Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Collaboration, technology, and libraries

These articles were a welcome contrast to those from last week! While brief, they were informative and written with enthusiasm by the authors. They described moving forward with current technology, using and improving our tools in order to meet patron needs. Moreover they did not fill me with either frustration or rage, but rather excitement and cheeriness. The steps taken by the team at Wichita State University (WSU) even made me set aside my own personal prejudices (go Jayhawks!) and admire their resourcefulness. I wish they’d talked more about the assembled team that tackled the task, but I understand that the article was about the creation of the customized interfaces rather than the skills of the creators.

In Lown’s article, the idea of having a ‘Bento Box’ display allowed the librarians some control over the amount of information provided to patrons - not in such a way as to restrict it, but so as to arrange the information in order to make it easier to digest and choose the desired format. Often patrons are looking for a specific type of material — peer-reviewed articles, print books, an electronic resource — and creating designated areas to distinguish them rather than stuffing them together in a single, unified list makes the site more usable. After spending some time with the NCSU Search, it cuts out several steps that students would otherwise have to do, saving several clicks as well as time for the user.

One thing that hasn’t been addressed much in either of the articles (although it was briefly mentioned by Deng) is the process of building a dialogue between the faculty and librarians so that a desire for change can be expressed and acted on. Deng notes that one “trend in web services is to allow personalization of user interfaces” (2010), and while in Web 2.0 there are forums of communication to learn what users want and view their activity, in libraries this isn’t yet the case due to things such as respect for patron privacy and restricted budgets. When Facebook first launched, it was primarily for people with a “.edu” email, and I believe that it had the potential to be a forum for this type of feedback and information. Over time it opened to the general public and permitted other types of emails, becoming an open network rather than one which catered exclusively to higher education. As libraries don’t necessarily have a Web 2.0 platform with which to interact with their patrons directly, they must use more primitive tools such as actual, “irl” relationships between departments to foster feedback.

Building these connections comes before the technology, before the planning. Relationships create the desire to act, and in the case of WSU it created a desire to act on the needs of the faculty to create individual portals and search pages. Libraries have varying hierarchies, so sometimes the subject librarians work as liaisons and other times there is more outreach or built-in feedback. For distance education programs there can even be course librarians who are dedicated to assisting faculty to set up their classes with rich media and appropriate materials. In the case of WSU, it appears that their collaboration sprung from having a reading collection written by faculty and local authors which had records which contained local notes. In short, it came from an effort by the university to draw attention to both its collection and its faculty. This type of support is, to put it frankly, pretty neat. The library then figured out how to use data they already had to improve access. No backpedalling or additional notes needed due to solid cataloging and precise notations. After the library was able to use the records for a faculty showcase, other programs saw the need for customized interfaces and were able to request them.

Part of what makes this “pretty neat” is that the library inadvertently created demand for their own collection. This was an unknown service, one the library didn’t know they could do until they tried and one that the programs didn’t know they could ask for. Once it was complete, everyone was better off! Students had more relevant information, programs had customized portals to link to, and the library was able to provide a valuable service. This kind of collaboration creates better communication between faculty and librarians, and could conceivably help with consultations and collection development in the future! I hope to see some future reports on this project as I’m curious as to how it’s impacted use of library materials in specialized classes and research.

When I read articles like the ones from this week, I get a lot of hope. When new technology is implemented, everyone grumbles for a while, but these librarians got past the grumbles and made the best of the technology. Want to do more with what we currently have? Let’s have a brainstorming session and think out of the box. Doesn’t fit our needs now? That's okay. It will! Oh yes, it will.

Works mentioned:
Deng, S. (2010). Beyond the OPAC: creating different interfaces for specialized collections in an ILS system. OCLC Systems & Services: International digital library perspectives, 26(4). p. 253-262.

Lown, C., Sierra, T, and Boyer, J. (2013). How users search the library from a single search box. College & Research Libraries.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Human-Computer Interaction, or, the more common silent glaring contest between a librarian and the flickering computer screen

No lie, these articles were difficult for me to get through. Cervone’s was straightforward and informative, while the article by Zhang et. al seemed packed with fascinating information but written in such a way to discourage interested readers. Despite their readability, both articles presented useful material which I found very useful. The perplexing notion that has stuck in my mind is that librarians rarely design their own software and systems - while some companies do hire librarians to help with the design, there’s a huge gap between the users and the designers.

