Catalog by Design

Aside from paying very little attention to visual design and not caring about the impact of horrible typography, the big problem with library catalogs is that they are not designed to help people accomplish library tasks. Instead, they’re designed to expose catalog records.

I’m not even talking about lofty library tasks like learning, creating, and connecting. I’m not referring to semi-interesting library tasks like discovering exciting content. I’m talking about very basic library tasks: finding items in a specific location, reserving items, and renewing items. Of course, people can do these tasks with our catalogs but only because the functionality has been clumsily bolted onto catalog ­records.

Correct me if I’m wrong, but this is totally backward—prioritizing the collection, not people, results in a user-hostile interaction design and a poor user experience. Imagine the reverse: a tool that prioritizes helping people accomplish their tasks, whereby bibliographic data exists quietly in the background and is exposed only when useful.

Starting from Design

I wondered what this would look like, so I sketched out some examples. I’m certainly not the first to complain about OPAC functionality, but taking this as an explicit design challenge rather than as a software architecture or cataloging challenge led me to emphasize readability and ease of use.

Beyond that, there isn’t too much to explain about these designs. Here’s a very plain bibliographic record and illustrates how simplifying them would make them easier to use.


The following hints at eliminating the need for a dedicated view of a single bibliographic record; in this mock-up, nearly everything a member needs to do with an item is available without it.


The ability to link directly to a single record is missing from this example, but that would be easy enough to sort out. This one is similar but uses a swipe-friendly layout that could be effective on mobile devices.


An effective catalog design would obviate the need for how-to screencasts and handouts. Designs like this would not only make our libraries easier to use, but, by freeing up the time we spend helping people with our catalogs, they would make librarians’ lives easier, too.

While these examples aren’t fully featured, they illustrate how focusing on people and tasks would change our catalog. When bibliographic data plays second fiddle, the page calms down and is easier to understand and use. What’s more, by employing some basic principles of graphic design, these creations instill more confidence in library services than our current ­catalogs.

Members in Mind

This is just one example of how focusing on our members’ motivations and goals can transform what we do. Members will be better served if all of our services are designed as responses to their motivations and goals. With regard to catalogs, this focal point leads to improvements in usability. For library services, this emphasis makes libraries more worthwhile.

The deeper libraries dive into the lives of their members and explore opportunities for improving their lives, the more impact we can make and the more valuable libraries will become. This sort of listening, not shouting, is the best form of library advocacy.

This first appeared in “The User Experience,” a column I write for LJ.

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deep participation in library catalogs

Last week An Event Apart, billed as “two days of peace, love, design, code, and content” took place in Seattle. I kept up with some of the stuff going on there and noticed this tweet. I saw it while Jared Spool was speaking and knew that he’s done work with Amazon so I figured the factoid came from him. I was able to verify this by finding an article: The Magic Behind Amazon’s 2.7 Billion Dollar Question. All of this is to just provide a bit more of a citation.

Jeffrey Zeldman on Twitter

These big numbers got me thinking about the viability of patron review and comments in library catalogs. Should we be discouraged? After all, how many library websites have 3 million visitors every day? I don’t actually care. It doesn’t matter. We shouldn’t be discouraged. I’m not even interested in the metrics. Why? Because library websites should just be as normal as possible. Full stop. Part of this normality is the possibility for interaction. People should have the opportunity to voice their opinion if they feel motivated.

What interests me more than these stats is how most of the discussion I’ve seen surrounding improving the OPAC has stopped with making them social and easy to use. I’ve advocated for these goals and will continue to do so. They’re important and they should be a priority, but in the scheme of things they’re low hanging fruit. Shouldn’t we be aiming to make some deeper, more significant connections? What I haven’t seen, and I just might not be looking in the right spots, is advocacy for going beyond creating OPACs that are imitation amazon.coms. We can do better. I’m not 100% sure what they’d look like, but they’d be more than just inventory systems for book mausoleums.

