Unsucking the OPAC: One Man's Noble Efforts

By Karen G. Schneider | For better or worse, I'm usually quite prolix on TechSource, but this is a day when I woke up early feeling the need for a wee happy post. It's a day when I flung open the curtains and shouted to the world, "World, the OPAC doesn't always have to suck!"

That's particularly true because of the work of Casey Bisson, inventor/developer/creator/instigator/leader of WPOPAC, built "inside the framework of WordPress, the hugely popular blog-management application."

Tea Cozy WPOPAC doesn't attempt to replace the integrated library system (ILS)—just complement and extend it. The WPOPAC goes over the ILS the way a tea cozy might slide over an ugly teapot. I've said for some time that a good interface to our richly structured bibliographic data is the "missing module" of the ILS; the front-end user interface ILS vendors provide—what we think of as the OPAC—doesn't feel or function like a positive user experience. WPOPAC provides that missing module so that a search in WPOPAC feels, and is, satisfying.

Some of the satisfaction from using WPOPAC comes from the capabilities of WordPress, such as comments, feeds, and trackbacks. But the real significance of WPOPAC isn't the functionality it displays. It's that WPOPAC leverages "access to a [huge] community of knowledge, programmers, and designers outside libraries." As Casey puts it, "it already has more users, designers, developers, and administrators than all the ILS vendors combined."

Casey's moment of inspiration—what he calls his "duh" moment—came when he began to realize that the question wasn't "how can we improve the OPAC," but "how can we do it in a way that's sustainable and supportable in every library." Casey explains, "That's when I realized I needed to look outside libraries for a platform to build on ... and that blogging systems offered us a number of lessons about how to build applications like this. These sophisticated database-driven content management systems are often offered free, and are serving users that run the gamut of technical skills." As Casey put it, "Why did we need to solve all the problems when blogging apps already did so much?" Duh, indeed.

Casey is humble on his blog, saying, "This is my first stab at a really big problem, and there's a lot that isn't done and certainly a few things I didn't think of. The plan here is to build a framework that lets us ask questions, build possible solutions, and share them easily."

However, others haven't shied from recognizing his work. No less than the Mellon Foundation just honored Casey with their Award for Technology Collaboration. It is doubly exciting to see library software receive that kind of honor. Does your ILS deserve kudos from Tim Berners-Lee?

Like the Endeca tea cozy—I mean, interface—for the NCSU catalog, the WPOPAC not only presents one type of solution for the "missing module" problem, but also emphasizes that the solutions for our problems can come from creative thinking inside the profession and reaching out to work done elsewhere. It's the dawn of our self-actualization, LibraryLand!
Editor's Note: Casey Bisson will be authoring the May/June 2007 issue of Library Technology Reports, tentatively titled "Open-Source Software for Libraries."
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