ownership of problems – opac, tech staff and gremlins

It’s easy to get mad at the OPAC vendor when the upgrade to their product brings your whole system down for months, but there are many stories in that one news article. The director of that library was a candidate for ALA President last year and no stranger to automation. The library used to be a Dynix library, before it became a Sirsi-Dynix library. It is now a Polaris library.

I’m sure this story is an extreme example of OPAC upgrades going wrong, but comments in the thread and elsewhere seem to imply that it’s not that unusual and it’s a telling downside to the relationships we have with our vendors. Whose responsibility is it when upgrades go wrong? Is that responsibility codified in print? What is the library’s responsibility as far as technical staffing and maintenance of the ILS system? Who determines the upgrade schedule, and what the upgrades will consist of?

I’m not a systems librarian, I just run a lot of blogs on a lot of different servers and so I sympathize with the troubleshooting nightmare that OPAC upgrades must bring. On the other hand, this library has been using Dynix since 1985, that’s pre-Web. So — and I oversimplify here — online catalogs went “online” before they had to think about the way we’d be pointing and clicking through web-based information 10 and 20 years hence and they did some pretty cool things. For a lot of people my age, interacting with a library catalog may have been one of their first used of public access computing. Then the Web took off and the dumb terminal interface to the library catalog seemed not just quaint and outdated but an active wall between library content and library users. And what did library vendors do? And what did librarians do?

I love reading what Steven Abrams has to say about librarian 2.0 and what Liz Lawley has to say about edge cases and early adopters. I like to think that some amount of money that we’re paying for our OPAC upgrades and our buggy operating systems keeps them talking. And yet, we have few (and possibly fewer lately) philosophizing practitioners, people who can solve the problem now, not just talk about how the problem should be solved.

Moving to more open web-like customizeable user-centered content and services is a tricky tightrope walk for any company with shareholders, or one eye on the bottom line. Library patrons aren’t like book buyers — if your OPAC is lame, they’re likely not going to go to another library [though they might just leave libraries altogther, although we haven’t seen that happening]. I’d really like to know what happened to the Rochester Hills Public Library’s circulation stats when they had a lousy OPAC for a few months.

OPACs old and new, Ms. Jessamyn goes to Washington

I’m at the Calef Library in Washington today doing some computer maintenance and just all around tech chit-chat with the librarian. She’s involved in a discussion with the board of trustees about whether she can get health insurance this year and it’s not going particularly well. Her husband is a farmer, he doesn’t have health insurance either. It’s ineresting how many librarians in my region have farmer husbands. The library here is open 19 hours a week and she works ten of them, the other nine are staffed by a volunteer. You’ve probably seen the pictures of this library on Flickr, it’s a really lovely space. The librarian is a real can-do gal. She’s working with a nice space, a teeny budget, and a moderately supportive board. Her and I talk about technology and the things I explain to her stick with her.

We were talking about wireless today — the library has broadband on two computers via cable modem, the librarian shares her computer with the public when it’s busy — and she said “You just buy some hardware and set it up and you’re done?” I said yes, mostly. Next thing you know, we bought a wireless router with a wireless PCMCIA card for under $30, delivered. Next week when it arrives I’ll show her how to set it up, help her make some configuration handouts for her patrons, and we’re done. It will be the first wireless hotspot in Washington Vermont and probably the only one within 10-15 miles. When we were through talking about wireless, the Town Clerk called, she was having trouble with her email and couldn’t get the librarian’s report from her email in order to put in the town report. I walked over there and showed her how to enter her username and password into her dial-up configuration, and also how to use Word’s “recover text from any document” feature to get the librarian’s Word Perfect report into the clerk’s Word document. I got back to the library and tol the librarian she didn’t have to retype the report and this made her pretty happy.