For one, they could include user generated content. I’m not necessarily talking about YouTube videos created by local people. I’m talking about capturing and making available information produced in library programs. There’s a ton of great stuff happening in our buildings. Not only could we do a better job telling those stories, we could do a better job making the content from those programs and meetings available and useful. Thinking about this end goal might even have an impact on how a library plans and conducts events.

Let’s not exclude stuff created by organizations and enthusiast groups around the community. I know that the Helsinki City Library is exploring this idea. There are probably some great curricular tie-ins too. Local university and high school students could produce reports relevant to the community. Into the OPAC they go. Useful chat transcripts could be findable in the OPAC too. Taking it a step further, why not make scapes created by librarians and others findable in the OPAC.

Again, a deep participation OPAC wouldn’t just keep track of where books are. It would also be a evolving database of things important to the community. Yes, this has everything to do with my thoughts about the unsustainability of libraries relying on content provision as their reasons for being.

I can’t think of a much better way to engage people than to say to them, “We want to know what’s important to you. We want to help you share your expertise.” By doing this librarians can fulfill their role as universal joints, connecting people to information, information to other information, and people to people.

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DCPL iPhone App Code Released

If you want to create an iPhone application to search your library’s online catalog (etc), taking a look at the DCPL’s solution wouldn’t be a bad place to start. The code is available under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike license and you can download it at the DCPL Labs website.

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the usable library website poster

Amanda Etches-Johnson and I presented a poster about library website usability at the 2009 Information Architecture Summit last week. What fun!


The poster was interactive. It asked readers to list things they’d like to see on library websites and nudged people toward thinking about fun, whimsical things. It wasn’t a surprise that a bunch of IAs had things to say about websites, but I was a bit surprised about how many library enthusiasts we came across.

We’re going to synthesize the suggestions that people gave us, but off the bat I can tell you that the *vast* majority of people we talked with equated library websites with OPACs. I’d like to explore this more formally.

Side note
Librarians seem to be *much better* about agreeing upon and sticking with official conference tags. I saw #ia09, #ia2009, #iasummit09, #iasummit2009, #ias09, #ias2009 on twitter. This from a bunch of people dedicated to labeling information! Fixing this is a small way in which librarians can contribute to the specialized areas of IA and User eXperience.

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library h4x0rz!

I wonder if his OPAC offers PIN reset via email.

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DCPL iPhone application ready for download

iphone details photo2

Hurrah for alternative OPAC interfaces! I’m very pleased to let you know that the DCPL iPhone app went live last night. You can download it from the iTunes app store here. Functionality in this version includes:

  • searching for library materials
  • seeing an item’s cover and reading a summary
  • placing a hold for pickup at the location of your choice
  • finding the hours, locations and phone numbers of DC public libraries

If you have an iPhone or iPod Touch, please download it try it out. We’d love to know what you think and what we can do to make it better. You can leave feedback through this form.

photo3To my knowledge, this is the first iPhone application put out by a library. A big congrats to DCPL CIO Chris Tonjes who assembled a great team, and a big thanks to Brian Farmer for his coding skills, Bill McClendon for his knowledge of the SirsiDynix backend and Gilbert Luwaile for testing. You can read more about all of them at the DCPL Labs Staff page.

What’s even more exciting about this is that it is just the start of our efforts to provide mobile library services to the residents of DC. I have a bunch of notes written about improving the look and behavior of the application, expanding it, and we’re planning a mobile version of the forthcoming DCPL website.

For those interested in taking a look at the code for the iPhone application, we’re going to make it available for download at the DCPL iPhone Application page soon.

