Impending Demise Of The Local OPAC

That’s the title of a provocative presentation made by Gregg Silvis, of the University of Delaware Library systems office, at the annual PALINET meeting. I made a reference to this program in an earlier post, and I finally attended last Monday. Silvis began with a retrospective of OPAC development, and reminded everyone of how much maintenance work legacy catalogs used to require. You may date yourself if “filing above the rod” actually holds some meaning for you. Our catalog history is largely one of massive duplication of effort. Even though bibliographic networks and library automation eliminated many forms of duplication, to this day thousands of academic libraries duplicate effort when they maintain their local OPAC. Silvis’ radical solution to the duplication is to forego all local loading of catalogs, and instead use WorldCat as a shared, universal OPAC.

Silvis acknowledges that his vision for the OPAC is conceptual and short on specifics. His immediate goal is to share the idea with colleagues for feedback and refinement. He also reminds us there is more to library systems than the local OPAC; acquisitions, serials, and circulation are largely local entities and need to remain that way. But he clearly demonstrated how much of the information provided in the OPAC is available through WorldCat records. Among the advantages are a standardized and better interface than most OPACs. A uniform OPAC could allow for the display of only local holdings when desired. Challenges include a host of serials issues, potentially incomplete holdings information, and an inability to manage item specific information such as special collections material.

While it’s an idea that clearly needs more work it is not without merit. If we could manage to centralize the primary types of information into a national OPAC, it would indeed eliminate vast amounts of duplication conducted at local libraries. Those now performing that work could shift to public services where more outreach is needed, or could focus attention on local collections where backlogs exist, such as the archives or special collections. Clearly there are significant stakes in such an idea for OCLC and library automation vendors. While some pundits are calling for a radical re-thinking of the OPAC interface, this idea goes beyond that in many ways. We don’t necessarily need an OPAC interface that supplies a “Google experience” for library users. It may be we need one that just provides consistency. Silvis says he plans to give the presentation a few more times, and to continue gathering feedback from academic librarians that will help to refine the concept. I encouraged Silvis to turn the presentation into an article. It seems like an idea worthy of reaching a wider audience.

6 thoughts on “Impending Demise Of The Local OPAC”

  1. I’ve thought of this before – and agree that familiarity and consistency would solve a lot of the problems people have moving from one local online catalog to another. I assume a big problem would be the subsystems that undergird the system – acquisitions, circulation, local patron records. How would those interact with the patron’s view? And would OCLC become a monopoly for integrated library systems? And, antitrust issues, aside, would they be responsive enough to library needs around the world to build the one and only online catalog?

    No doubt catalogers would be happy to open a much larger can of worms, ones I haven’t even thought of. But it’s an intriguing idea worth pursuing.

  2. I may be especially sensitive to this issue because I catalog rare books, but I think it’s a mistake to view increasing standardization of cataloging as an end in itself. Different libraries have different needs, and so do different patrons. It’s hard enough to get all the libraries at one institution to agree to common cataloging, indexing and display standards; I can’t imagine the challenges inherent in a “national OPAC”.

    Additionally, I worry about the result of having one version of a record display to all users. I invest a great deal of time in putting detailed information in my records, and I do so because I believe it can be of value to our library’s users. I would not relish seeing that information stripped out by the vastly greater number of catalogers who would (probably correctly) see that added information as unnecessary and confusing to their users. Nor do I have the time to engage in a Wikipedia-like tug of war over whose version of the record will be the official one.

    I will try not to bristle unduly at the suggestion that this plan would allow more resources to be shifted to public services. I would simply remind you that (to quote an OCLC slogan) good cataloging *is* a public service.

  3. Thanks, John – I hoped a cataloger would chime in. I’d almost rather see a set of best practices for public interfaces or a template that could be adapted locally than a single mega-catalog. As someone involved in instruction, I do find the variations in various OPAC products annoying – especially when you migrate mid-semester!

  4. John raises valid points. A couple thoughts in response: Could not the local holdings information OCLC would need to develop contain the extra detailed local info John and others would like to include? That and/or full FRBRization of the catalog might address his concerns in this area.

    I suspect the greatest challenges would actually be working with ILS vendors and simply deciding on what a “national OPAC” should look like and how it should function.

  5. Hmmm. Thinking about what would work best for users, I think I’d rather wait for Google local OPAC. Google seems to be the only company looking at moving beyond the monograph level; how about one search box to find books, chapters, journal articles, etc.? How about direct links to the digital items themselves, a feature which few libraries have yet to implement successfully?

  6. Hmmm. Rochelle – sounds like you’d like to googlelize the library world. I agree that OPACs need improvement – and there are some pluses to going federated. But there are still going to be searches of a slightly more complex nature (and not necessarily just from some scholar – but an undergrad as well) that will require more sophisticated search features than a google experience will satisfy – unless you are out to satisfice. Just last week I had a student who wanted to find information about the ethical and legal implications of producing and selling knockoff handbags. Google did all right – providing a few sites but also some commercial things as well, but a search using the advanced interface of our library databases – using some good old OR and AND connectors was far better (once we included synonymous terms like counterfeit and fake – an effort with ~fake in Google was not particularly helpful). I like Greg’s idea to use Worldcat as the universal interface for that exact reason. It’s basic when you need it – but advanced when needed as well.

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