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The behavior of academic library users has drastically changed in recent years. Internet search engines have become the preferred tool over the library online public access catalog (OPAC) for finding information. Libraries are losing ground to online search engines. In this paper, two aspects of OPAC use are studied: (1) the current OPAC interface and searching capabilities, and (2) the OPAC bibliographic display. The purpose of the study is to find answers to the following questions: Why is the current OPAC ineffective? What can libraries and librarians do to deliver an OPAC that is as good as search engines to better serve our users? Revitalizing the library OPAC is one of the pressing issues that has to be accomplished.
The information-seeking behavior of today's academic library users has drastically changed in recent years. According to a survey conducted and published by OCLC in 2005, approximately 89 percent of college students across all the regions that were included in the study (including areas outside the United States) begin their electronic information searches with Internet search engines. (1) More than half of U.S. residents used Google for their searches. Internet search engines dominate the information-seeking landscape. Academic libraries are the ones affected most, because many college students are satisfied with the answers they find on the Internet for their assignments, and they end up not taking advantage of the many quality resources in their libraries.
For many years, before the Internet search engine emerged, library catalogs were the sole information-seeking gateway. Just as the one-time industry giant Kodak has lost ground to digital photography, academic library OPACs are losing ground to online search engines. All along we academic librarians have devotedly and assiduously produced good cataloging records for the public to use. We have diligently and faithfully educated and helped our faculty and students find the proper library resources to fulfill their research needs and assignment requirements. We feel good about what we have achieved. Why have our users switched to online search engines?
The evolution of user behavior
It is technology and rising user expectations that have contributed to the changes in user behavior. As Coyle and Hillmann pointed out: "Today's library users have a different set of information skills from those of just a few decades ago. They live in a highly interactive, networked world and routinely turn to Web search engines for their information needs." (2) A recent study conducted by the University of Georgia on undergraduate research behavior in using the university's electronic library concluded that Internet sites and online instruction modules are the primary sources for their research. (3) The students' year of study did not make much of a difference in their choices. Tenopir also concluded from her study of approximately 200 scholarly works published between 1995 and 2003 that no matter what type of resources were used, "convenience remains the single most important factor for information use." (4)
Recently, OCLC identified three major trends in the needs of today's information consumers--self-service (moving to self-sufficiency), satisfaction, and seamlessness. (5) Services provided by Google, Amazon, and similar companies are the major cause of these emerging trends. Customers have wholeheartedly embraced these products because of their ease of use and quick delivery of "good enough" results. Researchers do not need to take information literacy classes to learn how to use an online search engine. They do not need to worry about forgetting important but infrequently used search rules or commands. In addition, the search results delivered by online search engines are sorted using relevance ranking systems that are more user-friendly than the ones currently employed by academic library OPACs. These are just some of the features that current academic library OPACs fail to deliver. In 2004, Campbell and Fast presented their analysis of an exploratory study of university students' perceptions of searching OPACs and Web search engines. (6) They found that "[s]tudents express a distinct preference for search engines over library catalogues, finding the catalogue baffling and difficult to use effectively." As a result, library OPACs, because they do not fulfill user needs, have been bombarded with criticism. (7)
We often hear librarians complain about how library users forget what they have learned in user education classes. Librarians sometimes even laugh at users' ignorance and ineffectiveness in searching library OPACs. This legacy mentality has actually prevented librarians from recognizing the changes in user behavior and expectations that have occurred in the past decade. Rarely have librarians considered ineffective OPAC design to be at the root of unsuccessful OPAC use. Roy Tennant has mentioned frequently in his presentations that "only librarians like to search; users prefer to find"; that "users aren't lazy, they are human." (8) It is only natural that library users turn to Internet search engines first for their information needs.
