Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Tolliver and Swanson

I don’t know if I’m alone in this, but I love reading usability studies. Something about the idea of evaluating our libraries’ accessibility and usability reminds me that there’s nothing that can’t be improved upon, and that’s encouraging to me. We can try and do our best, but we’ll never get there without listening to the people who use the web site. Seeing how other people evaluate and solve problems is fascinating, and I always enjoy seeing the outcomes and trying to discern similar issues I experience with the CUA web site. While both studies had a broad range of improvements they touched on, what struck me most about the articles was the emphasis that both usability studies put on jargon and how patrons interact with library lingo -- or don’t.

Swanson’s article addressed how students picked apart search results and approached a Google-like search box, and the study cited found that “students had trouble interpreting results after performing a search” and later that some students “had difficulty recognizing when they were looking at a list of subjects, article titles, or keyword results” (Swanson, 2011). Just yesterday I had a patron who was experiencing this very thing. While searching for a basic philosophy text through the SearchBox (which runs on Summon) on the library’s main page, he couldn’t decode the results and moreover could not determine how to use the catalog interface to proceed, supporting Cervone’s statement that “there is no built-in mental model for federated searching” (2005). Even though the patron could probably have found the material easily using a single Google search, he used our own catalog to find the correct item for his class. The patron thought he was searching for a book (because he rightly clicked the tab for ‘books’), but when the search failed him and returned multiple formats, he was unable to proceed. The federated search did not meet the needs of the patron - in fact, it did the opposite of what he wanted and lead him further into the maze.

While Swanson’s article begins by stating that many people want a “Google-ized” interface, the fact remains that libraries’ materials are not the same as Google’s and therefore they present results in different ways. Google’s interface presents everything in a simple and unified list, with little or no differentiation between the kind of resources. Libraries, on the other hand, present their materials in their plethora of formats with options by which to narrow down the search so the patron has a choice in what appears in the results bar. While the ability to search for file type, domain, etc, exist within Google, they are not in plain sight nor are they easy for the beginning user to understand.

When we use Summon in order to mimic Google’s simplicity and straightforward approach, the information patrons receive is garbled and overwhelming. Why is this? Libraries don’t just have web sites, pages, PDFs, and ebooks as Google does, we have those and print books, maps, CDs, videos, LibGuides, contact information for subject librarians, and other libraries may have even types of materials! The purpose of a federated search is to gather as many materials as possible to present to the searcher rather than present the most precise results. Having a Google-like interface without having a similarly powerful engine which presents the materials in a clean and easy-to-understand way defeats the purpose.

Today I recreated the patron’s search, and I better understand his confusion because the SearchBox does not filter out journals or non-book materials, even when the ‘Books’ tab is clicked on the page. The options to narrow down the search results are unintuitive, and the results at the top are not relevant to the desired material. Tolliver’s card sorting showed that “library jargon” should really only be used when “meaningful to users,” and it’s clear to me that it was not meaningful to the young man I helped yesterday. The one piece of data that would have helped the patron is mentioned by Tolliver when he states that the word ‘materials’ “does not suggest checking out books.” Sure enough, the area to choose format is headed “Content Type,” which is not what I would look for as a freshman patron. A clearer menu heading would have enabled him to remove all the unwanted formats and cut straight to the chase. The Summon interface is heavy with library vocabulary and jargon, which turns what could be an incredibly useful tool into a very confusing one. It’s not unlike moments in Star Trek when someone asks Wesley a yes or no answer and he responds with fifteen seconds of technobabble. As librarians we need to choose tools which are user-friendly and allow the patrons to be more independent. We are not gatekeepers, we are gate-openers (Bell, 2012)! This means making sure that darn gate has a handle with which to open it... our content is worth nothing if it is not accessible to our patrons.

Overall, this week’s readings in conjunction with the patron’s interaction with the system have frustrated me greatly. We need to start giving feedback to our vendors and software. The tools we buy for our libraries cost significant amounts of money, and discovery tools (such as Summon) are in the early stages of adoption, so it’s up to us to be advocates for our patrons and collaborate with the developers in order to improve the products. It helps everyone in the long run.

At Apple, my inventory team adopted the saying that “accuracy = fulfillment = customer experience.” As long as we do our part to help provide accurate (usable) tools, our patrons will be able to locate their materials and have better experiences in our libraries. It’s a simple equation, but the thought process reminds us that we can improve our patron’s experiences at the library before they walk in the door by actively improving our services.

Bell, S. (May 31, 2012). No More Gatekeepers. Library Journal. Retrieved from

Swanson, T. & Green, J. (2011). Why We Are Not Google: Lessons from a Library Web Site Usability Study. Journal of Academic Librarianship, 37, 222-229.

