From the catalogs of babes











{July 22, 2009}   giving them what they want

One of the “best” sessions I saw at ALA was the Sunday afternoon session on Catalog Use and Usability Studies. I put “best” in quotation marks because it wasn’t an over-the-top amazing delivery or anything. I thought about saying “interesting,” and it certainly was, but while the topic was of interest, the actual information wasn’t novel. Perhaps “most applicable” would be, well…most applicable in this case.

There were other speakers on evaluating usability, but the meat of the session was Karen Calhoun’s presentation of OCLC’s latest research report, Online Catalogs: What Users and Librarians Want. If you haven’t read it, stop what you’re doing and go right now. It’s not long and it has lots of pretty charts and graphs. Every cataloger and anyone remotely involved with cataloging or catalog systems and interfaces needs to read this. You can come back to this post later, when you’re done. I can wait. It’ll still be here.

I love and hate this report at the same time. I love that someone finally did some research about what end users want from an online catalog. I hate that someone had to spend time and money to discover that “end users want to be able to do a simple Google-like search and get results that exactly match what they expect to find.” Ya think? Pardon my French, but no sh*t, Sherlock. On the other hand, I love that hard data now exists that validates that exact point–a point I’ve been making ever since I started down the cataloging path.

We’ve suspected this for a long time. Now we have data to back it up. Maybe now we can finally start moving away from clunky, cluttered online interfaces with strict, unfamiliar terms and irrelevant metadata and move towards something more user-friendly that contains information that patrons actually use.

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Tina Gross says:

I was at (most of) that session too, but was very disappointed. As much as I wish our field were swimming in user studies, I’m very skeptical about OCLC’s efforts. I don’t believe that they would initiate, pay for, or publish any results that don’t exactly coincide with their own product-driven agenda, which in my experience is pretty hostile to subject analysis in general and controlled vocabulary in particular. There are other things that “now we have the data to back it up” that they choose to ignore and/or dismiss in spite of the data, so I’d take their studies with a huge grain of salt. (leaving aside the big DUH type of findings that are hardly news…)

2010 is supposed to be the year of cataloging research, so I hope that lots of people do good, solid studies on usability and what users want (that actually extend to what they *want*, and not just what they know of what already exists in other tools). There’s obvious screaming need, and I’m happy to finally see lots of interest in it, but there’s also the danger that the mantle of what-users-want will be claimed by those who just want to minimize or obliterate cataloging. We need lots more evidence and data, from lots of different researchers, to develop a positive agenda for future interfaces.



Ivy says:

You make excellent points, and I agree with all you’ve said. I probably take everything from OCLC with a shaker of salt on an automatic basis at this point. :) My proclomation wasn’t so much about their data specifically, but using them as a synecdoche.

I meant to encourage people to read their report as an example, not to pick out specific data points and try to apply them to any one particular library. It would be silly to use data from that report in all but the most general sense. That report addresses *their* uses–i.e., users of WorldCat. Every library has different users and would have different results from a user survey. For example, I remember Calhoun mentioning in the presentation that titiles and authors were heavily used by patrons to search for and identify works (unfortunately the slides she shares for this topic are from a different conference and aren’t exactly the same as the ones she used at ALA, so I don’t have a cite). But that would never be true of our patrons. We get asked for a specific title maybe 10-15% of the time, and authors even less. Mostly our patrons are searching by subject. So that right there would be a big difference in “what users want.”

I hadn’t heard the scoop about 2010 being a big year for cataloging research, but it makes sense just from the direction I’ve seen things heading. I’m really looking forward to it. I freely admit that some of my ideas could be interpreted as “minimizing” or “obliterating,” but I like to think of them more as “evolution.” I still think there will be a huge need for catalogers, it just (hopefully) won’t be to do data entry but more to conduct these sorts of user needs assements and design policies, prodecures and systems accordingly.



Tina Gross says:

I’m curious about what you mean when you say “I freely admit that some of my ideas could be interpreted as ‘minimizing’ or ‘obliterating,’ but I like to think of them more as ‘evolution.'”

I probably read too many cataloging blogs to remember any of them well, but I can’t think of anything in yours that would put you anywhere near the camp of the obliterators… except possibly to the tiny minority (I think, despite hype to the contrary) of catalogers whose complaints about RDA have to do with ISBD punctuation and such.



Re: hard data – do a keyword search on LISTA. There have been tons of studies on end user searching of OPAC, some of them are even about searching web-based OPACS. Depressingly, the data from this new study is the same we’ve been getting in all the old studies. And librarians keep doing more studies rather than just getting on with changing things already.



Ivy says:

Tina: I’ve gotten some reactionary responses before, mostly for my views on moving away from Dewey. I try to make it clear that I actually like the DDC as a system, but I’m anti-DDC in situtations where it’s not appropriate. I’m anti-MARC, but that doesn’t mean I want to throw away all the metadata we have in the formats that we have it, I just don’t want to continue further down that hole. To a certain extent, I am anti-cataloging, the way the task has evolved to be structured in a lot of instutions. Stuff like that. I feel like I run across a lot of “anti-change agents” (for lack of a better description), but perhaps, as you say, they are actually small in number just loud in voice.



Ivy says:

Laura: Thanks for the heads up on LISTA. Do you think we should do a study to find out why we keep doing studies? :)

I’ve actually felt pretty frustrated lately because I feel like I too am all talk and no product. Who am I to spout all this stuff when I’m not making anything happen myself, you know?



Booker says:

I too was at that session, including the moment when Calhoun (It *was* her, wasn’t it?) answered a question by inviting the audience member to Google her name and the term to find a resource. I’m not sure whether that made the point more emphatically than her data did.

> data from this new study is the same we’ve been getting in all the old studies

I’m aware of one account from 1993 (anecdotal to be sure but hey maybe it could be passed off as ethnography??) that hits this point quite directly. Still, data to validate the point from a source like OCLC can raise the profile in a helpful way.



Ivy says:

>the moment when Calhoun (It *was* her, wasn’t it?) answered a question by inviting the audience member to Google her name and the term to find a resource.

Who was it that pointed out to you the irony of the OCLC employee telling the audience to Google her name and “slideshare” to find the presentation sides, hm?

The best part? That’s exactly how I looked for the slides I mentioned above, and the ones from ALA aren’t there. There are slides from a similar presentation at the “Charleston Confrence” posted 8 months ago, but they don’t include some of the info that was included in the ones she showed at ALA. Disappointing, especially becuase I remember her citing a recent article from CCQ about “evidence-based cataloging” that I was interested to read, but didn’t write down the info because I figured I could get it from the slides. (I found it later on my own, but still.)



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