The OPAC reexamined
Cutter, in his 1876 book, introduced the objectives of the library catalog as follows:
1. To enable a person to find a book of which either [ILLUSTRATION OMITTED] 2. To show what the library has a. by a given author b. on a given subject c. in a given kind of literature 3. To assist in the choice of a book a. as to its edition (bibliographically) b. as to its character (literary or topical) (9)
The majority of today's OPACs have successfully fulfilled Cutter's model in finding known items. Following the card-catalog convention, bibliographic elements such as title, author, and subject have been the leading search options in OPAC search menus for many years. It was assumed that users always came to the library with specific author, title, or subject information in mind before searching the catalog. The OPAC bibliographic display is in essence an electronic version of the card catalog. To accommodate the bibliographic data from card catalogs, many display labels were created, but often without regard to whether or not they were suitable in an online environment. This data-centered, card-catalog type of design was easily understood and fluently used by librarians, but not by most end users. Campbell and Fast found in their study that "while the participants were generally happy with their understanding of search engines, they frequently expressed a low opinion of their ability to search the catalogue." They also found that students felt that "[t]he Web is cluttered; the catalogue is organized. However, this organization was not always helpful; it was admired, but not understood." (10)
The traditional catalog retrieval mechanism is significantly different from the Web search engine. As Yu and Young noted in 2004, "Web search engines and online bookstores have a number of features that are not typically incorporated into OPACs. These functions include: natural-language entry, automated mapping to controlled vocabulary, spell-checking, similar pages, relevance-ranked output, popularity tracking, and browsing." (11) These features have unquestionably affected user expectations in searching library OPACs. Teaching users to search for structured bibliographic data is completely opposed to the ever-popular free and open Internet search mechanism drawn from the Google-like search experience, which does not require any special training.
Since academic libraries aim to provide more dynamic and versatile services, revitalizing library OPACs should be considered a top priority. Furthermore, librarians' expectations of user behavior should adjust to today's needs. Educating users to become fluent in using OPAC search commands and rules has become less relevant as users now seldom read and follow instructions. Investing effort and energy in designing a truly user-friendly OPAC that functions intuitively to achieve productive retrieval could not be more imperative.
Academic librarians have started pondering what changes should be made to library OPACs so that a truly user-friendly, twenty-first-century catalog that offers a "Google-like" experience can be delivered. Two important aspects that affect the usability of library OPACs are addressed in this article: (1) the current interface and searching capabilities and (2) the bibliographic display. The OPAC's public interface and searching capabilities together function as a finding aid. It determines how successful a user is in retrieving information and is the gateway to library resources. The effectiveness of an OPAC's bibliographic display affects the user's understanding of the bibliographic description. Users use bibliographic information to identify, select, and obtain library resources.
The study of the public interface of library OPACs
To find out how academic libraries designed and administered their OPACs, the authors examined the interfaces of 123 Association of Research Libraries (ARL) libraries' OPACs powered by five major integrated library systems (ILS): Aleph, Horizon, Millennium, Unicorn, and Voyager. The study focused on searching ability, relevance ranking, layout, and linking functionalities.
During the study, we expected each ILS system to have its own OPAC design. We also anticipated that search mechanisms would be managed differently at each location. However, we were surprised by the great disparities that we discovered in OPAC quality, a clear indication of the time and effort (or lack thereof) devoted to their maintenance and improvement. The findings are summarized below.
Google-driven changes--keyword search as the default search key
In his article "Mental Models for Search Are Getting Firmer," usability expert Jakob Nielsen argued that current users have already developed a firm mental model of searching:
Search is such a prominent part of the Web user experience that users have developed a firm mental model for how it's supposed to work. Users expect search to have three components:
* A box where they can type words
* A button labeled "search" that they click to run the search
* A list of top results that's linear, prioritized, and appears on a new page--the search engine results page (SERP)
In our experience, when users see a fat "Search" button, they're likely to frantically look for "the box where I type my words." The mental model is so strong that the label "Search" equals keyword searching, not other types of search. (12)
Studies have also shown that the default search option to which an OPAC is set affects users' success in retrieving information. Two studies on university OPAC search transactions confirmed that novice users preferred searching by keyword. At Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, a recent search transaction log study was conducted to "identify query and search failure patterns with the goal of identifying areas of improvement for the system." Results indicated that "the most commonly used search option for the NTU OPAC is the keyword search. The use of keyword searches contributed to 68.9 percent of all queries while other options such as title, author, and subject accounted for 16.5 percent, 8.2 percent, and 6.4 percent of all searches respectively." (13)
At California State University-Los Angeles, a four-quarter (2002-2003) search transaction log analysis also revealed similar results. After the library implemented an "advanced keyword search" feature that provided more user-centered, behind-the-scenes search algorithms and that set keyword …