From the catalogs of babes











{August 21, 2009}   some things never change…

I stumbled upon this ALA Catalog Use Study from 1958(!) today.

Interesting how some of the exact same issues still plague us today…

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This morning I happened upon a job posting from the Toledo Museum of Art that included the following as one of the “essential dutites and responsibilities” of a catalog librarian position:

• Enhance the usefulness of the library catalog by assisting users in applying cataloging principles to retrieve materials more efficiently.

I have to say, I’m a little disappointed. I can see what they’re getting at–basically, help users use the catalog–but they way they’ve written it sounds like they feel that the catalog librarian should be responsible for teaching patrons the inner detailed workings of AACR2r in order to successfully use the catalog, when I think it should be the other way around–the catalog librarian should be responsible for making it so the users don’t have to know a lick about AACR2r in order to find what they’re looking for.

It’s hard enough to teach librarians and library students the inner working of cataloging rules and standards, and here we’re talking about teaching them to patrons? That’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve read all day. (The fact that it’s from an arts library to boot is even more disappointing. They don’t seem to have done much reaserch about their user base.) Teaching cataloging standards to patrons would not only be an immense challenge, but it emphasizes the idea that patrons need to adapt to the catalog instead of the other way around. The catalog is a tool. The patron is not. If your tool doesn’t work for the purpose you need, you get another one that’s more appropriate to the task at hand. If your saw is dull and doesn’t cut, you replace it with a new, sharp blade. If you have a wall of screws, driving them in with a hammer will not be successful. We need to change the tools we’re using to suit patrons’ needs–not the other way around.



{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?



{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