Ingram Blog

Radically Rethinking Technical Services

by: Tricia Bengel, Technical Services MLS Degreed Librarian 

I attended library school in 1995/96.  At that time, I had worked for my small-town library system for about five years as a paraprofessional -- page and then circulation clerk.  I thought I knew a lot about public services, so I focused mostly on technical services in my classes.  We learned how to make catalog cards and then translate them to MARC tags. I can still visualize those catalog cards with my tagged notes– upper right corner (09X), Main Entry (245), and so on and so forth.  I learned during that time to be pretty proficient in using the searching tools as well, in the card catalog, then microfiche, and finally online in the OPAC.  Our OPAC at school worked pretty much like the card catalog, but man was it fast, and I could telnet to it from my off-campus apartment using my dial-up Prodigy connection.

We spent a lot of time talking about how we need to train our patrons to use the library’s tools properly. Not once did we discuss to make the tools patron friendly.  Looking back, we only talked about “fixing” how the patrons used our systems.

I didn’t think a whole lot about the catalog for the next several years.  I got a job at then Gaylord Information Systems, as a trainer for their GALAXY library automation system – the precursor to what is now Polaris.  I traveled all over the country training libraries on how to use our staff modules and would spend an hour (if the library really wanted us to) showing them the Patron OPAC.  The OPAC was almost an afterthought for many of us, and we expected folks to browse it like they did the old card catalog – it definitely wasn’t a discovery tool. I didn’t have social components, and it was just something to use as a quick finding aid so you could get to the stacks and retrieve your books.

Then, in 2006, Karen Schneider (she wrote the first blog I ever read and still writes occasionally on it) wrote a piece that was shocking.It was titled “The OPAC S*CKS.” And, it detailed all of the ways that the OPAC is useful for librarians and unuseful for patrons. It was shockingly smart and laid out simple.  It garnered a lot of attention from librarians and was the topic of many library association conference sessions.

Thanks to folks like Karen, the Discovery Layer (as we now know it) is no longer an afterthought by librarians or vendors.  It is the focus of a lot of attention, resources, and thought.  We know we need to have a robust tool for patrons to use in our libraries not only to discover what is on the shelves but to also discover our e-collections. We also know that patrons want to engage with each other and not just consume information, that we need to float the popular stuff to the top, but to make sure our backlist titles are showing as well so that our collections as a whole are discoverable. 

It is amazing how far we have come. Yet, and here is the big but, the OPAC still S*CKS in many ways. 

I believe one of the main problems with our current Discovery Layers is we (librarians) don’t use them; at least we don’t use them like patrons. We understand their foibles, strengths, weaknesses, and we compensate that for that we search.  Again, we need to remember, “We are not our Patrons.”


So, I have a challenge for each of you.

  1. Run a report each week, over the next few months, of all of the searches that your patrons perform in your Discovery Layer
  2. Perform many of these searches yourself (remember, you don’t need to be scientific here, just grab random searches and execute them yourself)
  3. Record which searches gave you results you like and which search results were disappointing
  4. Talk with your ILS team and your Vendor, if you are stumped with how to get better results 


If you are ready to take on more after the first challenge. Try some of these:

  1. Position some staff near your patron catalogs and arm them with some $5 gift cards. Ask patrons who don’t seem to be in a hurry if they are willing to be interviewed about their experience. Ask open-ended questions and find out what they were looking for and if they were successful in their searches.
  2. Talk to your front line staff who do Reader’s Advisory, and work directly with the patrons. Challenge them to use only the Discovery Layer for two weeks and keep track of all of their likes and dislikes. During that time – specifically noting what workedwell and what was frustrating.

If we all commit to doing real usability testing on our Discovery Layers and working towards making the results fit what patrons are searching for, we should have much happier patrons. Remember, our patrons aren’t broke. We need to make our tools meet their needs, not the other way around.

Happy Searching!