From the catalogs of babes

{February 14, 2009}   parable #13

Once upon a time, there was a girl (who you may have already surmised is me) who needed to buy a new cell phone. I was nearing the end of my two-year ball-and-chain contract and my phone had ceased to be useful months earlier.

However, I was on a family share phone plan. This meant that not only would I need a new phone, but my parents, with whom I shared the plan, would need new phones as well.

So the three of us went down to the local phone store, where my mother proceeded to sample every phone in a 5 mile radius and then some. (It’s not polite to tell a lady’s age, but let’s just say that my mom is the sort of person that grew up with technology.) Her main criteria for the new phone included not having any buttons on the sides (so as not to push them by mistake when grabbing it from her purse) as well as large, easy-to-read buttons. So you can imagine how blown away I was when my mother picked up an iPhone on her own and immediately logged in and navigated to Google.

I’ve had my new iPhone for about 24 hours now and I’m still amazed at how easy and intutive it is to use.* It made me wonder: why aren’t library catalogs more like iPhones?

Actually, my first thought was about  the possibility of building iPhone applications for library catalogs. Which was immediately followed by the thought that such a possibility would likely be impossible, at least for our library’s catalog, just due to constraints of the software that we use. Maybe other software systems could support the building of a catalog iPhone app, I don’t know. WorldCat has an iPhone app, but I haven’t tried it yet, and I confess I’m slightly skeptical, since  itself doesn’t seem all that functional and user-friendly to me (and I’m a librarian–I can’t imagine what the everyday patron user thinks of it).

But I can’t help but think: wouldn’t it be cool if I could use my library’s catalog the same way I use my iPhone? Not an application on my phone, but the actual library catalog, designed to function the way the iPhone does. Not just the customization and those bells and whistles, but the sheer, simple, user-friendly, intuitive interface that allows someone like my mom to pick it up and instantly be able to use it, without training or instruction or a thick reference book or user’s manual. Without needing to know any specialized vocabulary–you push “email” to get to your email, and “phone” to use your phone. Without any special search training, bibliographic instruction, Boolean operators, MARC indicators… heaven forbid if that usability extended to the back-end for catalogers!

I did my research and testing and I consider my purchase to not only buy me a new phone, but also voting with my dollar in favor of good, user-friendly design. I would do the same for my library in a heartbeat if I knew of a product out there along these lines worth supporting.

What do you think it would take to convince Apple to start designing library software…?


*author’s note: this post is in no way meant to advertise iPhones or any other products, despite how much the author thoroughly enjoys playing with her new toy.


robin says:

I think there is SO MUCH untapped potential in smartphones. I’m optimistic about the future of mobile technology. The minute anyone picks up a smartphone I think they get addicted, and they immediately start to want all kinds of things to work with those smartphones. If you get enough people wanting to use the library catalog remotely, you’ll get your library catalog app. It’s just a matter of time.

Ivy says:

But I’m not just talking about a catalog application for smartphones. I’m talking about making the catalog interface, no matter where it is–on phones, on the web, in the library itself–easy and intuitive to use. If you don’t need a manual or an instructional class to use an iPhone, why should you need one for a library catalog?

robin says:

I tend towards the more optimistic side of this issue, and I know we won’t see eye to eye… but some of them already are intuitive and easy to use, and more are on the way. We saw that in the recent demos, and it’s evident at every conference (and at every other library I’ve worked at). We just aren’t seeing it in our library, being that we’re stuck in 1996 or so.

Ivy says:

I don’t disagree that some of the current systems are *more* easy to use than they have been in the past, but I don’t think that makes them ideal, nor do I think that libraries should settle for that. Obviously better user interfaces are possible, since we are seeing them in other industries, and I’m optimistic that we can integrate such technolgies in the future (sooner better than later, of course), if we lobby for them.

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