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functional catalogs: they’re for everybody

The other day I overhead a conversation taking place between a regular patron (really nice guy) and one of the NPPL’s circ clerks (also a nice guy). This gentleman, probably in his mid-70s, needed to keep track of a certain book on CD. He reported that he signed into his library account looking for a way to mark the item as a favorite. I had a huge smile in my heart and probably on my face as soon as I heard him say this. People have expectations when they’re using what I call the “normal web.” They want to customize, voice their opinion, be featured, share and interact, among other things. Library websites aren’t particularly normal and I imagine they frequently don’t meet people’s expectations.

I got to talk to the patron about the situation with library catalogs. He seemed to be genuinely interested or perhaps he is just a good actor. We ended up putting a note in his patron record. He can’t access it, but he can call the library, tell someone we were keeping track of something in his record, and we can look it up. Certainly it isn’t an ideal solution but one that should suffice.

Please, please remember that there are all kinds of people that can benefit from our websites and catalogs behaving normally.

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plurk rewards use, can library websites?

A friend invited me to join Plurk, yet another status updating site. I joined not because I need another place to microblog but just to check it out. There are a few neat things about the site, two of which I’d like to point out here:

Tweets, er plurks, are displayed on a timeline. I like this. I also love the fact that the timeline progresses from right to left. It took me a second to get accustomed to it, but I love that it isn’t what I think of as the typical flow. It makes good sense considering we, at least in the US and many other places, read from left to right. There’s no need to scroll for new content.

walkingpaper - Plurk.com
[time from right to left – click for big]

Another feature that I really like is that Plurk gets better, or at least give more options, as you invest more time in it. Through a reputation system they call karma, plurk rewards users for making connections, starting conversations, updating profile information, inviting friends, etc… It also takes karma points away for spamming, being defriended and the like. Attaining a certain level of karma opens up options to let you customize your profile with different colors and designs.

1 unread - walkingpaper - Plurk.com
[you can do more with karma points]

There’s something to this. I had no time or effort invested in Plurk but I instantly wanted to raise my karma. It reminded me of wanting to level up in Game Neverending. There’s no real reason to do it, but it’s still compelling.

Is there a place for this in our OPACs and websites? Would it be wrong to actually reserve some fun options (assuming our web presences have some fun options) to reward use?

I don’t know if I’ll end up using the site much, but for what its worth, you can friend me at http://www.plurk.com/user/walkingpaper. At the very least you’ll get some karma points!

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a modern, functional OPAC

I’ve used quite a few library OPACs. I’ve also used and sought out the best of the open web. You’ve probably done the same and like me, you’ve probably been dismayed at the disparity between the two worlds. The open web can be fun and inspiring. Would you say the same of our OPACs? I’ve thought about what OPACs should be like in bits and pieces and decided to assemble them here.

A Problem
Besides all of the small, simple usability enhancements OPACs need (listed way below) a big concern about library websites and OPACs is the distracting transition between the two. You know the routine. Ubiquitous “Click here to search the catalog” links take users from one place to another and create a disjointed experience.

A Solution
One way to provide a seamless experience is to put some OPAC functions into the website, letting people accomplish OPAC tasks without having to leave the library website. In my dream OPAC this go-between is essentially an ecommerce shopping basket but called a backpack or bookshelf in this instance. Just like on amazon.com, when logged in, a patron’s library backpack appears on every library webpage, whether it be the homepage, a book list, or the results list of a search. Any item cover on the website can be dragged and dropped into users’ backpack/bookshelf.

[drag and dropping a book cover – click for big on flickr]

Dragging and dropping triggers a dialog that allows people to get more information, find where an item is located or place a reserve. Here’s a concept of the resulting dialog from dragging an item to a backpack.

[resulting dialog, rest of screen greyed out – – click for big on flickr]

Patrons could be given the chance to customize what happens when they drag an item to their shelf. For instance, the backpack could be set to place reserves automatically. Speaking of customization, patrons should be allowed to choose which metaphor they want to use, a backpack or a bookshelf. The default should be associated with the patron’s age, giving young people backpacks and older people bookshelves.