I’ve used about three different library systems over the last several years: Voyager, Sierra, and LibraryWorld. When I say that I used LibraryWorld, I mean that I used the version which was installed on my high school’s computer which was still running Windows 98 in the early half of the 2000s. Hours spent copy cataloging and wrestling with the large graphical interface that looked like a 3 year-old’s first laptop toy. So when I say that I prefer that experience over the current release of Sierra, you know that I mean business. The reason for my distaste for the version of Sierra that the WRLC uses (rather, that Georgetown and GMU use) is its interface design and inefficient functionality. The slow loading time, inconsistent displays, bright teal interface, and menus that appear to be loosely based on Excel are not something I would wish on my worst enemy. Not to ignore Voyager: while I’m not overly fond of its jargon-heavy menus and buttons, I don’t dislike it. Having used it for a while now it has begun to make sense. While it’s not intuitive or pretty, its functionality wins out.

All these systems were designed for librarians to use and operate, and using these systems “involves a strong cognitive component” that is difficult for the non-librarian/library staff member unused to complicated software or jargon-heavy language Zhang, 2005). Sutcliffe’s research is cited by Zhang as supporting the statement that “[while Human-Computer Interaction] created structured methods from both academic research and industrial authors, these ideas were largely ignored by software engineers” (Sutcliffe, 2000). The software we are currently using is meant for functionality but not usability. So when technology starts moving in the direction of smooth, clean, lovely interfaces and the designers behind our professional software don’t keep up, what then? Frustration abounds. This is the dark side of changes in technology and policy, when a solution exists but is ignored by those who can make a difference. When companies/corporations/designers/publishers restrict access to materials, users complain and put their own skills to use. They circumvent DRM through bypassing software, using their own non-electronic digital hardware (I say to you, “Behold, the typist.””).

What do librarians do?

What can librarians do when our own systems discourage us from using them by being all but unusable?

Design our own highly-complex-but-usable cataloging software? Certainly not. We don’t have the money to hire a developer, don’t have the skills of our own, can’t come to an agreement on formats, standards, and compatibility. We are stuck with badly-designed, clunky, slow, expensive software. We are a stubborn bunch who choose to weather out the difficulties of interface design and curmudgeonly complain (not without some inner joy) about it rather than raise pitchforks or put hand to the grindstone and learn how to make the software ourselves.

Our own system development life cycle gets a wrench thrown in its wheel as soon as design enters the picture. We choose software that is as flexible as possible for the patron interface. Sacrificing our own usability for functionality. The training period, which is usually completed during the initial installation and transition between systems, becomes stretched and elongated, costing significant costs in time and mistakes. The continuous feedback is quickly exhausted and turns into frustrated sighs, and by the time we realize how long it will take to get the kinks worked out it’s too late to turn back. (Cervone, 2007)

A librarian’s response is to make the patron-facing side of the software as usable as possible and be as personally knowledgeable as we can in order to help with the learning curve. To once again be a buffer between the corporation and the patron. Most OPAC software is pretty snazzy, usable, and (largely) easy to use. Unfortunately, systems like Sierra often come with really nice patron-side interfaces OPACs or have nice add-ons like Encore that make things prettier for patrons, but fail to have beauty deeper than the smooth lines of the CSS file in their demo.

Fortunately, librarians have become Internet-savvy and vocal, and companies are beginning to open channels for collaboration. Innovative Interfaces has a user group forum that encourages feedback and sharing of solutions. User interface design is becoming more and more a focal point, thanks to the fact that patrons are using their own technology and beginning to realize that the power of a piece of software and difficulty of use shouldn’t have a positive correlation. Encouraging companies to use human-computer interaction development as a focal point for their usability tests may be the most useful thing to do for everyone involved. There are many, many very talented designers in the vast Internet, and companies now recognize the need for them.

Jessamyn West once called librarians a “dumb market… dumb in that I don’t think they’re aware as a homogenous group of just how powerful they are…. Well, tell [the companies] to stuff it, and tell them to come back with a better [product]. Theoretically we have the power to do that” (Carlson, 2007). While she was referring to scholarly publications and contracts, I believe that her statement rings true in many cases. When libraries begin to become a sea of hands instead of just a sea of voices we will begin to start seeing change. Put aside our comforting complaints and begin to really create a feedback loop with companies, get dedicated ongoing evaluations and share our training experiences. I can’t say it will solve the world’s problems, but it might make the world’s information a little easier to access.

Works Cited
Carlson, S. (2007). Young Librarians, Talkin’ Bout Their Generation. Chronicle of Higher Education, 54(8), A28-A30.

Cervone, F. (2007). The system development life cycle and digital library development. OCLC Systems & Services, 23(4). 348-352.

Sutcliffe, A. (2000). On the Effective Use and Reuse of HCI Knowledge. ACM Transactions on Computer-Human Interactions, (7)2.

Zhang, P., Carey, J., Te-eni, Dov, & Tremaine, M. (2005). Integrating Human-Computer Interaction Development into the Systems Development Life Cycle: A Methodology. Communications of the Association for Information Systems, (15). 512-543.