From the catalogs of babes











So what if libraries did take a page post from the Illinois Poison Control Center and chronicle every single reference query in a day, or a week?

Now, I’m not a reference librarian (although 20-25% of my job is, in fact, reference). But  I do feel like from my personal experience, discussions with other reference and non-reference librarians and staff, and reading articles and blogs, I can make some general assumptions about what types of inquiries might be included in such a list.

You’d get some “where are the bathrooms?” questions and requests for tech support. You’d get questions like “do you have this book…?” and “Where are your books about…?” You’d get some weird questions you’d never thought people would ask. You’d also get more informational-needs questions: the Internet Public Library has compiled a list of some examples here. There are lots of different types of reference questions.

It then occurred to me that every catalog query is a reference question. Asking for books by title or subject is certainly a reference inquiry. Catalogs are designed for holdings inquiries. The purpose of the catalog is to enable a user to find what materials a library holds by  title, author, and/or subject :

Charles Ammi Cutter, Rules for a Dictionary Catalog, 1904

But aren’t holdings questions reference questions? And–more importantly– does a patron know the difference? Do they know that a catalog only retrieves holdings, and not the answers to all of their different types of reference questions? And can they be expected to, in this day and age of Google, which does not return holdings, but rather information and data, the kind that reference questions are built on?

All of a sudden it hit me. I’d thought about it for a long time, but hadn’t yet be able to articulate the idea in words: the catalog has always been a holdings interface.Yet, many people expect it to be a reference interface. Patrons sit down at (or log in to) the catalog expecting it to be like a reference librarian or like Google and provide information to help answer all their questions. But it’s not. It returns bibliographic records, which are barebones representations of resources that may or may not contain the information that will help answer their question.

Should the catalog become more of a reference interface? Is that even possible? Evolving the catalog into a such a design would certain help move the catalog beyond the “find” and into the  “identify,” “select”  and “obtain” aspects called for by IFLA. As evolution of the catalog progressed, it might even lead into AI interfaces (anyone remember Ms. Dewey?) that could react and respond to each patron’s personal search queries and information needs. I can see a more interactive interface like this especially important/applicable to arts users, who generally tend to prefer human interaction over self-guided traditional catalog navigation.

If these lofty ideas are not possible (or should I say “feasible”, because I have no doubts that such things are possible, but perhaps not for libraries) then how can we bridge that gap? If catalogs truly aren’t designed to work like reference librarians or Google information searches, then it’s not fair to patrons who have that impression and expectation. It should be on us to make it clear that the catalog is a list of what the library holds and nothing more. Maybe we need to start referring to it as an “inventory” rather than a catalog? I don’t know. What I do know is that as long as patrons continue to expect reference answers from their catalog queries, they will continue to be disappointed.

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As some of you know, I’ve been lobbying for quite a while for new ILS/catalog software for our  library. Lobbying hard, considering our current state. I feel like we’ve made some successful progress: we had a great library staff committee to evaluate potential commercial software packages, and once we decided on our top choice and presented it to the director and the administration, the response was positive. However, at approximately the same time, the world decided to have some sort of Giant Economic Crisis, and despite the fact that it may truly be an unnecessary precaution for our institution, all software budgets were frozen until the beginning of FY2010. Not to worry though—I’ve been assured it’s our #1 top priority the minute the 2010 budget opens up. But I’m not exactly holding my breath here. What can I say? I’m frustrated that this project—in the works for several years now, since shortly after I first began working here—might be put off yet again, not just because I’m annoyed by delays or buget frustrations, but because I can’t understand why something so intrinsic to improving patron experience and access success seems to be so inconsequential to the powers that be. So it goes.

While I’m perfectly satisfied with the out-of-the-box product we’ve chosen and I have no doubts it will more than fulfill our current needs, some part of my mind can’t help wonder what a catalog for our patrons might be like if we could design it ourselves, from scratch, to specifically meet our patrons’ unique needs, rather than settling for the best pre-made system that addresses most of them in a traditional library way. Because I’ve never quite been sold on the idea that a traditional “library catalog” interface would be the best discovery tool for our students.

I’ve thought about this on and off ever since the RFP was but a twinkle in my eye, but Karen Schneider’s post about the shift from the “librarian-centric” to “developer-centric” model brought it back to mind:

Librarians do bring terrific skills to the table. We have a strong service orientation. We are practical. We understand what these products must do, and we have a firm grasp on timelines and calendars. We also have an appreciation for order, governance, and transparency. But we simply don’t (yet) have the core competencies to do what we did one hundred years ago — design, build, and manage our own tools.  We lost our way several decades ago, and we need to acknowledge that we can’t get out of this forest on our own.

