dream of the children’s materials OPAC

Tomorrow morning I leave, not exactly bright and early, for the WYLD Annual Meeting in Sundance, Wyoming. Sadly, this is not the site of the eponymous film festival, which is actually held in Park City, Utah, but it is near Devil’s Tower, the U.S.’s first national monument, which I probably will not have time to visit.

I will learn various things related to the OPAC, but not, I suspect, why it sucks, or more importantly, what we might do to fix it. Oh well.

At work today I was reminded of another aspect of the suckiness of OPACs, one that I haven’t seen discussed (although please correct me if I am wrong–I read fewer blogs than I might like, and I’m being lazy and not hitting the search engines–bad librarian!”). A patron came in looking for picture books with princesses in them. Now, I know there are children’s librarians out there who can take a request like that, do a little dance through the stacks, and hand you a stack of books a foot thick. I am not one of them. I rely instead on a) asking my colleagues (pages are particularly good at this sort of thing, since they see all the books on a far more regular basis than the rest of us), b) hitting the invaluable A to Zoo: A Subject Guide to Children’s Literature and then going through the tedium of figuring out which books our library actually owns, or c) trying my luck at keyword and subject searches of the catalog. And here, as you might guess, is where we get to the Why OPACs Suck for Children’s Materials bit.

People who have not worked in youth services are often intimidated by the children’s room, which, truth be told, can be quite confusing. There are a lot of catagories: picture books, easy readers, J fiction. Sometimes you also find board books, intermediate books, series books, book kits, and any number of other things separated out. The physical layout is confusing enough: what makes it worse is that almost none of these distinctions are searchable in the catalog. For instance, take today’s patron, who wanted picture books involving princesses. You can try doing a keyword search of the catalog for something like “princesses juvenile fiction,” and you should get a list of children’s books involving princesses that are fiction, but you then have to go through and separate out the picture books from the J fiction, the easy readers, and whatever other catagories may have shown up. If you wanted just nonfiction on princesses, the search string is actually “princesses juvenile literature.” I’m not kidding. That’s a trick I learned from the wonderful ESSL Children’s Literature Blog: in children’s materials (though nowhere else that I can tell), the subject term that indicates nonfiction is literature. Go figure.

In my dream children’s materials OPAC, you wouldn’t have to know arcana like that, though. You’d have a search interface that would give you options: fiction or nonfiction? picture book or easy reader or chapter book? I realize that dream kind of conflicts with the Dream of the Single Search Box, it would, I think, make the lives of library patrons and the jobs of youth services workers much easier. Of course, in my dream world, every library would also come equipped with that mythic children’s librarian, the one who can reel off a list of books on any given topic for a particular age at the drop of a hat. But some days those librarians need a vacation–and the dream children’s materials OPAC would help the rest of us not make muck of their domain.

3 thoughts on “dream of the children’s materials OPAC”

  1. Yes, the OPAC is especially bad for childrens’ materials. However, there are some work arounds for librarians, if not our patrons. Do your different types of childrens’ materials have different call numner pre- or suffixes? You should be able to include that in your search. J for juvenile might be a problem, our catalog won’t seach sincle letters or numbers, but EaRe or JTKB should work. Another possible approach is to limit the search by location. Have the different types of materials been assigned a different location within the library that is reflected in the catalog? For example in our collection, we have Reference, Oversized, Videos, CD Cabinet, etc. We can limit by any of these. If the catalog record includes this you should be able to zero in on the particluar type of material.

    Just a couple of suggestions for the staff. Patrons can’t be expected to understand limiting searches, the different locations we use and all the different pre- and suffixes we can devise. A faceted search, or clustering of results would serve them better and us too in the long term.

  2. You cataloging people! You’re so clever! I think I tried a search with call letters in my last place of work and became rapidly frustrated, but I’ll have to give it another shot. Thanks for the excellent suggestions.

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