On Giving Library Users What They Want

CAPTAIN: You gonna get used to wearin’ them chains after a while, Luke. Don’t you never stop listenin’ to them clinking. ’Cause they gonna remind you of what I been saying. For your own good.
LUKE: Wish you’d stop being so good to me, Captain.
Cool Hand Luke

One of the first library homepages I worked on had a search box in the top right corner. The problem was, it returned results from the parent institution’s website, and atop my perch at the reference desk I could see and help a steady stream of patrons who typed in their research topics there and expected to obtain pertinent hits from library collections. No design is completely idiot-proof, but this was a clear case of an interface that by and large failed to meet user expectations. The solution was not telling everyone they were doing it wrong, but altering the page to accommodate this observed behavior.

Libraries have long struggled with how to best respond to patron preferences, especially those that may be different than how librarians think a library should be used. Not unlike opening the stacks, there was considerable hand-wringing over offering unfiltered Internet access and expanding our holdings to include movies, music, and even video games. Similar debates occur over whether coffee shops and now makerspaces belong in libraries. One librarian’s “maintaining relevance” is another’s “mission creep.”

We should manage our collections and services based on what people want. Books that are frequently requested via interlibrary loan need to be considered for acquisition, while titles that do nothing but gather dust can be weeded. If certain webpages also get zero traffic, that’s not necessarily cause to remove them, but an indication of a potential marketing need.

It’s taken the better part of a decade, but the changes to library resource discovery layers—which are primarily designed to look, feel, and work like Google and other more frequently-used websites—represent an acknowledgement that we cannot ignore our users’ wants and needs, regardless of whether or not such conceptions fly in the face of how libraries have traditionally operated.

When attempting to provide intuitive interfaces, it’s fairly important that a website’s structure adheres to people’s common assumptions and desires. If eighty percent of your user base expects clicking on a link to do X, and twenty percent expect it to do Y, it seems a no-brainer to program the link to do X. This holds true even if most librarians are in the Y camp.

Nowadays, most academic library searches are conducted by those seeking full-text articles. The default search on my library’s homepage returns results that are, therefore, full-text articles. In their report, “Thinking the unthinkable: doing away with the library catalogue,” Simone Kortekaas and Bianca Kramer put the current situation this way: “Our next challenge will be to phase out our catalogue as an end-user discovery tool, because we believe that the OPAC is dead. In the world we live in today, you should not encourage your users to start their search in a local library catalogue.”

Other libraries don’t see it that way. The form on their homepage either merely searches a catalog (an obsolescent interface that just covers physical collections) or otherwise presents results that are not reflective of what users want. This is done for reasons which presumably have to do with the belief that we know what’s best for our users, regardless of what they think. That’s pretty dangerous territory to get in to. Telling the majority of your customers “you’re doing it wrong” is not a good way to maintain market share; companies that ignore consumer preferences don’t stay in business.

Our discovery layer, Primo, is thankfully a perpetually evolving product. As the technology for integrating different data sources improves, and while user expectations likewise change, based largely on how our commercial counterparts present their search results, improvements are accordingly made to the interface. To appease its librarian customers clamoring to have a voice in the development process, the vendor elicits suggestions regarding what sorts of feature enhancements should be committed and prioritized. Most of the resulting nominations, at least among those relating to the front end display, I wish I could vote against.

A noticeable number of these adjustments proposed by my colleagues are based on an apparent longing to revert the discovery layer’s functionality to mimic that of legacy OPAC systems, particularly when it comes to preserving the manner in which search statements are interpreted and processed. Our ideas about how a contemporary research platform should continue to behave therefore indicate that unfortunately not enough trust is being placed in directly assessing and accepting library patrons’ desires about whatever means and methods they wish to use. We simply have far too much attention focused on the rear-view mirror.

Moreover, there’s any number of ways that an interface could be built, meaning that quibbling over various design philosophies is bound to happen when you open the door to the idea that user opinions aren’t paramount. You can’t please everyone. There’s bound to be contrarians and curmudgeons unwilling to try new things. Patrons who want you to acquire the Mona Lisa can’t be accommodated. But there’s no reason not to use available technology as much as we can to meet most peoples’ needs and provide the best user experience.

Further Reading

Librarian at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee