C-I-L-L My OPAC

Last week was very busy, which explains the lack of posting. It was one of those weeks when working two jobs starts to take its toll. In addition to a lot of student conferences and consultations and instruction sessions, I ended the week twisting my knee somehow so that I had to spend a couple of days with my leg elevated and an icepack on my knee, so traumatized by the whole thing that I couldn’t do anything but sit in the den playing with Legos and watching hours of the Addams Family on DVD with my daughter. It will probably be weeks before that theme song leaves my head.

The most bothersome and even embarrassing part of last week were the instruction sessions, especially the portion devoted to finding books. I’ve just grown more and more irritated by OPACs over the years. I know that for our library the OPAC is still the best way to verify if we own something. It used to be the case that when teaching freshmen, as I was last week, I relied exclusively upon the OPAC to teach the students to find books. Why should I complicate the information world any more than I need to? This year I’ve finally given up the ruse of simplicity, and teach Worldcat and Google Books along with the catalog. Inevitably, when we do identical keyword searches in the OPAC and Worldcat, Worldcat has roughly 10 times what our library has, and Princeton, as you might imagine, has a good sized library. That, however, isn’t the bothersome part, since we deliberately don’t buy lots of material out there. The more bothersome part is that at least twice as many titles as found in our OPAC show up in Worldcat as being owned by Princeton, typically because the Worldcat catalog records contain more information, and thus are more likely to show up in keyword results.

I’m less impressed by what the Google Books searches bring up except for more esoteric topics, but I can imagine a more refined Google search with tens of millions of digitized books and slightly more subject control being far superior to any current catalog.

I know there are slightly more sophisticated catalogs out there right now, but we don’t have one. Three were recently demonstrated, but none met with enough approval for adoption. That might be just as well. The effort and expense necessary to move from a barely adequate present to a imperfect, experimental present might not have been worth it. No wonder people used to better search engines balk at OPACs, where you have to spell exactly, put searches in the right word order for the best results, know how to think like a librarian to get the most out of them. I tell the students that to use the catalog effectively, they’ll need to think like a librarian, and that I feel their pain but it’s the way the world works here for a while to come.

In the meantime, I can’t help but recall one of my favorite bits of doggerel every time I have to show some clueless student how to navigate the muddy waters of the catalog. You might remember the halcyon days of Saturday Night Live, back when a young Joe Piscopo taught us how to laugh. In those days SNL would host one of my favorite poets, the inimitable Tyrone Green. How he feels about his landlord is how I often feel about my OPAC. Thus, I leave you with a bit of poetry for the day.

IMAGES by Tyrone Green

Dark and lonely on a summer night
Kill my landlord, kill my landlord
The watchdog barkin’, do he bite?
Kill my landlord, kill my landlord
I slip in the window
I break his neck
Then his house I start to wreck.
Got no reason, what the heck.
Kill my landlord, kill my landlord.
C-I-L-L my landlord.

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