If I could sit down today and start from scratch, and not base the design on previous library catalogs, I have an idea for how I’d like our catalog to function. Instead of title/author/subject based searches and entries, I imagine a browseable subject hierarchy. The opening screen displays visual representations (i.e. images instead of and/or in addition to text) of maybe the top ten or so popular research subjects that hour, day, etc. There might be a Google-esque search box, not the focus of the screen but certainly available for those with more specific needs or interest in topics not readily apparent. But overall, a simple, clean, un-cluttered, uncomplicated design.

pencil sketch of an idea of a new catalog interface

Please excuse the poor quality of my sketches—just because I work at an arts-related library doesn’t make me an artist. :) My original plan was to jerryrig some screenshots and do some fancy Photoshop work, but I kept running out of time and putting if off, and finally decided that my crappy sketches got the idea across and were better than nothing. Sorry about the bleed-through, but I'm a proponent of recycled paper.

Clicking on a subject (either from the home screen or after a search) does not take the user directly to a list of materials, but rather an authority page for the subject. Not a library-jargoned authority file like an LC authority record, but more like a Wikipedia-esque page with some basic info about the subject. A basic biography, birth/death dates, what they are famous or known for if a personal subject (like, say, Christian Dior);  a brief definition or explanatory information for a topical subject, such as Art Deco. Beneath this brief info, the screen would offer materials results: books, articles, DVDs, images, and other references (links to designers’ websites, contact information for design companies, etc.).

sketch of new catalog interface--second level screen

I think the subject focus would appeal to our students, and a page design reminiscent of a familiar site like Wikipedia would ease use. I think it would be more in touch with our patron demographic, both in their information-seeking behavior and their technology literacy.

Apparently other people agree with me, too, because while I was spending time writing this entry and putting off sketching, I happened across this fantastic blog post about concept-oriented catalogs which shares some of the same ideas (right down to the Wikipedia analogy) as this post I’m writing now.

So why isn’t our library’s catalog like this?

Because I can’t build it. I’m a librarian, not a computer programmer. As many of us are, and, as Karen Schneider notes, to our own disadvantage. I can understand my patrons’ information needs and behavior, and I can figure out how to organize and present that information to them in a findable way. I know what to do, I just don’t know how to manifest it. How, then, can we take the next step, from concept to creation?



Today I received the following email from the Long Beach Public Library. It’s a “pre-overdue notice,” which is apparently supposed to remind me that my materials are due soon.

preoverduenotice

For the love of Pete, can anyone tell me when my book is due, or are you really going to make me dig out my library card and log into my online account to look up the due date myself? I can’t even think of a remotely good reason not to include the actual due date in an automated “pre-overdue notice” reminder. I don’t know whether LBPL or Innovative are the ones to blame in this case, but it’s a serious FAIL.



{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.



{April 21, 2009}   easy to be hard

Lately there’s been a resurgence on RADCAT, the “radical catalogers” mailing list. It’s good, as that list is generally pretty quiet, and the encouragement of introductions and discussions has stimulated conversation and participation. It’s bad, though, too, as that list is generally pretty quiet, and the encouragement of introductions and discussions has stimulated conversation and participation.

What I meant to say by that: I subscribe to a number of library listservs and mailing lists, as well as blogs, message boards, project wikis, etc. My inbox, my Google Reader, my bookmarks, my LiveJournal friends page, are all full of stuff I want to not only read but comment on and participate in every single day. There’s a wealth of good information, help, and support there, but sometimes I honestly fear opening my inbox after being sick for a day or two. The amount of information overload (a recurring theme in today’s world) makes me wonder which is worse–spending hours and hours sifting through it all, or just simply hitting the delete key and chance missing out on something important?

In an attempt to be more organized and efficient, I choose to subscribe to listservs such as RADCAT, AUTOCAT, etc., in digest form. I’ve had some suggestions on how to read the list on the web, which does seem to satisfy some users, but I personally don’t care for it.  So I get all the day’s messages delivered in one (supposedly) convenient email.  However, it’s not so much that I find it convenient, but rather it’s the least inconvenientof the current options available to me.  It’s long; and repetitive where people don’t delete the entirely of the messages to which they are replying; discussions aren’t threaded; and formatting from all sorts of email clients literally makes reading the emails difficult, as many of them come across garbled with code. There is a vast chasm between “convenient” and “least inconvenient,” between “easy” and “less hard.” I really wish I had a better way of filtering and organizing this information. As part of the recent RADCAT discussion, I mused that I would probably participate more if my participation interface was more user-friendly, even going so far as to say “let me know when I can subscribe to the list in Google Reader.”

Which made me think: why isn’tit? Is there any reason, besides continuity’s sake, that these groups have not moved on to harness a more current–and, in my opinion, a potentially more flexible and powerful–technology?

