“Is the Writing On The Wall?” — Take 2

Walt Crawford chided me — rightly so — for yesterday’s Is the Writing on the Wall for the Integrated Library System? post. My choice of language was, admittedly, sloppy. I was fired up last night…distracted, if you will, by what was happening at a really good conference. Please allow me the chance to redeem my argument.

In academic libraries, in my experience, there has been a decline in the use of library catalogs. This experience could be verified in the ARL supplementary statistics for at least that population of libraries (I think those numbers are password-protected, so it might be a challenge to try to use them). When I get back on the ground and have some time, I will either offer confirmation of that supposition or retract it.

I will dismiss the notion of asking reference librarians how they see users using the catalog because they are too close to the issue. I believe, to use a phrase from Clayton Christensen’s Innovator’s Dilemma, that the library community is facing disruptive innovation — the first it has had to deal with in quite some time. And, according to Christensen’s model, one of the traps encountered when faced with disruptive innovation is listening too closely to customers (implying here that reference librarians are one of the key customers of the catalog). Listening to customers tends to drive a product into “performance oversupply” with lots of features and tweaks that most customers don’t really want yet still pay for because there is not yet an alternative. The suppliers are acting rationally, too — after all, what supplier wouldn’t want to meet all of the desires of its squeakiest wheels?

I ask you — does that sound at all like your most favorite (or least favorite, as the case might be) OPAC supplier? Therein lies the trap — not only for libraries but also for the library software vendors.

Listening to ourselves (librarians in general) is what is getting us into this situation in the first place. We keep focusing on increasingly small improvements with a relatively low return on investment while users of a whole new modality of communication (call it “Web 2.0″, if you will) look over their shoulder (if we’re lucky) and wonder why we’re not keeping up.

You stated: “I frankly find it unbelievable that OPACs aren’t being used. Of course they are.” Agreed. They are being used. OPACs are very effective at figuring out whether your library has a known item as well as what titles your library holds by a known author.

You asked: “Are they being used as often or in the ways librarians might like them to be?” Well, I don’t know about the profession in general but I’m guessing not because instructional sessions surrounding the use of the catalog continue (again, primarily in the academic library space) and even librarians will admit to using Amazon or BN.com or the like to find an item they are looking for.

[Since you are not running an OPAC, Walt, I suspect these three questions will have to be in the abstract for you (should you choose to comment).] I’ll ask: “Are they being used as effectively as they could be?” And related: “Does their current use justify their on-going expense?” And lastly: “When is the last time someone thanked you for a new feature you worked hard to get into your system?” If it has been too long, what should we do about it?