Use and Contents of Catalogs and Other Databases, 1998-2001

The published literature during the period 1998 to 2001 addressed three main themes:

  • Incorporating electronic resources into the OPAC
  • Effectiveness of Web-based OPACs
  • Decline of the OPAC

Incorporating Electronic Resources in the OPAC

The late 1990s brought to libraries Web-based OPACs. Commonly referred to as “Webpacs,” these second generation online catalogs were the topic of many papers written during this period. How to include records for online resources in Webpacs was an especially popular topic. Porter and Bayard (1999) describe Notre Dame's Web site selection and cataloging process and offers sound guidelines that other libraries can adopt. More recently, Beam and Copeland (2001) provide a very detailed overview of the Prospector system, the union catalog of the Colorado Alliance of Research Libraries. Their paper addresses the challenges inherent in maintaining URLs in OPACs when consortia share a catalog. Hughes (2001) takes a slightly different approach in her work, discussing some of the value-added features of Web-OPACs. These include book jacket images and author biographies—features made possible through the advent and employ of the MARC 856 linking field. Hughes demonstrates the importance users place on the OPAC and how libraries must exert effort to keep the OPAC a viable tool in the Internet age.

Effectiveness of Web-based OPACS

An area receiving much attention during this period was effectiveness of Webpacs. A number of well-documented studies were published, particularly Feldman (1999) and Thomas (2001). Feldman, president of a usability testing company, documents a prescription for such testing. She notes that often usability is an after-thought in the design process. She stresses the importance of iterative testing, looking at issues such as user-friendliness, navigation, responsiveness of the system, use of standards, and effectiveness of help screens. Also of note is her advice that the product’s developers not be involved in the testing. Thomas looks specifically at usability of OPACs. He conducts a study with first-year students to determine how well bibliographic records organize information. He discovers that users consider only a few fields important. He argues that OPACs are not just information storage and retrieval systems, but presentation systems, and as such, significant attention should be given to their layouts. Babu and O'Brien (2000) offer an overview of six Web-OPACs. They compare the Web interfaces of Talis, INNOPAC, WebCat, Voyager, GeoWeb, and Aleph. They develop a checklist of features and compare the tested Webpacs against it. They recommend that Web-OPACs offer sophisticated and effective searching capabilities, along with the compulsory ability to link to internal and external resources. In similar fashion, Cherry (1998) reviews ten Web-OPACs, looking specifically at full bibliographic displays. She ranks the systems’ use of field labels, help screens, and screen layout. Findings reveal a number of weaknesses, including lack of online help, options not listed at both the top and bottom of screens, and failure to provide links from authors and subjects. Chisman, Diller, and Walbridge (1999) describe usability tests at the Washington State University Libraries. Their study reveals how little users understand or care about serials, limiting features, and cross-references. Ortiz-Repiso and Moscoso (1999) contend that the perpetuation of traditional practices and structures inhibits Web OPACs from being truly innovative tools. They base their argument on the persistence of cataloging terminology such as main entry and added author in online catalogs, and the time it takes to make changes to the MARC format.

Decline of the OPAC

Much recent literature announces the death of the catalog. It is argued that the Internet and users' desire for full-text resources make the catalog a little-used, cumbersome resource—no longer the chief resource for information discovery. Since users are going first, and perhaps only, to the Web to satisfy their research needs, Antelman (1999) wonders why we should “attempt to accommodate the[se] new resources in the old gateway?” She argues convincingly that the universe of materials libraries are now faced with is much larger and more fluid than ever before. Although MARC accommodates book descriptions well, it is not an ideal format for capturing details about Web objects. She concludes by contending that a “good enough” culture is emerging, fueled by “instant information gratification.” Antelman's contentions are convincing. Her article gave birth to an entire issue of Library Computing devoted to the utility and future of the online catalog. A couple of pieces from this special issue, edited by Antelman, compare the usability of Web lists versus the OPAC. Anderson (1999) discusses the practice of maintaining dual systems to expose e-journals to patrons. She comments how it is not unlike the separate lists librarians created to advertise videos and compact discs when these formats first appeared. She describes Virginia Commonwealth University's utilization of e-journal lists to create MARC records for their catalog. Chrzastowski (1999) also comments on the efforts needed to maintain Web lists and bibliographic records for e-journals. She details the pros and cons of each approach. One advantage the OPAC has is familiarity. Users have experience with it. Web lists, on the other hand, require less effort to use. Patrons can browse and click, a less time-consuming task than searching an OPAC one record at a time. It is this “principle of least effort,” she contends, that will continue to guide practices in this area. Seys (1999) offers an appropriate metaphor, that of the OPAC as hammer. She argues that not every resource, especially Web resources, is a nail. Moreover, she contends that current cataloging rules, despite efforts to the contrary, still do not adequately accommodate online resources. This contention results from cataloging being based on an assumption of permanence, a quality practically nonexistent on the Web. Finally, Baruth (2000) questions whether search engines will make quality services like OCLC's Cooperative Online Resource Catalog obsolete. She maintains that federated search systems hold the greatest promise for the future.

