I’ve read a lot of posts and articles lamenting the fact that many students and patrons prefer using Google to the library’s print and electronic resources, but few look at why people prefer Google beyond the fact that “it’s easy to use”. Today, Lorcan Dempsey posted an excellent analysis of the characteristics of the user’s experience with services like ebay, Amazon, Google, and Yahoo that keep them coming back. He then shows how the typical library’s “user interface” measures up. He makes several important points about the barriers libraries put up for their users, including the fact that libraries really don’t really have a single “user interface”:

  • Our collections are fragmented, making it difficult for users to know where to search to find what they’re looking for.
  • There is significant variability in how users can access material, how quickly they can get it, and how transparent the process is.
  • There is a great deal of variability in how different electronic resources work (in terms of their search interface, how their results are organized, etc.) and it can be difficult to move between different library electronic resources
  • Libraries’ systems usually can not be accessed outside of the library’s website. This is changing as some libraries are offering RSS feeds of search results from the catalog, search toolbars, etc., but they’re nowhere near as accessible as tools like Google and Amazon
  • Amazon and ebay make use of a wealth of user-created data that can help users to determine the relevance of a particular resource. Libraries could do the same, but thus far they have not.

He also makes an important point:

Making our interfaces more like Google, Yahoo! or Amazon may or may not be sensible, but it is a small part only of the rather bigger issue. Which is that however good the catalog interface is, it may be unseen by many library users because they spend most of their time elsewhere.

So how can we fix this problem?

The more I think about these isues, the more I think that a major question for us moving forward is organizational. What are the organizational frameworks through which we can mobilize collective resources to meet the challenges of the current environment? How do we overcome fragmentation; streamline supply; reduce the cost of the system and service development which is incurred redundantly across many institutions.

Any suggestions? I think we often get focused on how to improve specific pieces of the user’s experience (with RSS, folksonomies, link resolvers, federated search, etc.), because it’s easier to make small changes rather than systemic ones. But how can we systemically change the library’s mechanisms for information discovery and information delivery? Yikes! Too big a problem to solve on a Sunday night. ;)

BTW, when I made that list of people to watch in my post on Friday, I should have mentioned Lorcan Dempsey. His blog has given me a tremendous amount of food for thought and it was his writing that really got me thinking about the usability of library middleware in the first place.