quirky worldcat and what it teaches us about openness & libraries

I can get frustrated reading It’s All Good when they e-roll their eyes at some of the backwards-seeming things that libraries do, or have to do, such as fines, ILL fees and card fees. I love reading all the smart stuff they talk about, and reading about the high tech world of R&D that goes along with the fancy things they produce and share. However, I think it’s very very different working in a huge non-profit-ish company (that does charge for services) than being in a small taxpayer-supported public institution that tries hard not to charge for things. We’re not just dots on a continuum where institutions like ours are striving to become institutions like theirs. Just like Amazon.com is not a bookstore, OCLC is not a library.

OCLC gives a lot back to the communities they serve, and also the communities they don’t serve. Now that Worldcat is really open to the public, albeit in beta, we don’t have to use Google haxies to check it. Worldcat is really the only thing close to a union catalog that we have in the US and it does some amazing things.

And yet, Worldcat’s greatest strengths are also its greatest weaknesses. The fact that it seems comprehensive obscures the fact that it’s not. A search for Wuthering Heights in my area says I only have to go 21 miles to get it, to Dartmouth in the next state over. But I can’t check out books from Dartmouth. I can, however, check out books from any of the five smaller libraries that are closer to me than Dartmouth, and which probably all have Wuthering Heights on the shelf. If I went to Dartmouth, they’d either say I couldn’t get it, or try to charge me for a card, I’m not even certain. We can talk back and forth about what sort of user experience OCLC is trying to offer and people can sadly shake their heads at me when I say that we don’t have local library consortia in Vermont and so lack the purchasing clout that many other regions have. We do have NELINET which provides some great service, but again the “what does it cost” question remains murky. I’ve been meaning to ask someone at the Vermont Department of Libraries about this, but they’re a little busy with the email upgrade they did, putting everyone on an Exchange server that doesn’t work so well for those libraries on dial-up.

So, an example I was using last week, searching for a book in Washington DC will usually get you the Library of Congress as a top result. Clicking through to the record would, until recently, get you an error message and a “buy it from Amazon” button. Clicking on the “library information” link takes you to the library’s website in a Worldcat frame. They don’t even have a “remove this frame” link. Now it takes you to a page that explains “The Library of Congress serves as a source for materials not available through local, state, or regional libraries, via interlibrary loan. Consult your local library for details, or view the LC interlibrary loan policies.” So while it’s no longer broken, I’m not sure I’d consider this “fixed”.

Going down the top ten results lists gets me similar odd results

  • Ft Meyer Library – error page
  • Arlington County Dept of Library – waited for minutes while it was transferring data from www.assoc-amazon.com and then a “We’re Sorry Your Find in a Library search found no records. Please try again with new search terms or return to the referring site.” from Worldcat itself.
  • Prince George’s County Memorial Library System – no link to item, but a link to their QuestionPoint service, odd…
  • Alexandria Library – “Firefox can’t establish a connection to the server at geoweb.alexandria.lib.va.us:8000”
  • Montgomery County Dept of Public Library – link to login screen
  • Prince William Public Library – item record (hooray!)
  • Howard County Library – item record (hooray!)
  • Southern Maryland Regional Library – blank screen
  • Loudoun County Public Library – “this page cannot be displayed” error

So that’s, what a 20% success rate? And I still don’t know if I can even borrow the book. Every time I go back to the Find in a Library page, the Amazon ad is telling me I can buy the book for 60 cents. Though to be fair, when I click on the “buy from Amazon.com” I get to a page on Amazon where it tells me my shopping cart is entry. Hint to shoppers: click the book cover instead, it works.

So what do we walk away with here? That libraries are hard, and bookstores are easy? That big libraries are more worth a trip than little libraries? A larger concern of mine — consolidation of resources into big enclaves where ‘haves’ have access and ‘have nots’ are restricted geographically, technologically or simply culturally — comes into play here. When the computer tells you that you can’t get your book in town, how relevant does your library seem? When the higher-ups in your local systems don’t see the advantages of being part of larger systems, what’s the next step? What are the obligations of larger systems to be inclusive at some cost to them rather than just providing services with “attractive pricing”? Gary Price suggested “As a public service for the good of the entire library community, OCLC should offer a list of any libraries in the given area that are not available in Worldcat.org” which seems like a nice idea, but what is OCLCs responsibility towards “the public” as opposed to their responsibility towards their customers? How do we get to a place where something that is designed theoretically to benefit everyone, reallly does work for each and every one?

Harris Interactive: How Academic Librarians Can Influence Students’ Web-Based Information Choices

A pretty interesting look at what the “end-user market segment” that is college students thinks about looking for information online. Keep in mind this is not positioned as a study about people look for information in libraries generally, though the argument could be made that more and more people are looking at the Internet as the first, and perhaps the last, destination for information retrieval. However, that point is not addressed in this survey. Some random facts I pulled out

  • 80% of students surveyed are bothesred at least a little by advertising within websites though “only one-in-five believes ad-free websites have more reliable information.”
  • The survey says “They access the web via high-speed lines, with over 40% logging on via cable modem, T1/T3 line, ISDN, or ADSL/DSL.” which has the obvious follow-up question of how the majority of them access the web, or perhaps whether the response was phrased oddly and is confusing like this sentence nearby “[O]ver 90% access the web remotely from the library via their home computer” which i think means they gain access to the web through the library’s web site?
  • Students find librarians assistance with searching online no more helpful than that provided by teachers or friends “The mean satisfaction score for librarian-provided help is 7.8 (on a scale of 0 to 10), compared to scores of 7.9 for help provided by professorsor teaching assistants and 7.8 for classmates or friends.” I wonder if this would have a different result if it asked about print resources, or other in-library resources?
  • There are further questions about print resources that show that 89% “use the campus library’s print resources” with books, journals and articles getting 75/70/64% respectively.

The survey also contains recommendations

The data strongly suggest that there are real opportunities for academic librarians to connect students with libraries’ high quality resources. A successful approach should incorporate the following tactics to increase libraries’ visibility on the web:

  1. Emphasis on students’ and librarians’ common preferences for accuracy, authority, timeliness, and privacy
  2. Tight integration of the library’s electronic resources with faculty, administrative, and other campus websites
  3. Open access for remote users
  4. Clear and readily available navigational guides–both online and in the library.
  5. Relentless promotion, instruction, and customer service.

The study ends with some questions for further exploration which have a bit too much market-driven speak in them for my tastes, but I know libraries have to start thinking about these things in an academic environment, or at least that’s what people keep telling us. Two examples

  • Students expect service providers–both electronic and bricks-and-mortar–to offer convenience, selection, quality, and a welcoming atmosphere. Can librarians create a customer-friendly experience to match the best merchants and consumer websites?
  • Students want to know more about the library and its resources. Can librarians execute marketing rules for product definition, promotion, price, placement, and positioning?

I guess a secondary question to these last two is “Should they?” I honestly don’t know. OCLC has the 2005 numbers, I’m curious to know what they say. [iag]