Human Factors for Librarians

Human Factors for Librarians.

“I love libraries and applaud every step they make into the digital age. But I wish they knew something about interface design and human-computer interaction….

The standard library catalog interface dates way back; I used to see it running on Vax/VMS systems. Everything about it is counter-intuitive, unforgiving, and obstructive. At some times you need to use the keyboard, at other times the keypad. The interface apparantly predated (or was designed by someone ignorant of) simple conventions such as “Space key moves forward” or “Return key selects current item.” Authors have to be looked up by last name only, and heaven help you if something you want begins with a letter late in the alphabet: there's no way to sort entries differently or skip past the several dozen you don't want.” [O'Reilly Network]

Gary was kind enough to tip me off to this article and as you might imagine, I have very definite opinions on this topic. The only thing that Andy gets wrong in this article is that librarians have nothing what-so-ever to do with the interfaces for their catalogs. Other than that, he's dead-on.

Instead, we are severely limited by what is foisted on us by the database vendors. I know because I've had to deal with this first-hand on many an occasion. Close to home, SWAN decided to re-design the Innovative Webpac because it was horrible to use. By default, a detailed record for a book used three frames to display the information. When we wanted to change the font, bold certain pieces. remove parts of it, etc., we found out we couldn't do a damn thing. Eventually, they modified it to its current form, which is better than it used to be, but it's still not ideal. We still can't touch anything in the tables of results. Most of the options simply can't be changed by the library.

I've watched this type of situation play out repeatedly, which is why most library catalogs use the default installation and they all look the same (other than maybe a logo). There are almost no public libraries and only a handful of academic libraries that have the resources to either build their own system (which is pretty insane in this day and age) or to delve into the programming behind these systems in order to modify them. (Contractually, we're not allowed to modify the Innovative code, even if we knew how to.) In the Virtual Illinois Catalog, everything is based on “session IDs,” and if you use the back button, it will screw up your results. It's horrible, but there isn't a thing we can do about it. We're investigating other vendors, but even then it's a short list. We've had to push ILS vendors to implement Z39.50 in a way we can actually use, and most have resisted working with us. And you wouldn't believe how incredibly difficult it is (not to mention resource-draining) to switch to a new catalog vendor.

The vendors are the ones responsible for the poor author searching, not the librarians. In fact, we have whole round tables and discussion groups dedicated to beating the vendors over the head with usability issues. On WEB4LIB, there was a recent debate about what to name a link on your library page to a third-party database. Some vendors require that we use the name of the database, even though it means nothing to 95% of the users. It's insane the boxes we're forced into.

Apparently we as librarians just don't have enough clout to get them to make the necessary changes, because they rarely listen. Some vendors are adapting, but it's the newer products that aren't based on the old catalog – Epixtech, iBistro, etc. -that have better interfaces because they've been designed with the web in mind. So if you run into problems like this, it's best to take your issues to the database vendor, not your library. Or, send your concerns to the library and ask that they be forwarded to the vendor.

Don't forget, we're the ones that have to work with these catalogs day-in and day-out. We feel your pain, Andy, but you're going to have to take a number and have a seat.  🙂 [The Shifted Librarian]

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