Get your head out of your OPAC

January 11, 2007 at 2:04 pm 12 comments

So stipulated: Library OPACS, uh, lack the functionality we desire. We’re all agreed. OPACS should be much, much better.

Here’s my question: How does the quality of the OPAC ultimately affect the total quality of customer experience and customer satisfaction? I think the answer to that question may be quite different from library to library, depending on the needs of our different user populations. Public library users may be more inclined to be browsers, and may not really care that much about how good the OPAC is. Academic, school and special library users may be more inclined to search for specific titles, or titles within specified subject areas, and may therefore care more about the quality of the OPAC.

But even in libraries where customers rely heavily on the OPAC, I’m not sure that the quality of the OPAC figures that greatly into the customers’ overall satisfaction. (I suspect it often doesn’t…) I worked in a small special library that had a truly awful, terrible OPAC. It was one of them home-grown government agency deals–ugh! But our small, dedicated staff gave great customer service, did a lot of outreach, offered a good deal of training, and our user satisfaction was quite high. While I’m sure our users really would have valued a better OPAC, their overall library experience was not greatly affected. If we instead had offered a really super-great OPAC, but lousy customer service, I don’t think our users would have been quite so satisfied…

In Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey suggests that we are most effective when we focus our energy at those points where our concerns intersect with our ability to influence. Clearly the OPAC falls into our collective sphere of concern. But I’m not sure how much influence we have over the quality of the OPAC. I’m not suggesting that we don’t try to influence the quality of the OPAC — by working with vendors, creating our own systems, or a combination of both. I’m truly thankful that John Blyberg and Casey Bisson are out there. But I do think that for many libraries, or more perhaps I should say for many librarians, we may be able to get more bang for our limited buck, more return on the investment of our time and resources, by focusing our energies elsewhere.

I’d like to see libraries looking at their own spheres of concern and influence and making critical choices about where their time, energy, and resources can best be used to improve the quality of customer experience. In many cases, I suspect that we can have a much greater impact on customer experience by focusing on (in no particular order) the quality of the library’s environment (“library-as-place”), the library’s customer service, the library’s webpage, the library’s collection, the library’s programs, the library’s outreach, and the library’s marketing (they can’t experience us if they don’t know about us.)

I’m particularly interested in how libraries can create better customer experiences and be more relevant to their user populations by improving their physical environments. How do our customers experience the actual library space including, the visual (displays, colors, lighting, layout), the tactile (comfy furniture) the olfactory (yum… coffee…), and the aural (zones of quiet, zones of noise, background music)? How does the library staff improve the quality of the environment? Are they warm, friendly, and hospitable? Are they visible? Are they proactive and helpful?

As Joshua Neff recently pointed out, I’m not the only one thinking about these things. Meredith Farkas, (in a must-read, smart, sensitive, insightful, and mostly-polite post) says that she doesn’t use her library because she, “found the whole atmosphere really unwelcoming.” Nicole Engard found that her local librarians “were not very approachable, knowledgeable, or friendly.” Jennifer Macaulay , “admits” that she’s not a library user either (and how many of us would “admit” the same?)

Now how many of you don’t use your library because the OPAC sucks? Just wondering.


Entry filed under: Catalogs and ILS, Customer Experience, Library as Place. Tags: .

Free Viewing of Air Gear Overdue Books Affecting Credit Score


  • 1. K.G. Schneider  |  January 11, 2007 at 8:32 pm

    Your important point (somewhat buried) is here: “But I do think that for many libraries, or more perhaps I should say for many librarians, we may be able to get more bang for our limited buck, more return on the investment of our time and resources, by focusing our energies elsewhere.”

    That’s what I was saying in “The User Is Not Broken.” The user is the sun. But here’s the problem. At their suckiest worst, catalogs are expensive. They suck up time, they suck up money, and they suck up attention (in addition to just plain sucking).

    Not only that, catalogs are inevitable. You cannot not have one. You can divert some resources elsewhere, but how much? And you can say it’s not an important tool, and you would at least have my attention… but if it has been packed full of some of your most important resources, then it is important.

