A Pre-OPAL Chat with Marshall Breeding

By Daniel A. Freeman |

If you are in the library technology world, or even if you just brush up against it, you've probably heard of Marshall Breeding. Marshall is the is the Director for Innovative Technologies and Research for the Jean and Alexander Heard Library at Vanderbilt University. A prolific writer, Marshall has authored six issues of Library Technology Reports, is a contributing editor for Smart Libraries Newsletter, a columnist for Computers in Libraries and has written dozens of articles on library technology trends. A regular on the library conference circuit, Breeding frequently speaks at Computers in Libraries, Internet Librarian, and other professional gatherings throughout the United States and internationally.

We're excited to spread the word that Marshall will be giving a talk online via OPAL that will take place next Thursday at 2 p.m. You can join Marshall for what's being described as "an informal conversation about the promise, trends, and challenges of next generation library catalogs," at the ALA OPAL 100 Room.

We were lucky enough to get an exclusive preview from Marshall himself.

Dan Freeman: So this event is being advertised as an "informal conversation" about the future of cataloging. What are the key topics you want to discuss?

We’ve billed the topic of the conversation as covering the “promise, trends, and challenges of next generation library catalogs”.    I’ve done a lot of research and writing on this new genre of library interfaces over the last couple of years.  This includes an issue of Library Technology Reports that I did a year ago. 

I think that libraries today have to be pretty ambitious about offering their content and services on the Web in ways that are familiar to their users.  Libraries live in a crowded landscape of other information providers.  Even though we specialize in high-quality content, the traditional approaches don’t do a great job of exposing the many different resources we have to our users. 
What’s different about these newer library catalogs involves an interest in guiding library users to books, journal articles, and other types of content.  The OPAC modules of the ILS are pretty limiting.  This new generation aims to be much more expansive.

I think that our conversation will talk around some of the expectations that we have for this new model of a library catalog, the scope of search they address and some of the common features.  We might talk about some of the specific products as well.  There are interesting offerings from the commercial companies as well as open source alternatives.

DF: You used the word "expansive". Can you give some examples of how this new generation is more expansive?

In the realm of the traditional online catalogs, users pretty much search only the books, journal titles, and other things that might happen to be in the inventory managed by the ILS.    In these new “discovery interfaces” as they are growing to be called, there is a huge effort to provide a search environment that includes other resources outside of the ILS.  Many are attempting to provide access to the library’s vast collections of e-journal content at the article level.  Many libraries have repositories of digital images, video, and audio content, texts, manuscripts and the like that they manage on other platforms. The new model of discovery aims to bring all this content in under a single search box.

This kind of searching is great for providing “discovery”.  But it’s also important to provide a way for library users to delve into more advanced search options of the individual repositories. 

I think that it’s important to find a balance between the very broad approach of the discovery interfaces and the precision searching needed by some researchers.

DF: Can you tell me a few of the technology platforms you feel best embody this balance?

There are several technical approaches that aim to balance the needs for general discovery and detailed searching. 

One involves providing an “advanced search” interface in the discovery system.  The other involves providing a way to hand off the user from the discovery interface into the native interface of the appropriate repository.   It should be easy, for example, for a user to perform a search in a discovery interface, find that there are photographs that show up in the result, and then click through to a specialized interface for browsing or searching photos.  The same thing would happen with books.  There are lots of times where a library user may need to shift out of the discovery interface into the online catalog  of the ILS to perform more advanced searching.

I think that all of the current discovery interfaces enable this approach.  Their main duty involves letting users discover  which of the library’s collections might have material of interest.  Once that’s done it’s also a mark of success when a user engages with one of the individual collections that they would not have otherwise known existed.

DF: So, you've talked about expanding both search capabilities and the body of materials being searched. These are critically important transformations, but they do essentially just represent a better version of the concepts that have been driving online catalogs for some time. Are there any trends that you can foresee causing a major paradigm shift? Something that will totally change the way we think about using a catalog?

That's the problem—catalogs have not embraced this concept of expansiveness.  They have been narrow and specialized.  Until this recent wave of new discovery interfaces, the online catalogs have been largely fixated on the print collections of the library.  Users interested in electronic content would be sent to an a-z list of e-journals, a database of citations, or maybe a federated search that lumps some together.  The typical library Web site presents a complex menu of starting points, depending on the format of material.  Go here if you are interested in books, try here if you want journal articles, go there of you want images or videos.  What’s been missing is this single point of entry to all the content and services of the library.  This allows the user to do broad discovery based on a topic of interest first, without the need to guess in advance the format the information. 

Mixing books, articles, and multimedia content into a single index does represent a pretty radical departure from the status quo.  Even the current generation of discovery products are only taking baby steps toward the ideal.  Many of the existing implementations of the new generation interfaces that I’ve seen continue to focus on the print collections in the ILS.  Taking it to the next level of combining the book metadata with massive body of article-level content to which a typical academic library subscribes seems largely in the experimental stage.

DF: So, it sounds like there are some really exciting products available, and obviously an efficient online catalog is crucial to a modern library. Do you think the average library with a functional, but slightly outdated catalog needs these new products now? With the current economic crisis, people are more reluctant to budget for library upgrades. Will they be okay if they don't upgrade, or do they risk being left in the dust?

It depends on the state of their current catalog.  Some of the online catalogs are better than others when it comes to how well they fit into today’s Web expectation that users bring.  It’s really up to libraries to realistically consider whether the face that they present to their users meets the expectations of today’s Web-savvy users.  There are products spanning a wide range of cost and complexity options, including open source alternatives.  You don’t necessarily have to break the bank to modernize the interfaces your library presents to its users.  For those with really out-of-data catalogs, I worry that there is some risk of becoming less relevant to users without taking some steps for improvement.