Adam Girard is a 28 year old Audio-Visual Librarian at a public library in Illinois. You can check out his website at: http://adamgirard.net/ and contact him with questions at: adamgirard[dot]mail[at sign]gmail[dot]com.
As a young librarian one of the greatest boons that I have to offer to librarianship is a fresh and unique perspective. I have not worked in this profession for decades, nor have I made any hard and fast decisions about many of the key issues that we face. Being “flexible” and open to new influences can also be a challenge. In a sometimes bureaucratic and dogmatic profession, flexibility is often idealized but seldom easy to implement.
With that caveat out of the way, one part of librarianship that is infinitely fascinating to me is the intersection between a patron’s understanding of information management and the usefulness they derive from the library’s imposed organization and conventions. The relation between these inputs is something that often gets overshadowed by various interests. Despite the inherently theoretical nature of this comparison, it does serve a valuable purpose. The strength of this conceptual framework is the opportunity to apply it to any library-specific issue, while the weakness is its lack of specificity. Using this juxtaposition as a frame to think about library specific issues can help to provide a more patron-centric perspective. Once it has been applied to a well defined issue, quantifiable measurements for “a patron’s understanding of information management” and “the usefulness patrons derive from the library’s imposed organization and conventions” may be assigned.
A perfect example of the place where patron experience and the value they derive from that experience meet is the OPAC. Online Public Access Catalogs have been in use for more than fifteen years. These tools are of interest because they are often the primary point of interaction between patrons and the information that they seek. It seems that patrons make frequent use of OPACs, but relatively few of them ask a librarian for assistance whether their searches are successful or not. As OPACs have improved, precision and recall for electronic catalogs has improved, so has the success of patron searches.
A lot of work is needed for OPACs to catch up to their “commercial competitors”. This statement is slightly misleading because the purpose of commercial bibliographic searches and library OPACs are quite different. For that reason the comparison is one that should be made with careful consideration of the differences between the products. Not having formal training on the intricacies of bibliographic search techniques, patrons can be expected to compare OPACs to the commercial software that they are familiar with. This means that patrons often compare OPACs with other “book searches” despite their differences.
I have noticed a high degree of patron dissatisfaction with a wide array of OPAC products over time. I have also had valuable opportunities to provide patrons with instruction that ultimately leads to satisfaction and successful experiences with OPACs. There are many possible solutions to the issue of patron success with OPACs. None of the solutions are appropriate in every setting. The goal of this commentary is not to bash or celebrate electronic library catalogs, but rather to provide a motivation to reconsider the patron’s understanding of this information seeking “tool” and the usefulness derived from it.