    I don’t think you can really get away from the catalog as much as you’d like to. Also, if you go back and read the earliest posts by people like me and Andrew Pace, you’ll see that we aren’t suggesting we overinvest in the catalog–we say we go that last mile and–given its importance, and maybe in an academic library that’s more true than where you are–make it at least as good as it should be. I’m sure I can find a management book to back me up on that. 😉 And if there isn’t one, while, darn it, I’ll write one!

    (Yes, we gave great service at that library, didn’t we?)

  • 2. Peter Bromberg  |  January 11, 2007 at 10:24 pm

    Thanks for your thoughtful comments Karen. I think we’re basically in agreement, and at the risk of
    uncritically me-tooing
    , I find myself in agreement with what you’ve previously and eloquently written on this topic. (Well, heck, you can see that your “user is not broken” and “OPAC sucks” posts are plainly listed in the sidebar as my must-reads).

    I put this post together over a few days, and finally decided at lunch today to post it, feeling that it was half-cooked (not to say half-baked), but remembering that one can “get it right” or “get it written.” Hopefully, I’ve done a little of both.

    Re-reading the post with a little bit of distance, I think there were two questions, possibly jumbled, that I was trying to raise.

    1. The OPAC is clearly important to quality library service, but how important is it in the bigger, overall picture of the customer experience? I think different libraries will come up with different answers to that question, as different user populations have different needs, and some libraries may bring other goodies to the table that mitigate the limitations of the sucky OPAC.

    2. Given the answer to #1, how much time, energy, and other resources should a library (or librarian) invest in trying to affect an improvement in the quality of their OPAC. Clearly each library (or librarian) will answer this question differently given any number of variables, not least of which is their own technical skill set. Of course user population needs also weigh heavily.

    I certainly didn’t mean to set up an either/or scenario: Either focus on the OPAC, or focus on customer service and the library environment. I reject that as a false choice. I was simply groping (well, that’s how it felt) for some perspective on where the OPAC fits into the big picture, trying to determine how much of our resources, individually, should be directed toward trying to improve the OPAC.

    I’m all for making the OPAC “as good as it should be”. I’m also for making our websites as good as they should be, our collections as good as they should be, our employees as good as they should be, our services as good as they should be, our programs as good as they should be, our…, etc., etc. But given the reality of limited resources we can’t make everything as good as it should be. Which brings me back to the question, where should we (or me, or you) be focusing our energies. I’m quite keen to hear the variety of answers that surely exist!

    Thanks again for the comments Karen. You’ve helped me gain a little more clarity and think a little bit deeper about what I was trying to communicate.

    (And yes, we did give great service!)

  • 3. K.G. Schneider  |  January 11, 2007 at 11:56 pm

    The example I would raise right now is from one of our “outlier” libraries that was established in 2000. I went to visit them to talk about this and that and about our OPAC upgrades. They basically don’t care that much about the OPAC, because they never went through an OPAC phase. They use it but it’s peripheral to their mission. I felt great envy that they didn’t have to redirect huge amounts of resources in that direction.

    When I went on a site visit to the organization that runs our ILS, I said that it really was an open question how much we, as a system, should invest in ILS upgrades. Oooh, such a tizzy I caused.

    I think we’re on the same page. I think your points are excellent. And one of my jobs is to make sure we don’t pack the ILS so full of our tools that we forget it’s a dead end. I have a real issue with the idea that library services should be focused on how we can get everything into the ILS. The important stuff is increasingly elsewhere, even in our library: journals, ebooks, databases, ETDs, special collections, etc.

    There is no really solid answer. From inside the belly of the beast, I will tell you that the ILS, a funky clunky beast, does provide a gateway to important resources. But how much we should invest in it, relative to the rest of our world, is fair game.

  • 4. rochelle  |  January 12, 2007 at 10:25 am

    While not regretting my comments about uncritical me-tooing (which damn well better make it on to next year’s list of best new words!), I’m wishing I had found a better way to say it. Here’s what I REALLY really meant: In the absence of open discussion, discussions in which people are hesitant to say what they think out of fear of defensive response, pile-on, and ostracism, when everyone is talking about it in IM and email, but no one is saying it outloud, that’s when dominoed happy talk is useless, and counter productive.

