Hiding Complexity in Library 2.0

One of the benefits of a more open architecture for the OPAC, as discussed earlier, is that it allows you to have as simple or as complex an interface as you need. If your patrons don’t need a specific feature then you can turn it off. It also allows those with other requirements (such as privacy) to tweak it to meet their guidelines. Some libraries may have no problem storing data for personalized searches while others may have a strict privacy guideline forbidding such things. In general extensibility allows you to be more flexible.

Right now, however, it is a bit difficult to do such a task. You can tweak templates but any large changes or integration often takes lots of hacks and is not very elegant. The usability of such a system could also decrease as you try to hack on this feature or that. This is important as more and more libraries begin to look into ways of making the OPAC easier to use and more importantly, information easier to find. A recent quote caught my eye and it may be useful to keep in mind when discussing features for you OPAC and how to implement them.

“Google has the functionality of a really complicated Swiss Army knife, but the home page is our way of approaching it closed. It’s simple, it’s elegant, you can slip it in your pocket, but it’s got the great doodad when you need it. A lot of our competitors are like a Swiss Army knife open–and that can be intimidating and occasionally harmful.” (via Column Two)

Since there are likely some google haters in the crowd here’s a better takeaway from the article:

In a 2002 poll, the Consumer Electronics Association discovered that 87% of people said ease of use is the most important thing when it comes to new technologies.

In the ramp up and discussion for “Library 2.0″ the feature list keeps getting longer and the ideas ever more complex. Can you keep you OPAC from becoming a confusing mess? Can you even implement these features if you wanted to? When someone visits your OPAC are they eased into what’s available or hit head on by the thousand options they have? Can they find a book without knowing boolean constructs?

All of these questions are important as people will demand these features but also demand that they not get in the way. Is there really a reason to have a button to show the MARC record front and center? Can you tell who the OPAC was designed for? With a good URL structure such things could be relegated to the background for advanced users. In WordPress if you put a /feed/ at the end on any URL you will get the feed for the item be it author, category, item (comments) or site. With a good architecture an OPAC could do similar things with /marc/ showing the MARC record, /feed/ giving the RSS/Atom, /xml/ giving the MARC XML or other XML syntax, etc. This allows you to expose what you want (add links on the page) or just leave it there for those “in the know” (librarians that want MARC). This is another area where WordPress gives a good example of how it can be done. And it’s extensible so if you wanted /dc/ to give you a Dublin-Core output of the page you could do so if you wanted. There’s already a WordPress blog that’s COins-PMH compliant, how long would it take you to make your OPAC as well (server-side)?

Does your OPAC allow you the flexibility to integrate, add/remove features or otherwise change as patron demand changes? Shouldn’t it?

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6 Responses to “Hiding Complexity in Library 2.0”

  • 1
    casey20 Says:

    I personally think we’ve failed if all this fantastic newness makes the catalog even one iota more complex than it is now. Things are already too complicated, even if we were offering twice as much functionality.

    I think your point about having the experts-only features there but having it hidden in a logical way is crucial. Ideally, your users won’t have to go through some hassle to add or subtract features, because the features will be there just when they need them, and where they would think of looking for them. The software needs to be more intelligent so your users can get by with knowing less.

    If that sounds like a tall order, it is.
    It’s made much harder by the inflexibility of current systems — and the inflexibility of the library world in general. Even among the online giants, I think most don’t get it. Amazon is a prime offender. Yahoo is almost as bad. The future is in sites with rich, intuitive interfaces where you can figure out how to do 90% of the stuff you want without looking at the instructions. I’m thinking Remember the Milk, Gmail & the 37signals webapps as prime examples of web 2.0 stuff that just works.

    What would happen tomorrow if the entire library catalog was replaced by a single page with a single search box on it? How could you make that work? Do I need all those dropdowns and boxes to find what I’m looking for? Why can’t I type “Bob Dylan CD’s” into anyone’s library OPAC and just get Bob Dylan CD’s back? Or “books about dogs written before 1900″?

    I don’t see any way to get to that amazing 2.0 future without throwing a lot of dead weight — old protocols and decades of card catalog-centric thinking — off the side first. Hiding complexity should start with the complexity we’ve already got. It’s time for less.

  • 2
    Eby Says:

    I think it’s a good idea to keep watching some of the others such as Yahoo and Amazon that are in the same boat as the OPAC, having legacy and politics to deal with when adding these features. Neither can become “simpler” tomorrow without huge consequences. Yahoo is making an increased effort to fix what problems they can and make things easier to use. Amazon, however, seems to be adding on features (tags, forums, etc) without much thought into the integration. At least it seems to me that the pages are getting more and more bloated and confusing. Maybe it’s just me.

  • 3
    Information Takes Over » Blog Archive » Removing complexity Says:

    […] libdev talks about the complexity of opacs and warns us that this could increase with library 2.0. Indeed. has anybody looked at worldcat lately? There are so many bells and whistles that it is easy to get lost. I once even found that I had somehow managed to move from WorldCat to ArticleFirst without realising it, after puzzling over the way the book display had changed. […]

  • 4
    casey20 Says:

    Yeah, I don’t really get the feeling that Amazon has an overarching technical vision, just a whole lot of really smart people. A good example is their diamond search. Yeah, it’s a very cool hack, but it’s not similar anything else on their website. What was their plan when they put that interface together?

  • 5
    libdev » LiveSearch and Clustered Displays Says:

    […] As I’ve written here before though, you have to be careful not to make things overly complicated. The results screen should probably avoid looking like a space shuttle cockpit. What do you think should be included in a results screen? […]

  • 6
    “Fuck Privacy” and my poor prose at ebyblog Says:

    […] The first thing Walt goes into is my Hiding Complexity post. I was surpised to see it cited as a post “about potential difficulties with a more open architecture”. I actually opened the post with “One of the benefits of a more open architecture” but maybe I didn’t back that up with the rest of the post. My hope was to show that having an open architecture would allow libraries to customize the interface to their needs, making it as complex or as simple as needed for the application. Currently in some systems you can tweak templates and remove icons but it doesn’t have a robust system that can really push the customization. […]