Thursday, May 14, 2009

What do Users Want from Your Library Catalogue?

I've just been having my first look at the most recent OCLC report, Online Catalogs: What Users and Librarians Want. The results don't paint a very flattering picture of current generation catalogues but I don't think those findings are particularly surprising.

So what do users want? Here is a summary:
  • Direct links to online content - text and media formats
  • Evaluative content, such as summaries/abstracts, tables of contents and excerpts
  • Relevant search results
  • Item availability information - if the item is available and how to get it
  • Simple keyword search with an advanced, guided search option
You should read some of the detail in the report - it's really interesting. It certainly got me thinking. I believe that the results illustrate a couple of key points:
  1. Users want to start with a simple keyword search and get relevant results.
    Remember when Google just started up and the impact that their relevancy ranking had compared with search engines like Alta Vista and Yahoo! Now that's how everyone experiences the Internet and they want it in our catalogues.
  2. Catalogues are good when you know what you want.
    A bit of detail in the report suggests that catalogues are good when the user is looking for known items but really let people down when they are trying to discover information on a new topic. Random results from a keyword search aren't good enough. If you can't have the full text available online then people expressed a real need for more data to help them choose the good stuff. That included table of contents, summaries and excerpts as well as faceted searching to help them narrow down large result sets from keyword searches.
  3. If the whole thing isn't available right now online, 'how do I get it?' becomes the most important question.
    Assuming the user chooses a library catalogue as a discovery tool and manages to find some worthwhile resource their first preference is to link straight to the full text of the item online. If they can't have direct access there and then the detail around how and when can they get hold of the item becomes paramount.
What does this mean for the future of libraries and reference services? I see reference as the process of discovery based on identified information needs. However, the window (catalogue) to our biggest resource (our collection) doesn't appear to fulfill that need for discovery.

Does the library industry have enough dollars and/or expertise to develop catalogues that will meet our users expectations? Maybe libraries will not be in the discovery business for much longer? Should we be focussing on the delivery side of the equation? Could/should we outsource the discovery process to the institutions who are doing a better job of it (Google, Amazon, etc.) by making our collection data available to them in return for them sending traffic our way. Should reference services move to the Cloud to meet our users? Is it sustainable for individual libraries to all have their own uniques collections with an individual, self-contained discovery tool?

I see change coming and interesting times ahead.

Your thoughts? Leave a comment...


Anonymous said...

I don't think it is a lack of money holding back the Library industry. I think it realtes more to the inability of the industry to respond to the new web 2.0 world (or ability to respond with any speed). Open source collaborative initiatives with LMS offers more promise. I would not at this point in time suggest libraries give up on the discovery business. We just need to pull our heads out of the sand and look at ways that we can make the discovery tools out there work for us. Move from a victim of change to an instigator of change.

Martin said...

I agree that open source Library Management Systems offer more potential than current offerings form the commercial LMS vendors but they pose completely new challenges for (especially public) libraries. How many public libraries have developers on staff that can realise the potential benefits of open source solutions? How many Councils or other parent organisations are willing to allow open source into their technology mix?

I've seen demonstrations from 2 major LMS vendors in the last two weeks. Both have shown a discovery layer product offering some of the features I outlined above, however, both are add-on (expensive) products. Why aren't these the default search tools offered in the LMS?

Anonymous said...

Hi Martin,

Your last point about the expensive add on discovery layers is a valid point. Our webcat is old world technology, we pay a lot of money for it, for the additional discovery layer we are looking at a substantial outlay. As you say this should be the default entry level catalogue. I think this is why their is so much angst directed at vendors from the library sector. This is also why open source solutions are attractive as mentioned in the first comment. But yes, how many library services would be in a position to use an open source solution for the reasons oulined by yourself. I'm sure it will occur in Australia in the public library sector in the not too distant future, perhaps that will be the catalyst for change?