  • 5. Seth Stephens  |  January 12, 2007 at 12:33 pm

    Peter Drucker says something to the effect of that we only know our organization if we look at it from the outside. I suspect, as has been suggested, that the catalog is not a priority for many library patrons. I find it ironic that many surveys of public library patrons suggest that their top priority are hours that the library are open. When you ask people what they associate with public libraries they usually say books, old gray haired ladies, overdue fines, and hindering rules about using the library. Rather than put these issues at the top of our priority list, we instead focus on catalogs. While the catalog is an important tool, I believe, as Peter has suggested, that the amount attention it recieves in the public library maybe out of balance.

    Thus said, I think that when the catalog is the sole source of contact for the patron, the quality of the catalog becomes quite important. I believe that there are growing number public library patrons who are using the services of the library, but never visit the library building. They log on to use the library, (which really means they’re searching the catalog or a database)their experience is shaped by the nature of their interaction with the catalog or database.

    I think that librarians need to be cognisant of how people use their libraries and know what factors influences the quality of their experience.

    Perhaps I am suggesting that a online catalog that is difficult to use remotely, is the equivalent of being shushed by the Marian the Librarian

  • 6. Robin  |  January 13, 2007 at 3:31 am

    It deeply inspires me to read Coveys books, especially: the 7 habits of highly effective people.
    You can read my thoughts about it on my blogsite: GOD BLESS/ Robin

  • 7. Peter Bromberg  |  January 13, 2007 at 8:57 am

    Hi Rochelle, Thanks for your comments.

    Just to be clear I used your
    phrase (I get credit for coining the acronym!) playfuly, and with a wink and a nod 😉


  • 8. Sarah  |  January 13, 2007 at 4:15 pm

    Looking aside from your Covey quote (Covey makes me cringe), I do want to say that as the person who handled complaints and comments about our library catalog at the last two libraries I’ve worked at, dozens of users took the time to officially complain about the catalog each month at each library. This isn’t a patron happening to mention having a hard time to the librarian at the reference desk. This is someone taking the time to fill out online or by hand a comment form, and detail the problems encountered. My users at these two libraries definitely did have bad experiences with their catalogs, despite staff trying to run positive interference and offer help.

    A bad product is a bad product, and an expensive bad product is particularly offensive. We, like Congress, hold the power of the purse. If we don’t like these products, we shouldn’t buy them. That’s a hard decision for many directors to make, but it’s one more and more are making as projects like Evergreen produce open source solutions to the ILS quandry.

  • 9. Alane  |  January 15, 2007 at 2:51 pm

    Why, I wonder to myself often, do libraries need one system, from one vendor to manage library materials? As I haven’t worked in a library for 10 years, this may be a very naive question, but it seems to me that a discovery system and an inventory control system are fundamentally different sorts of things….but that wasn’t what I stopped by to say.

    Seth’s comment about what people say they care about with regard to library operations reminded me that here at OCLC, we have a lot of comments from people about libraries. I have a spreadsheet with over 20,000 comments made by people participating in the survey we report on in The Perceptions of Libraries and Information Resources.

    So, I did a very quick and not thorough search through 2 different parts–one in which people are asked to give one piece of advice to their library, and the other in which they are asked about negative associations with the library.

    Catalog – 21
    Parking – 29
    Fines – 7
    Hours – 185

    Catalog – 17
    Parking – 42
    Fines – 113
    Hours – 267

    It would seem to be a “no brainer” then than money should be spent to keep the library open more and longer.

  • 10. Anonymous  |  January 15, 2007 at 10:41 pm

    I am a recent graduate in Information Management from Australia, and just wanted to say that through monitoring Library Garden and in my study, I have become increasingly interested in Library 2.0 amd library as place.

    I think what makes people come into libraries/how we can encourage them in, is not just down to one element. The attitudes of the librarian, the physical outlay of libraries and how resources are presented within them are all important in giving an overall satisfying experience.

    I look forward to getting out into the profession and seeing how the idea of Library 2.0 continues to progress over the course of my career.

    Just my thoughts and congrats on the blog.
    Daniel Giddens

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