I’ve been talking to the librarian here about getting her catalog online. ILS software is sort of expensive, though she could probably get the funding. For a library that for all intents and purposes is going to stay small, major feature-rich ILSes are not as important as things such as an easy interface and a simple and cheap data input mechanism. I’d been talking to Timothy over at LibraryThing about whether he’d consider rolling out a version of his super software for teeny libraries. His encouraging answer was “not yet” but we’ve been talking about it.

This brings me to my next topic, sparked by Jenny Levine’s TechSource post about Library 2.0 in the Real World and my new pal Casey who maybe you’ve heard of. Casey Bisson built an OPAC prototype that runs on WordPress. No, seriously, look. It will run with any vendor’s ILS. He talked about it at ALA well before I got there, and people were buzzing about it all week. Not only is it a clever hack, it’s clean, simple, unbranded and highly functional in ways that seem pretty obvious to bloghappy me. I’d love to see a prototype running publicly so that he could get some feedback from folks who maybe don’t come from the born-with-the-chip generation.

In my neck of the woods, small ILS vendors are charging $1500 for this level of functionality, the ability to put an OPAC on the web. Non-tech savvy librarians who don’t have the ability to code these features themselves find ways to pay it. And, bringing this post full-circle, then they find other ways to get health insurance for the year. I think you know the moral of this story. I’m happy to have some good news to report from here in the hinterlands.

NCSU Libraries new “pig butchering” OPAC

We talk a lot about what library catalogs could look like, but who is building them? Well, Andrew Pace and NCSU for one. Here is the press release announcing their new Endeca-powered OPAC. Why is it different? It focuses on relevance instead of some arbitrary criteria — our OPAC at one of my old jobs would list DVDs by add date, so all the ones that showed up at the top a search list were labeled “IN PROCESS” and thus not available to patrons — and allows simple search narrowing. Andrew explains more. Don’t let me blather on about it, check it out yourself (and notice the slick URL while you’re at it). [web4lib]

my tag cloud and forcing an opac solution

Jason Griffey makes a good point, the “tag cloud” I referred to when talking about daveyp’s OPAC subject cloud was a bit of a misnomer. Now that I’m using LibraryThing, at least a little bit, I have been looking at my author cloud which makes me think one thing “Man I read on the plane a lot!”

I’ve been swapping email with Tim over at LibraryThing because I’ve been talking to some small libraries (less than 10,000 volumes) about OPAC ideas. LibraryThing doesn’t have an enterprise version yet, but it’s got some features I’d love to see in my own OPAC, like a feed for “recently added” books, options for turning book cover display on or off (why is this so hard?) and all the cloudy goodness. The small-library OPACs I’ve seen are often either kludgey stripped-down versions of larger ILSes, or they’ve got terrible web implementation which seems added on as an afterthought. If anyone has seen a stand-alone OPAC that’s attractive, cheap and easy for non-techies to implement, please let me know. We don’t need patron or money management features, just the book parts, and maybe a “checked in/out” flag.

While you’ve got your OPAC hat on, read the ILS Customer Bill of Rights and the four fundamental must-haves.

  1. Open, read-only, direct access to the database
  2. A full-blown, W3C standards-based API to all read-write functions
  3. The option to run the ILS on hardware of our choosing, on servers that we administer
  4. High security standards

Is that too much to ask? Don’t miss the comments, I’m going to make “glommed-together, katamariesque nightmare ILS codebase ” part of my lexicon. What’s katamari, you ask?

What We Want, The OPAC Manifesto

Andrew Pace reminds me that I used to have a wiki, way back when. This wiki was a place where, among other things, I had a roomshare page for ALA as well as the OPAC Manifesto which was going to be an article in Searcher Magazine. However, the final version was not quite Searcher material, so I shelved it temporarily while I thought about wikifixing and promptly forgot about it. The OPAC Manifesto is back for your viewing [though not editing] pleasure. Thanks very much to people who helped with it. Feel free to link or republish in any not-for-profit venture, just cite it and credit it.

update: for those of you who missed this topic before, the manifesto was set up on a wiki so that anyone could add or edit ideas on it. The intro and outro are mine, the rest was collaboratively built.