Tolliver et al. (2005). Website redesign and testing with a usability consultant: lessons learned. OCLC Systems & Services, 21, 156-166.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

@jessamyn on libraries & publishers

Age: 39
Position: community-technology librarian at the Randolph Technical Career Center, in Randolph, Vt.
Claim to fame: Runs, one of the most popular library blogs on the Internet.
Of course it should change. When you do the numbers, librarians have this incredibly insane, crazy amount of purchasing power. Who buys all those scholarly publications that scholars create in order to get tenure? Libraries do. Who else? No one -- or almost no one. So libraries are this big dumb market for a lot of this material, and I only mean dumb in that I don't think they're aware as a homogenous group of just how powerful they are.… You wouldn't think then that they would be on the butt end of all of these terrible, terrible licensing agreements with any nonprint information that they buy from publishers, and yet they still are. I think what we are seeing is publishers of print are trying hard as hell to not make as much print anymore, because paper costs real money and electrons don't.
We're only seeing a couple really clueful people enter the marketplace, and we're seeing a lot of the same tired old you'll-buy-it-because-you've-always-bought-it business model.… I'd like to see libraries take more of the upper hand in terms of buying some of these products that reflect the actual purchasing power they have as a giant buyer of things, and less of, "Oh, my gosh, Elsevier gave us this contract, … but it's got all these restrictions, and what can we do?" Well, tell them to stuff it, and tell them to come back with a better contract. Theoretically we have the power to do that.
Carlson, S. (2007). Young Librarians, Talkin' 'Bout Their Generation. Chronicle Of Higher Education54(8), A28-A30.

Hirshon, Liu, and Pixar

Upon reading this week’s articles, one of my main thoughts was the large disconnect between the creators of library web sites and their patrons. In Hirshon’s scan of library web sites he addresses the uniqueness of Digital Natives and their learning styles in relation to technology. Given that Digital Natives exhibit “behavior [which] is very diverse by geography, gender, type of university, and status at the university” and “assess authority and trust within seconds,” (Hirshon, 2008), it’s necessary for libraries to reassess their approach to web site and system design in order to be more accessible and reliable.

Similarly, Liu discusses how Web 2.0 principles are changing the relationship users have with technology. Users, Liu shows, are more engaged with information to the point where it technology isn’t just a “stand-alone, separate silo” in relation to users, it’s the interface with which they “integrate” with information. As Web 2.0 continues to dominate the Internet and take down barriers between individuals and technological tools, so should libraries in their digital spaces.

As part of my current job is to evaluate and consider ways to improve the CUA libraries web site, my mind during the reading of these articles was largely focused on how to apply this new knowledge to my ongoing projects. The web site here at Catholic University does not reflect either its patrons’ diversity or their close relationship with information. In fact it seems to present as much information as possible to the user rather than only the information relevant to the user. The site has the same danger Liu calls a “universe of information… that fails to recognize users as individuals” (2008).Graduates see the same circulation page as the undergraduates, and the same goes for faculty. This web site is text-heavy, with no tailored portals or useful graphics to guide the flow of information. Part of this, I believe, is because it is designed to be a guide to library resources and policies rather than a own stand-alone virtual library.

The largest challenge involved in restructuring the library web site is meeting the needs of our diverse patron base, which includes not only our students and faculty but also visiting students from the John Paul II institute, WRLC patrons, and Washington Theological Consortium patrons. Our patrons are of varying ages of levels of technological learning, and so creating a site which reflects this requires a significant amount of work and an overall rethinking of the site as a whole, but will ultimately serve them better than our current web site.

Considering the site as a whole to be the virtual representation of the library was not something I had done before reading Hirshon’s scan, and it is now certainly part of my thought process in the project. Incorporating spaces for entertainment and engagement as well as functionality is vital to making the site a place where patrons will come for browsing and exploring our resources as well as answers to questions about borrowing privileges and downloading e-books. After reading these articles, I’m contemplating what interactive and collaborative features we could add to the library site to make it more engaging. It’s certainly something to think about, whether or not anything is ultimately implemented.

My last thoughts are on a different note: Hirshon refers to a study at the University of Rochester done by an anthropologist about the habits of undergraduates. The study found that not all “Digital Natives” are at home with the “Digital” aspect of their generation. In short, they struggle with technology just like previous generations. This seems to be almost in conflict of some of the previous statements in the article. Not every young student has had access to the Internet or the “world where the Internet has always been present.” Some students do not have the option of interacting with their peers through smartphones and Twitter, whether on a local basis or on a “world-wide scale.” Likewise, not all libraries are able to supply these needs to their patrons.

Small colleges and universities are not privy to the same resources or consortia as one such as Catholic University. This makes the librarians all the more important to be advocates, grant-winners, or simply just scrappy individuals who are very clever with duct tape and paper clips. Cost-effective resources (such as the OLPC laptop and the Raspberry Pi) are becoming more available will help to close this gap, but there is still skill required to implement these device, not to mention the significant time and effort it takes to convince administration and install the technology. Anecdotally, patrons who do not have a laptop at home may have a smartphone, and yet many databases and libraries do not have full support for mobile operating systems. This effectively shuts out the patron and forces them to access the materials on a limited basis. The gap exists not only in the patrons’ skill and comfort with technology but also with the existing technology and its ability to meet the patrons on their home ground.

Articles Cited:
Hirshon, A. (2008). Environmental scan: A report on trends and technologies affecting libraries. Nelinet, Inc.
Liu, S. (2008). Engaging users: The future of academic library web sites. College & Research Libraries, 69(6-27).