The User Certainly Isn’t Broken – But Neither is the Library

Last week, K.G. Schneider wrote a very thought provoking post entitled THE USER IS NOT BROKEN: A MEME MASQUERADING AS A MANIFESTO on her blog, Free Range Librarian. I have to say that I spent all weekend pondering this article, thinking about it, and regurgitating it. She has some awesome points: “The user is not broken, ” “The user is the sun,” and my personal favorite, “The most significant help you can provide your users is to add value and meaning to the information experience, wherever it happens; defend their right to read; and then get out of the way.” All of her points are worth a read – and worth further discussion. (Jane, over at A Wandering Eyre, added some of her own suggestions in a post entitled “We Are Broken, Not “Them.”)

I do have a serious problem with the comment that “Your system is broken until proven otherwise.” I am by no means trying to say that library systems are user friendly, intuitive or even ok the way they are. However, nothing is broken – not the user, not the library, not the people who work in the library nor the library systems in use in the library. Without a doubt, we need to be looking at how our users find information and how we can overhaul our search mechanisms to make our collections accessible. But we do have something in place – and I would go so far as to argue that our systems do actually work. People do find materials that they need – on a regular basis even. I honestly think that our OPACs do exactly what they should do – reflect the data that we have entered about the material that we own in print. Period! Given that users are often frustrated in their searches, OPACs do not work at making our information accessible to the user. So maybe OPACs aren’t the answer at all.

Before these problems can be fully solved, we have to have a clear understanding of users and what they are looking for in the library. I would venture to guess that this will vary greatly from one type of library to another and even from one institution to another. Certainly users expect very different things from a public library than they do from an academic one. One of the biggest problems that we have in my library is that students rely primarily on full text articles – and do the majority of their searching to find such articles. Our OPAC is not an appropriate place to search for articles, and they do not understand why that is. Here is a major point of disconnect – we provide tools that don’t do what users expect them to do.

So what is it exactly that we are hoping to provide to our users? Do we want one search interface for everything that we posess? How do we adequately distinguish between virtual items and tangible ones? Is it realistic to expect one system for books, articles, online material, archives, multimedia and more? Do we plan to provide everything online? Have we clearly defined what we can offer our patrons? Do we even know the full extent of our resources? Where does interaction fit in with all of this? Will the ability to post comments and reviews in our systems help the user find what they are looking for? If we remove library jargon from our web site, what do we replace it with? If a user doesn’t understand the term “interlibrary loan,” what would a good alternative be? I struggle with these questions daily. I haven’t found too many good solutions yet – but I keep trying.

In the meantime, we work hard to help users make sense of it all. We work to be friendly and helpful in the ways that our systems aren’t. Our patrons do come back and they think very highly of us. We are not broken at all.

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2 Responses to The User Certainly Isn’t Broken – But Neither is the Library

  1. Well put. That would have made a very provocative comment on my blog!

    When I wrote that “Your system is broken until proven otherwise,” believe it or not, I was thinking about usability testing… a fairly literal thought: in usability testing, your system IS broken until proven otherwise. After setting it down on… um… well, not paper… I realized that phrase could mean other things. But the essence I was trying to get to is that our services need to be proven by their value to our users–how well they work for them, and how useful or interesting the content is–not by our assumptions.

  2. Jennifer says:

    Thanks for the clarification. I definitely did misinterpret the statement. I wholeheartedly agree with the point you were trying to make. I’m not quite sure we have successfully figured out what services our patrons need at this point. I know that at my library we are a long way from this point. However, we DO need to figure this out – from their point of view. Usability testing is key to this process.

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