As I’ve been preparing for a sojourn abroad (first vacation in four years!), I’ve been frantically trying to wrap up the loose ends of various projects. One of those is writing a review a Cooperative Cataloging: Shared Effort for the Benefit of All by Rebecca L. Mugridge (ed.). The final section of the collection contains an essay by Roxanne Sellberg of Northwestern University entitled “Cooperative Cataloging in a Post-OPAC World” where she posits a future when “most libraries do not maintain separate, highly redundant databases of metadata records designed to support both backroom processes and library-specific online public access catalogs.”

Sellberg’s article focuses on the role of cooperative cataloging and so she goes on to outline the various ways in which cooperative cataloging can still take place, but what I found intriguing was how a lack of an OPAC would affect the character of our institutions. Even as a cataloger, I find the idea… enticing.

    • Imagine if we spent less time editing records and more time editing the presentation of those records (via APIs that bring in data from various centralized data sources).
    • Imagine if we built our own discovery layers that reflected the subject strengths of our home institutions, tweaked to the informational needs of our unique user communities.
    • Imagine if we let go of collection management (because most material would be available electronically) and focused on collection service.

And there is the quintessential change that a post-OPAC world would bring: libraries would be (re)defined in terms of their services rather than their collections. What type of instruction do we provide for undergraduates? What type of technological and pedagogical tools do we offer faculty? Where are our access points for reference/research and how robust are they in virtual environments? What spaces for innovation, creation, discovery, play, collaboration, and independent study do we offer? The post-OPAC library is a library that focuses even more attention on the needs of the user: information needs and otherwise.

In the twentieth century, we best served the information needs of our users through focused collection development and information organization. Librarians were, for the most part, the only professionals qualified and in a position to make the necessary information resources available to campus populations. In the twentieth-first century, the means of information distribution and organization are in the [capable?] hands of institutions with more resources and leverage than most universities can muster. We can best serve the information needs of our users through guidance, instruction, and by developing better filters (read: discovery layers) to help them manage today’s chaotic information landscape.

The libraries that shift their focus to collection service will, in my opinion, be the ones that succeed and that maintain a strong influence on campus intellectual life. Those that continue to put most of their efforts into collection development will soon enough find themselves being replaced with more efficient and more robust vendors who provide the same service for less. We can make our own future rather than be determined by it. We can be the rock in the stream.

Special thanks to @lagina for helping me find a title for this post.