 For instance, AUTOCAT is peppered with posts containing cataloging questions: questions about using AACR2r, LCSH, MARC, etc. A couple of my previous posts about LCSH subdivisions would not be out of place on AUTOCAT. So why didn’t I post them there? Because to get an answer, I would have had to wade through unorganized and unstructured replies–some to me, some to the list itself, some replies to responses on the list itself…it’s just physically hard for me to read and follow. All I wanted was a quick answer to a quick question–‘can I subdivide “Trade shows” by industry?’ A simple “yes” or “no” was all I wanted. It struck me that a brief, direct question requiring a short, immediate answer, might be better served by a technology that was designed for short bursts of immediate communication. Now, I confess, I haven’t been much of a Twitter fan since it’s inception, but that’s because I never saw much practical use for it. Now I think I might. How great would it be to Tweet “anyone know the 040 for Italian?” and receive a real-time reply, without having to log in to email and scroll through numerous messages to find the answer. I know when I am sitting there with the book in my hand, in the middle of cataloging, I don’t want to put it aside and wait to finish when I might get an answer the next day (if I get one at all). How much more efficient might our cataloging be if we could receive quicker responses like this? Of course, Twitter doesn’t supply the ability for longer, more complex conversations, which are inherently necessary when talking about cataloging, but there are other technologies for that.

Like the recent flurry of activity on RADCAT: all these introductions are nice, but after a week or so, they’ve been archived in the depth of the list with no easy, instant way to refer back to them. What happens when I’m reading a message several months from now and want to revisit the author’s introduction to learn more about where they’re coming from? Gee, wouldn’t it be great if there was some technology out there where a person could have a page about him- or herself, and I could easily click on that person’s name and be taken to a profile, a page that told more about them, their introduction and background, what kinds of libraries they worked in, what other interests they might have? And Facebook has the capability for group pages and discussions, potentially allow people who wanted to participate in a 9/11 conspiracy debate to do so while others could talk about authority control on Ravelry.

The key word here is “easy.” The listservs, in my opinion, are not easy. I almost hate to say it, but Facebook and Twitter are. (Even my 70+ year-old aunt is on Facebook, and she is far from what I would call tech-savvy.) They are designed to be easy to use, because that gets them more users, and therefore more eyes viewing ads, and therefore more $$.  And it works–Facebook has 200 million active users. It’s not that this technology is “new” or “shiny” or “buzzworthy” or “cool.”  It’s that it’s easy to use for what people want to use it for, so they use it. It’s using the right tool for the right job. Technology too succumbs to the survival of the fittest. People will use what they find easy and pass on what they don’t: is anyone out there still running DOS? No, because something better, more powerful, and more user-friendly came along.

Now, everyone’s idea of easy will differ. Some people are not only content with listservs but prefer them. And that’s fine. What’s not fine is the inability for users to choose through which interface they prefer to interact. Wasn’t that part of the whole glory of Web 2.0? That we could make content independent of formatting, so that the user could view it in whatever format they preferred?

Whatever it is, we need to stop locking our content away in these outdated technology platforms. As technology evolves, we need to evolve as well. These listservs are a great concrete example. But I think they’re also a great analogy for libraries in general, and especially for cataloging. Whay are we still using the same difficult tools, rules, workflows, and softwares? Continuity can only carry us so far. Why are we fighting against technology and evolution, instead of using it to improve not only our jobs but our patrons’ experiences? And why do we continue to insist on making cataloging hard?



Once upon a time, late one night in the library, an instructor came in asking for “that book by Tony Duquette.”

Being the diligent reference desk staffer that I am, I dutifully type “Duquette, Tony,” into the author search field of our online catalog. The search returns one result, and so I answer affrimatively that indeed we do have a book by Tony Duquette, and write down the call number.

We walk to the section together and I pull the book for her. “No,” she says, “that’s not it. It’s a bigger book, and it’s sort of reddish, and it’s all about his life and work. It’s new. He just died, you know.”

Well, no, I didn’t know. Nor did I have any idea who Tony Duquette was, only that she asked me for a book by Tony Duquette. Since she had said it was a new book, I told her that we would of course look into ordering it and aquiring it as soon as possible.

Back at the desk, I look up Tony Duquette on Amazon. After reading the description of the first result, I learn that a) Tony Duquette died in 1999; and b) this retrospective was published in 2007; and c) despite those facts, it looks and sounds like the book the instructor was after.

The other interesting thing I learn is that the book is not in fact by Tony Duquette (not surprising, since he’s been dead for 10 years), but rather by a Wendy Goodman. It suddenly clicks, and I type “Tony Duquette” into the title search field of our OPAC, and lo and behold, there it is, it comes right up. Unfortunately, the instructor had already left the building.

So what’s the moral of this story? If our OPAC search fields were not limited to indexing specific fields like title, author, etc.–if the user didn’t know the difference between a book by Tony Duquette and about Tony Duquette (as was definitely the case here and certainly not limited to this example)–if the user could simply type in “Tony Duquette” and find books both by and about the artist–then maybe this debacle of unfulfillment wouldn’t have happened, and the instructor could have left with the book she wanted, instead of empty-handed.



{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 worldcat.org  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.



et cetera