Searching For Media In The Online Catalog: A Qualitative Study Of Media Users

by Margaret Hume
MC Journal: The Journal of Academic Media Librarianship, v3 no.1, Spring 1995:1-28.


Media users may have special needs and problems when searching for media materials in the online public access catalog (OPAC), but no user studies could be located which focused exclusively on searching for media in the OPAC. Results from individual and focus group interviews with faculty and students at Concordia University (Montreal, Quebec) demonstrated confusion over OPAC media holdings, a lack of awareness of media access points and searching features of the OPAC, and weaknesses in subject access to media. Recommendations included providing specialized user education for media and improved geographic and period subdivision access in genre/form subject headings for film and music media materials.


Library users have been the subject of much investigation by librarians over the years. While user studies abound, none were found that focused exclusively on the experience of users searching for media materials in an online catalog environment. Media materials have been emerging into greater prominence in the collections of academic libraries. New formats are being added and more fields of study are incorporating media into their teaching. It is possible that users have some unique problems searching for media. This is an area of study that requires attention.

Throughout the entire history of the library, no one from the Cataloguing Department at Concordia University (Montreal, Quebec) had ever asked our users if we were meeting their needs for access to media materials. We wanted an opportunity for direct consultation with our users. The overall goal was an improvement in access to media materials. Through an investigation of our users' needs for access and bibliographic information for media materials we would determine what improvements could be made. On the local level, this would be an opportunity for feedback and adjustment in an effort to serve our users better. For the larger library world, the study would contribute an exploration into the special needs of media users.

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The Departments of Art Education, Cinema, and Music were chosen for the study because their reliance on media materials, which form a central part of their studies, suggested that they would have a greater than average need for, and interest in, online public access catalog (OPAC) access to media holdings. In the period between March 1993 and May 1994 the author conducted a series of individual and focus group interviews with faculty and students in these departments to explore their searching patterns and bibliographic needs in the OPAC when searching for media materials.

Specifically, we wanted to know how our users searched for media materials in the OPAC. What access points did they use? Were we providing too many, just enough, or too few access points? What difficulties were they encountering in their searches? Was the subject access satisfactory? In particular, did users find that the genre and form headings met their needs? What information did our users consider important to be included in the bibliographic record? Was there important information missing? Did they need everything we were including?

Qualitative research, in the form of individual and focus group interviews, would enable us to explore those questions. Interviews offered open-ended questions, the freedom to determine why certain answers were given, and the ability to discover issues not anticipated by the interviewer. Interviews offered direct contact with users, and an opportunity to achieve some understanding of their level of knowledge of bibliographic records, access points, and searching features of the online catalog. The use of terminology could be noted. While the results of qualitative methods could not be used to infer or project statistical behavior patterns onto the general population, they could provide an indication of user behavior, needs, and problems, as well as input for any later quantitative studies.


The study was initiated after a series of significant changes at Concordia, including the opening of new library buildings on both

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campuses of the university and the introduction of its first OPAC. The downtown campus Webster Library, serving the Art Education and Cinema Departments, opened in September 1992 and the extension of the west end campus Vanier Library, serving the Music Department, opened in 1989. The two media centers, one in each library, enjoyed not only new premises and increased space, but also had new equipment and more prominent locations within the libraries. Additionally, the libraries' card catalogs were replaced by an INNOPAC OPAC that was named CLUES (Concordia Library Users' Enquiry System). The libraries continued their cataloging practices of using: the Anglo-American Cataloguing Rules, 2nd ed., rev. (AACR2r), second level of description; Library of Congress Subject Headings (LCSH); and Library of Congress Classification (LCC).

The study focused on media materials held by the Webster and Vanier Libraries. It did not include materials in the Audio-Visual Department, which is totally separate from the libraries, and contains media materials used for instructional purposes by various departments in the university. The media holdings of the Audio-Visual Department are not yet included in the OPAC. Media collections held by individual departments, such as the slide library maintained by the Fine Arts Faculty, are also external to the libraries (and the OPAC) and were not considered in the study.

The libraries' INNOPAC system is a user friendly system, with a menu-driven command structure and all command options available for reference on the screen. Help screens are automatically displayed when each search option is selected. The record display labels the parts of the bibliographic record. The subject subdivisions are rotated in the subject index. The system also permits the limitation of searches by a number of options, including material type. This option is important in the search for media. The material types may be defined by the individual library. At first, Concordia Libraries used the material types that corresponded to the MARC (machine readable cataloging) fixed field (type-of-record, USMARC Leader/06), but, during the summer of 1993, redefined the material types to permit finer distinctions, such as phonorecords, compact discs, sound cassettes, videos (includes both videocassettes and videodiscs at

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the present time), films, etc. The INNOPAC system permits the user to move directly from a displayed record to the various indexes in which a displayed item is listed. For example, a user may select "Show items nearby on shelf" in order to browse the classification index or select "Show items with the same subject" in order to browse the subject index. At the time of the study the subject authorities were loaded into the OPAC, but only a few of the name authorities were present.


