Library Journal "Digital Libraries" Columns 1997-2007, Roy Tennant
Please note: these columns are an archive of my Library Journal column from 1997-2007. They have not been altered in content, so please keep in mind some of this content will be out of date.
Lipstick on a Pig
Recently I viewed a library catalog redesign before it went public. This was the first major change in many years, and it turned out to be quite an improvement to the look and feel of the system. But despite this, it still sucks. Badly. I don't know how much time was spent on this cosmetic facelift, but until the deeper problems that plague this system are addressed, users will remain poorly served. Librarians appear to be afflicted with a type of myopia. We see only minor, easy-to-make corrections instead of changes that will truly affect the user experience. We ask our vendors to tweak this or that to make our lives easier, while the users are left to founder on an interface that only a librarian could love. What's useful One of my pet peeves about the catalog is that we can't keep it straight between fielded searching that is helpful and how and when it gets in the way. For example, nearly every library catalog that offers the opportunity to search ISBN or ISSN numbers requires the user to choose a specific ISBN or ISSN index. Searching on a number like 1594290202 across the full text of every record in any given catalog (even WorldCat) will return a very small number of hits. So why do we insist that the user specify a particular field? Presumably to allow us to create specific indexes that speed up searching, right? But how hard would it be to extract any set of numeric digits into a generic number index? Then, when someone enters a search consisting of numbers, the number index is searched. This would put the complexity in the back end--where it belongs--rather than in the user interface. Meanwhile, specifying a certain field often doesn't work the way the user might expect. Let's take author, for example. When you search for books by an author, why do many catalogs return books about that author's work? You guessed it: the added entry. Sure, there are times when users want to get books about that author and their works, but rather than keeping these two categories of search results separate, we nearly always present them in a jumbled mess. Can this ever be even remotely useful? Blame game I am not the only one frustrated with the current state of our integrated library systems (ILS). North Carolina State University's Andrew Pace (from whom I first heard the "lipstick on a pig" reference) and others have been bemoaning the sad state of systems. We should listen. Oh, you can blame library vendors for not tackling this problem, but there is plenty of blame to go around. The library market has become a battle of attrition, where new customers are found by stealing them. In this zero-sum game, vendors partly bank on how painful it is to change systems and that it takes an egregious situation to force a library to jump ship. Meanwhile, we are focused on making our own lives easier rather than the lives of our patrons. The user-focused enhancements that do make it through generally reflect incremental changes rather than deep, systemic improvements that will create the systems our users need. For that kind of leadership and courage, only the vendor can devote the required resources. Think big Libraries with sufficient resources should experiment with other methods of making their collections searchable. High-profile experiments in bibliographic database search systems may help point the way for vendors not eager to perform major redesign projects. A prime example is the Research Library Group's RedLightGreen, a beacon of hope in a sea of library catalog disasters. OCLC is also pushing the envelope, as a recent blog posting by Lorcan Dempsey, the OCLC director of research, illustrates. So what can most of us do? We need to focus more energy on important, systemic changes rather than cosmetic ones. If your system is more difficult to search and less effective than Amazon.com (and whose isn't?), then you have work to do. Stop asking for minor tweaks from vendors. After all, you can put lipstick on a pig, but it's still very much a pig. __________________________________________________________________ LINK LIST Lorcan Dempsey's Blog Posting (check out the linked screenshot) orweblog.oclc.org/archives/000579.html RedLightGreen redlightgreen.com