come in a lot of different formats.
  3. What explanations/tools are available to evaluate the results of using the resource, particularly in relation to children? When using various electronic tools to look for information, particularly for children, users determine if the information is related to their needs through the descriptions provided both of the service and of the results. For instance, a search of a “kid’s catalog” indicates results would be appropriate for children, while information on the item record might indicate a grade range or reading level. Similarly, a user might be able to narrow down a search based on criteria like reading level or intended audience. This information allows users to evaluate the results of these various electronic resources according to how relevant they are to them and their information needs.

While I know from first hand experience that library staff provide much of the training and explanation to patron in using the library’s electronic services, I am mostly concerned in this review with discovering how users independent of staff presence can navigate these tools. For that reason, I’m interested in discerning what is openly available to any user approaching the service, versus what you’d just have to know the secret combination to get it to work.

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