Works Cited

Anderson, Barbara. 1999. Web lists or OPACs: can we have our cake and eat it too? Library Computing18, no.4: 312–16.

Antelman, Kristin. 1999. Web lists and the decline of the library catalog. Library Computing 18, no.3: 189–95.

Babu, R. Ramesh & Ann O'Brien. Web OPAC interfaces: an overview. The Electronic Library 18, no.5: 316–27.

Baruth, Barbara. 2000. Is your catalog big enough to handle the Web? American Libraries 31, no.7: 56–60.

Beam, Joan T. and Nora S. Copeland. 2001. Electronic resources in union catalogs: URLs and accessibility issues. Serials Review 27, no.3–4: 33–47.

Bolin, Mary K. 2000. Catalog design, catalog maintenance, catalog governance. Library Collections, Acquisitions, & Technical Services 24, no.1: 53–63.

Cherry, Joan M. 1998. Bibliographic displays in OPACs and Web catalogs: How well do they comply with display guidelines? Information Technology and Libraries 17, no.3 (Sept.): 124–37.

Chisman, Janet K., Karen R. Diller, andSharon L. Walbridge. 1999. Usability testing: A case study. College & Research Libraries 60, no. 6 (Nov.): 552–69.

Chrzastowski, Tina E. 1999. E-journal access: The online catalog (856 field), Web lists, and the “principle of least effort.” Library Computing 18, no.4: 317–22.

Davidson, Lloyd A. 1999. Libraries and their OPACs lose out to the competition. Library Computing 18, no.4: 279–88.

Feldman, Susan. 1999. The key to online catalogs that work? Testing one, two, three. Computers in Libraries 19, no.5: 16–18.

Green, Elisabeth, and Alison J. Head. 1998. Web-based catalogs: Is their design language anything to talk about? Online 22, no.4: 98–100.

Hughes, Jane E. 2001. Access, access, access! The new OPAC mantra. American Libraries 32, no.5: 62–64.

Kopak, Richard W., and Joan M. Cherry. 1998. Bibliographic displays and Web catalogues: User evaluations of three prototype displays. Electronic Library 16, no. 5 (Oct.): 309–23.

Matthews, Joe. 2000. The value of information in library catalogs. Information Outlook 4, no.7: 18–24.

Morgan, Eric Lease. 1999. Catalogs of the future. Computers in Libraries 19, no.9: 38–39.

Ortiz-Repiso, Virginia and Purificacion Moscoso. 1999. Web-based OPACs: Between tradition and innovation. Information Technology and Libraries 18, no.2: 68.

Porter, G. Margaret, and Laura Bayard. 1999. Including Web sites in the online catalog: Implications for cataloging, collection development, and access. Journal of Academic Librarianship 25, no. 5 (Sept.): 390–94.

Potter, William Gray. 1998. The online catalogue in academic libraries. In Technical Services Today and Tomorrow. 2nd ed. Libraries Unlimited: 141–55.

Seys, Debora. 1999. The red queen and the library catalog. Library Computing 18, no.4: 275–78.

Thomas, David H. 2001. The effect of interface design on item selection in an online catalog. Library Resources & Technical Services 5, no. 1 (Jan.): 20–46.

Yachnes, Paul. 2000. XMLCat: an XML-encoded online library catalog. Library Computing 19, no.1–2: 59–67.

Prepared by Norm Medeiros, Coordinator, Bibliographic and Digital Services, Haverford College,