The impending demise of the local OPAC

Gregg Silvis presented his view of the not-so-rosy future of the local OPAC to a capacity crowd on the first day of the 2006 LITA National Forum.

Reviewing the origins of today’s OPACs in the card catalogs of yore, he focused on the duplication of effort that has always been a part of the tradition of the local catalog, in both card and electronic form. The development of cooperative cataloging greatly reduced this duplication, but the advent of local automated systems caused libraries to migrate redundant physical processes to electronic form and decades later, in a very different technological environment, libraries still largely operate the same way. Each library follows similar or identical steps to locate, load, and index copies of the same records, separately perform identical authority control steps, independently maintain, upgrade and backup thousands of servers to host their OPACs, devote massive amounts of staff resources to the design and implementation of thousands of similar, but different user interfaces, separately test each changed feature for browser compatibility, and provide support to users for locally customized systems each differing at least slightly from every other.

Silvis suggested that it’s time for a radical change, and that recent efforts by OCLC have created in OCLC FirstSearch WorldCat or Open WorldCat a potential replacement for the local OPAC. For most libraries, most of their holdings are in WorldCat, so a WorldCat search limited to their institution’s holdings already provides a lot of the functionality of an OPAC. But Silvis admits that for his idea to work, some key pieces are still missing (such as real-time links to local acquisitions and circulation systems, a way to handle location-specific links to electronic resources and contractually restricted locally enhanced table of content data, and big issues of scalability, reliability, pricing and loss of control). Still, OCLC has an active office of research and has taken the lead in incorporating a number of new technologies into its products, so it is quite possible these problems could be overcome. Such a step would put OCLC in a much more dominant position in the industry, effectively establishing a monopoly over one of the most important library functions, but he stated, in a sense, OCLC is us, and not concerned with corporate profits or maintaining its stock price. The money gets reinvested in more services to libraries.

Silvis concluded with a few “extreme ideas” that I had not heard from him before. Once cataloging and the OPAC are taken away, local systems would consist of acquisitions/serials and circulation/course reserves. Acquisitions/serials can be viewed as a redundant accounting system for many libraries, one that needs to be reconciled with the more general accounting systems often used by the larger institutions of which libraries are a part (such as a University or local government)– noting that that the University of Alberta has moved its acquisitions function to PeopleSoft. For academic libraries, student information in the patron records of the ILS largely duplicates what is held in student information systems. How much of the ILS could be replaced with added functionality in other programs?

Silvis closed by mentioning that the University of Washington is currently in discussion with OCLC to use WorldCat as its OPAC, and invited comments or questions from the 70+ people crowding the room.

A spirited and wide-ranging discussion followed, with many attendees expressing frustration with the current “state of the OPAC”, questioning how vendors could let their products stagnate, some suggesting that open source solutions like the Georgia PINES Evergreen ILS and Koha might provide relief for libraries, and several expressed interest in Silvis’ OCLC OPAC idea.

This was a well informed group painfully aware of specific new things they’d like to do (for example, someone wanted to open their OPAC to LibraryThing), but were unable to do with their current systems.

Some criticized the what they saw as a resistance by vendors to anything but incremental changes in the established automation systems, others stood up for system vendors, who always say these incremental changes are what libraries ask for. If this group is representative, vendors will find that this is changing fast. There was a sense that bigger changes are necessary.