Why are Libraries so Hard to Use?

“If you want those who come after you to jump through the same hoops you had to (instead of making their lives easier), please seek therapy. They shouldn’t have to go through whatever hardship you went through, and *you* shouldn’t have had to go through that either.”
—Chelsea Misquith

The Hall of Mirrors in Versailles, an icon of opulent French nobility, was so decorated largely because, as Wikipedia explains, “In the 17th century, mirrors were among the most expensive items to possess.” Compared to palace visitors at that time, people noticing a bathroom mirror from the hardware store in my house are probably somewhat less awed by its splendor. Commonplace items, regardless of their utility, are prone to be less valued than those with more exotic-looking properties.

Consider the prevalence of faux bespoke designs in fashion, architecture, and just about anything where mass-produced materials can now be created on the cheap, yet extra energy is expended to make things look as if they’re made from the likes of hand-laid bricks or lace embroidery. In my own career, I’ve followed several trends in web development (gradient backgrounds, rounded corners, mouseover effects, and floating layouts, for example) that achieved popularity, I believe, partially because of our default albeit not always warranted assumptions that good design looks expensive or hard to do.

We also appreciate and admire the cultivated expertise of certain individuals, such as professional athletes or master craftspeople, who exhibit physical or mental prowess beyond their genetic predisposition as a result of the considerable efforts made to hone their skills. Those who achieve their goals through minimal labor, on the other hand, are prone to be treated derisively. Hackers using others’ programs are disdainfully called “script kiddies,” gamers following conventional yet optimal routes to success lazily employ “cookie-cutter builds,” and so on.

We seem to value doing things the hard way, even when more logical and easier alternatives are available, because of an innate desire to derive a sense of accomplishment from completing complex or challenging tasks. And those tasks are somehow more noble pursuits. When Harry Potter insists on burying Dobby by digging the grave with a spade, without using a magical shortcut, we are made to feel, as the nearby goblin observes, that Harry’s inelegant approach is worthy of admiration.

If I tell you that a scientific study was conducted on board the International Space Station, or a piece of software has eighty million lines of code, or the ordinary-looking trinket on your hand was made from one of the rarest elements on the planet, all those facts should in no way interfere with the value judgements regarding the significance of those research findings, the efficacy of that program, or the assessed aesthetics of your ring. Nor should we discount the importance of free and invisible resources, like oxygen, that we thankfully take for granted.

Libraries are free, at least on the surface, to their patrons. But the attitude that good information can at times and therefore must always be hard to find—on top of some severe economic constraints and along with an artificial reverence for past practices—has in many ways crippled the usability of library research tools and the accessibility of library content. To be clear, librarians don’t deliberately, at least consciously, set out to make libraries difficult to navigate. On the contrary, we have I’d guess about nine hundred signs in the building, the net effect of which is arguably as bad as having none.

Our main search engine has a feature called Direct Linking. It allows people looking for the full text of their results to be taken straight to a full text source, rather than be shown an intermediate menu of what may be multiple options for retrieving that publication. The near universal response to this feature’s release by librarians has been one of, “Oh, well, the chosen destination could be unavailable, so we shouldn’t enable this configuration option.” Regardless of the underlying intentions, the net effect of such decisions makes for a needlessly convoluted user experience.

I have been specifically asked by instructors not to show their students how to use EndNote or RefWorks. I’ve also had a university colleague make the suggestion to buy uncomfortable chairs for the community workstations area in order to discourage their prolonged use. Information about certain library services has even been censored from our website. But these are all the exceptions to the rule that librarians, by and large, are certainly not in it for the money, and really do want to help people find what they need.

A scholar locating information relevant to their interests by following the top Google result, while a promising sign of the improving capabilities of search tools, is not going to make headlines. After all, as early as fifteen years ago, according to an OCLC report, when asked “Where do you typically begin your search for information on a particular topic?” 84% of people said a search engine, while 1% said a library web site.

Yet there remains in my news feed a steady stream of what’s meant to be charming stories about someone laboriously excavating an archival item for their historical studies. The find’s importance is often underscored by how arduous or even serendipitous the re-discovery process was. And so, like a dug up rare mineral or an intricate and painstakingly constructed garment, the found piece of information is presented as something valuable by virtue of the obstacles encountered in retrieving it.

“Students nowadays only look at the first few hits” is a call to arms, not to instruct them on using hundreds of disparate database interfaces and investing hours poring through pages of results every time they have a research question, but rather in doing everything we can to improve the quality and relevance of those initial results. We simply can’t cling to this “the milk is in the back” model of searching when non-library alternatives offer a more convenient means to an end, quick and dirty or not.

Nothing’s totally idiot-proof, but the smart choice would be to prioritize ease of use when designing library systems. After all, we actually do have a tendency to follow the principle of least effort. As George Carlin once wrote, “If the reason for climbing Mt. Everest is that it’s hard to do, why does everyone go up the easy side?”

Further Reading

Librarian at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee amzn.com/B086G1XRLN