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Designing an OPAC for Web 2.0: Casey Bisson's presentation at IUG 2006

Better late than never, I’m posting a summary of Casey Bisson’s excellent presentation, “Designing an OPAC for Web 2.0,” at the Innovative Users Group on May 21. Bisson (Library Information Technologist, Plymouth State University) made a strong case for integrating libraries into the Web 2.0 world while also neatly summarizing the challenges we face in doing so. I wish every CEO of every integrated library system could have heard his talk.

Before I get into the meat of the presentation, I’d like to point you to Bisson’s cool proof of concept — a library catalog built in WordPress. Check out WPopac at Now, back to the presentation…

Bisson defined Web 2.0 as being not about technology but about a critical mass of people creating content online. This user-created content is what separates Web 2.0 from previous eras in web development. His presentation was intended to answer the question, “What can libraries do to serve these changed information behaviors?” He focused on three areas — usability, findability, and remixability.

Usability: The crux of Bisson’s argument re: usability is this: “If users need training to use our systems, we aren’t meeting their needs.” Wow. That’s almost heresy in some circles, but I believe it simply reflects reality. Bisson argues that our users’ expectations are shaped by internet search engines and the many other free services on the web that don’t use controlled vocabularies and don’t require extensive training to use effectively. He recommends taking advantage of today’s more powerful, less expensive computing horsepower to build the complexity into the back end of the system, e.g. improving indexing, implementing faceted searching, and adding other enhancements that help the user navigate our resources without bibliographic instruction.

Findability: Bisson emphasized the need to free our resources from the confines of traditional library tools like opacs. Users rarely make a deliberate decision to search a library catalog, so information about our resources needs to be accessible where the users are. We shouldn’t try to compete with the internet; we should become part of it. Our catalogs should be searchable within internet search engines, and useres should be able to link to individual records in our catalogs, so they can refer to them in online conversations.

Remixability: Bisson continued his argument for freeing library data from library systems in his discussion of remixability. Library information, he argued, needs to be accessible via web services so that users can combine it with other information sources to meet their needs. Users are building mashups with data from Flickr, Google Maps, and a host of other sources. Libraries have some of the richest data out there, but access methods are very limited. That isolates our data, making it a small, separate piece of our user’s information universe rather than integrated throughout.

So why is it so difficult for libraries to join the Web 2.0 world? Our system architecture isn’t designed to support Web 2.0 models, and we lack a critical mass of programmers who work with library systems and library data.

All in all, this was a very thought-provoking presentation. I felt like shouting, “Amen!” a few times, especially regarding the closed architecture of most library systems. He’s given this presentation in other settings (including ALA Midwinter), so I hope lots of vendor staff have heard his cogent arguments and will take them to heart.