Library Users & the Catalog

Recently, Thomas Dowling posted a thought provoking piece entitled Forcing Users to Learn the Catalog on the TechEssence blog. There are some good comments on the post too. When attempting to overhaul library services, library web pages, web opacs, etc., the concern about “dumbing down the catalog” is always raised – and is a pretty big concern for people working in libraries. I don’t think that those who raise these concerns are unaware of or even unsympathetic to the current limitations inherent to library search mechanisms. Neither do I think they want to prevent users from finding information. However, whenever library employees try to openly discuss how to solve such large problems with the usability of their systems, I think they get bogged down by their own knowledge and familiarity of the systems (I know I often do). I have no problem finding what I need from library sites, search engines, catalogs, etc. It is perfectly clear to me how to find a full text article from a citation or how to locate a book. So, it almost automatically seems as if I would have to dumb down my library’s search mechanisms if the users don’t currently understand them or use them correctly. I have to remind myself that I am not an average patron – not even close and neither are any of the other people who work in the library. We are NOT our intended audience. So, how then do I remove myself and my knowledge base from the equation? Ultimately, I understand the absolute need to get feedback from actual users. But I think that those of us to design, create or tweak our library systems need to truly understand what our users frustrations are.

Often people suggest that our catalogs or other search mechanisms ought to be more like Google, Amazon or even Ebay. The reason behind this argument seems to be that patrons use these tools – and often in place of library tools. While I can understand this argument, Google, Amazon, etc are not the same things are library catalogs. Library collections are extensive, varied and often confusing to the end user. How do we combine our very different resources (books, movies, full-text journal articles online, paper items, reserve lists, archival collections, etc) so that a user can search them all at once and retrieve only pertinent information?  I’m not sure there is an easy solution. I know that in my library we are a long way off from being close to this point.

So, in the meantime, yes we force users to learn the catalog. We work hard to provide good aids and tips for users. Some patrons find it easier to use than others, some ask for help, some do get frustrated and walk away, but our catalog does get used. And usage statistics are up. Students borrow books, place holds, book study rooms, use our proxy server for off campus links and they search (mostly by subject). So, ultimately, library catalogs need to be better, more intuitive and easier to understand – and I think these debates are a step in the right direction. I have noticed that new services often provide an impetus for patrons to use other services offered by our catalog. Use of our proxy server has really made many students more aware of our catalog and of library services – and I often think that is three-quarters of the battle.

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