The library backpack also serves as the basis for user profiles in the OPAC since patrons can choose to share their bookshelves with others. People reading the same book are given access to a dedicated book discussion room that has great content seeded by librarians. (This type of automatic affinity group creation is what happens on 43 Things.) When browsing people’s shared backpacks/shelves (naturally a nice graphical representation with item covers) patrons can drag items into their backpacks to initiate the dialog. User profiles are important because they’re the basis for interactivity. There can be no community without individuals.

Here are some other features that should be part of the interface between our content and our people:

→ A relevant, modern (not looking like a geocities site from 1996) design built using CSS so that users can select from a few themes when logged in.

→ Options for browsing such as:

  • Text lists
  • Tag clouds
  • Item covers

→ Persistent URLs for bibliographic/item records

→ New title lists by title, book covers, genre

→ Display most popular items, highest rated items

→ Bib/Item Record Options

  • Favorite it
  • Get citation
  • Share/email
  • Add to book list

User generated content
→ User profiles. This allows people the ability to:

  • make comments/reviews
  • rate items
  • make, display and share book lists
  • mark items as favorite, review and display favorites, and see who else has favorite items
  • recommend items to others
  • record personal checkout history and display it

Finding options
→ single search box, with the option for “advanced” search

→ Ability to search

  • just the catalog
  • catalog and web
  • catalog, web and databases
  • web and databases

→ Sort results by relevance, date published, title, author, number of circulations

→ Filtering search options by material type, author, subject, location

→ Summary of book upon mouseover (with the option to turn off) [idea credit: Jenny Levine]

→ Where is this item located? (Display on a map all branches where the book is located, clicking on a branch loads a map of the library)

→ Links to related websites and databases on appropriate bibliographic/item records

→ Movies have a link to imdb.com entry, CDs have a link to allmusic.com entry, books lead to some relevant site or database. Novelist, perhaps?

→ New item RSS feeds galore:

  • entire collection
  • genre
  • material type
  • author
  • OPAC searches

The feeds should be modular in that the limiting factors should be combinable giving the ability to produce a feed for, say, new audiobooks from author John Steinbeck.

From Theory to Practice
All of this stuff could come together to make a modern, functional OPAC. Some would be easy to do (and in fact has been done) and some slightly more difficult. None of it comes even close to being impossible or too much to accomplish. What’s stopping us?

There is a good chance that an interface approaching this is going to exist within the next 6-12 months, one way or an other. That’s all I can really say except for that I’m pretty thrilled about it.

Please leave further suggestions in a comment. How would you like your OPAC to behave?

[In this post I used images from vufind, brooklyn public library, DC public library, and crumpler bags. I made up that totally lame logo all by myself.]

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multnomah county OPAC gets RSS

Imagine my surprise earlier this week when I went to the Multnomah County Library Catalog and found a big, bright orange RSS icon.


They’ve rolled out III’s RSS product, and have 15 feeds coming out of the catalog:

  • Audiobooks,
  • Children’s fiction
  • Cookbooks
  • DVDs
  • Fiction
  • Gardening books
  • Graphic novels
  • Music
  • Mysteries
  • Non fiction
  • Science fiction
  • Teen fiction
  • Teen graphic novels
  • Travel books
  • Picture books/ easy readers

I subscribed to a half-dozen feeds in Bloglines to see how many subscribers are listed (not that this figure is the be all, end all) and found that DVDs is the most popular feed with 34 subscribers. Other feeds have 4-10 subscribers.

I like that they are promoting their RSS feeds in a prominent place. I also like the nice What is RSS? page they’ve put together.

Gripes? Ideally patrons would be able to create their own feeds for specific searches (like aadl.org) but, to my knowledge, this isn’t a feature available from III. I’m guessing that most “2.0” solutions coming from vendors will be watered down like this. I’d be more than willing to eat my words though!

Having the feeds available is a great first step, and I hope to see MCL take further action integrating the library into the community by helping other organizations get feeds displayed on their websites.

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