For the last few years, library catalogs have received dismal reviews. Libraries created some of the pioneering search interfaces in the early days of the Web, but as the Web evolved at a breakneck pace, library interfaces evolved much more slowly. When libraries caught the Web 2.0 fever, it became clear that online library catalogs stood in need of immediate attention.
Over the course of the past year or so, we’ve seen the emergence of a number of next-generation library interfaces ready to revolutionize the way that libraries present their collections and services to users. It’s great to see applications off ered that stand ready to help libraries improve their online presence, but it’s frustrating to realize that there’s yet one more category of software to purchase, install, and maintain as part of their automation strategy and service delivery infrastructure.
I’ve had the opportunity to take a close look at several of the products positioned as interfaces that might replace outdated library catalogs. Although one can nitpick at nuances of functionality, these interfaces are easy to use, look great, and take a sophisticated approach to finding information and making it available.
This new genre of software focuses solely on the user interface, bringing in some of the features that have been commonplace in other Web destinations for a while now. Basic expectations for a Web-based interface for today include relevancy ranking of search results, facets (automatically generated terms that can be clicked to narrow results), cover art to liven the page, corrections and suggestions to search terms, and recommendations of related items—not to mention Web 2.0 features such as the ability for users to suggest tags, contribute reviews, and rate content. The challenge lies in adopting these features in ways that preserve objectivity and incorporate the high level of sophistication appropriate for librarians as information specialists.
We’re seeing a trend toward decoupling the user interface from the back-end systems that automate the internal operations of the library. These next-generation interfaces rely on the ILS and other software applications and content products, but maintain a certain distance. Key challenges for these new interfaces include the need to extract data from the ILS and provide up-to-the-minute status information on each item in the library’s collection.
Many next-generation products also work toward a more comprehensive scope. Ideally, they provide a single point of entry to search all the components of the library’s collection, physical and electronic, saving users from having to visit different applications within a library’s website as they conduct their research.
These new products come both from the commercial arena and out of the creative energies of libraries themselves. While some of the traditional ILS vendors have put forward strong contenders, others are noticeably absent. Meanwhile, the immediate demand for new library interfaces has provided opportunities for libraries to show off their creative abilities and technical prowess. Several libraries have created their own next generation interfaces, building on commercial search engine toolkits from Endeca and Verity and open source components like Solr and Lucene.
Libraries compete for the attention of our users in an ever more crowded landscape of information providers. While I’m optimistic about growing opportunities for libraries in these times, we need the best tools possible to retain the attention of our users. I see it as urgent for libraries to keep up with the times, and these emerging next generation interfaces provide a menu of options from which libraries can begin to deliver their content and services in a way that will be a hit with their users.