Qualitative research, and focus group interviews in particular, have come into increasing popularity in the field of library and information studies. Karen Markey's (1983) report of the use of focus group interviews as part of the Council on Library Resources study of library users and OPACs served as an early example demonstrating the value of this method. "Library patrons and staff can express their needs and perceptions of online catalogs in their own words" (Markey 1983, 382). Focus groups are particularly useful for exploratory research (Stewart and Shamdasani 1990, 15). Valentine used focus groups and individual interviews in an exploratory study of library research skills among undergraduate library assistants (Valentine 1993). McClure, Ryan and Moen included focus groups and individual interviews as part of their exploratory investigation of the impact of national electronic networks on public libraries (McClure, Ryan, and Moen 1993). This exploratory method provides the valuable potential for "... unanticipated responses [which give] rise to fresh hypotheses for more systematic and rigorous investigation" (Merton, Fiske, and Kendall 1990, 4).

Qualitative research in the form of individual and focus group interviews, therefore, offered the opportunity to investigate what access points and level of bibliographic detail were important for media users when they searched the OPAC, to explore the needs of faculty and students in more depth, and to look for insight and unanticipated responses with respect to the search for media materials.

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Research Questions

The questions to be answered by the investigation were straightforward. How did users search for media materials in the OPAC? What access points were important to our users? What were the difficulties when searching for media materials? What additional access points did media users want? We were interested in our users' feedback on genre and form access. Did they use it, and was it adequate? Did they use the limit feature in the OPAC to limit searches to specific categories of media materials? Which notes did our users consider essential?

Faculty Interviews

The first part of the study consisted of interviews with faculty members in the Departments of Art Education, Cinema, and Music. Selected faculty members were initially approached by letter (APPENDIX I). Three faculty members in each department were interviewed, including the chairs of the Cinema and Music Departments, and a senior member of the Art Education Department.

Interviews were conducted between April 1993 and April 1994. Faculty were interviewed individually, with the exception of one art education professor who was interviewed in the company of two students. The author used a questionnaire form (APPENDIX II) to guide the interview and on which to note responses and comments. The OPAC itself was used to provide examples and to generate discussion during the interview with one of the art education professors, two of the cinema professors, and two of the music professors. Print-outs of selected bibliographic records were used as examples for discussion for all but one of the remainder of the interviewees (that individual also happened to be a librarian). As part of one interview with an art education professor, we viewed a videorecording with which the professor was familiar, and she discussed what would and would not be important to her to include in the record and trace. The setting

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for the interviews varied, and included the author's office, faculty offices, the Webster Media Centre, and the Vanier Library orientation room. The interviews lasted from one to two hours each.

Questions asked during the interviews were structured around two main topics. The first concerned what access points the interviewee used in the OPAC to look for media materials. Additional questions concerned difficulties encountered and additional access points that would be desirable. The second main topic concerned what notes and information in the body of a bibliographic record the interviewee considered to be important. Beyond answering these questions, the structure of the interviews was informal and permitted the interviewees the freedom to discuss any other matters of concern relating to access to media in the OPAC.

Student Interviews

The second part of the study consisted of interviews with students in the Departments of Art Education, Cinema, and Music. Three focus group interviews, one for each department, were conducted with the author as moderator. There were four additional interviews with either one or two students from Cinema and, as noted above, two additional art education students were interviewed along with their professor. The interviews were conducted between March 1993 and May 1994.

Students were enlisted for their participation either through the recommendation of the faculty in the department or through sign-up sheets (APPENDIX III - IV) which were left at the circulation desks in the media centers. A total of 23 students were interviewed. Breakdown by department was as follows:
Art Education--

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The group as a whole consisted of 11 males and 12 females.

The focus group session with the art education students was the first one held and served as a trial run. Subsequently two factors were changed. In the first focus group interview print-outs of selected bibliographic records from the OPAC were used as examples and no reward, other than thanks, was provided. In the subsequent two focus group interviews and the individual Cinema interviews, the OPAC projected onto a screen was used to provide examples, and chocolate bars, as well as thanks, were provided as rewards for participation. All focus group interviews were tape-recorded, as were the additional individual interviews with the cinema students. The sessions lasted approximately one hour. The first focus group session was held in the Webster Media Centre, while the remainder of the interview sessions were held in the Webster and Vanier orientation rooms.

The structure of the moderator's guide (APPENDIX V) generally followed the categories laid out by Greenbaum (1988, 86-98). They were as follows: