:: Digital Libraries Columns


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 They have not been altered in content, so please keep in mind some of this content will be out of date. :: Digital Libraries Columns

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

   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 (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.

   Lorcan Dempsey's Blog Posting (check out the linked screenshot)
   [123] RedLightGreen