Vermont has a new State Librarian and I’ve been diving into more of the reports from the state Department of Libraries lately. Their most recent newsletter mentioned the Who Has What page which is a list of which vendors all the automated lirbaries in Vermont are using for their catalogs. What isn’t mentioned is that Vermont has about 192 public and community libraries. The DoL list has 86 libraries listed in the public section. You’re getting that little unstated statistic, right?
I just got back from the Association of Rural and Small libraries conference where I gave a talk about using technology to solve problems in small libraries. I had a great time and I only wish I could have stayed longer because the people at that conference, they are my people. A lot of them are in rural areas with limited or no access to broadband, they have small budgets and often untrained staff and yet they’re being told that all teenagers are “born with a chip” and that technology is moving faster than any one person can keep up with, etc. It’s daunting. Being able to know what “normal” is becomes sort of important as you have to determine what’s appropriate for your library and for your staff.
I think about this specifically in terms of our library organizations and how they determine what normal is versus what end users think is normal. Not to point the finger at ALA too much but it’s not really normal in 2008 for a website redesign to take years. It’s not really normal in 2008 to speak in allcaps when you’re emailing people as the incoming president of your organization. It’s not really normal to have a link to customer service on the main page of your website be a 404. I’m aware that it’s easy to cherrypick little pecadillos like this about an organization that does a lot of things very right. However, I do believe that one of the reasons we have trouble as a profession dealing with technology is that we don’t have an internal sense of what’s right and what’s appropriate technologically-speaking making it hard for us to make informed decisions concerning what technology to purchase or implement in the face of a lot of hype and a lot of pressure.
I’m going to work today at the Kimball Library in Randolph Vermont (I fill in there sometimes) and the librarian-facing part of the Follett OPAC interface is becoming one of my favorite slides. It looks like it was designed for a Windows 95 interface, in fact it probably was, and just never revisted. It’s 2008. People can create a blog on Tumblr that’s 100% accessible and legible and nice looking in less than two minutes. Why do I have to click a 32×32 pixel image of … a raccoon mask? to circulate books. And why can’t we agree on what usable means?
A question over on Ask MetaFilter which I don’t really know the answer to: why do so many library catalogs have human names?. It’s gotten some decent responses and I suspect there isn’t really one answer but if you have more information than the hive mind team over there, feel free to drop me a note or, if you’ve already got an account, log in and chime in.
How does your library determine how many computers to “set aside” for OPAC-only use? Is that decision based on anything? At the library I used to work at, we had about 15 public access computers with fully five of them OPAC-only. The other ten computers were mobbed. TechnoBiblio looks at whose using which comptuers at San Francisco Public and has some questions as well.
Meredith of ALA Wiki fame has two good posts this week on the usability of library catalogs and access to library information generally. One comments on the In Defense of Stupid Users article — which I mentioned here a while ago but bears re-linking — talks about taking responsibility for our difficult to use catalogs. The second post discusses Lorcan Dempsey’s post about user interfaces and why people enjoy sites like Amazon and Google, and why they don’t enjoy searching at the library. Meredith pulls out the “how does this affect libraries?” parts of this article and wonders, as I often do, how do we fix systemic problems that aren’t going to be addressed by buying better middleware?
So, unlike the major online presences, our systems have low gravitational pull, they do not put the user in control, they do not adapt reflexively based on user behavior, they do not participate fully in the network experience of their users….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.
Anyone who continues to think that this problem is all about “being like Google” or “dumbing down the interface” is missing the point. Our interfaces have been so difficult for so long, we have a great opportunity to make great strides simply by not making it hard for people to find what we have, that’s a good start.