by Steven J. Bell, Associate University Librarian, Temple University Libraries
Editor’s Note: In Part One, Steven makes the case that we have a significant problem with our discovery systems, using information from a recent webinar and study on library discovery and access. In Part Two, coming next week, Steven will share recommendations from the study and his own conclusions about the actions librarians need to take before we are hopelessly irrelevant to the next generation of information seekers.
You know the problem I mean. No matter what we seem to do to improve the experience of searching our library discovery systems, we always seem to return to the same dreadful conclusion.
No one likes this experience.
I would usually have glossed over this Seth Godin blog post, but I read it just one day after attending a webinar on “Library Discovery and Access in the Post-COVID Hybrid World”, sponsored by the Charleston Hub. The first order of business was to acknowledge that “Post-COVID” was still some unknown point in the future.
Attendees heard from a mix of academic librarians and publishers. Their common ground: library discovery technology remains a fail for library customers. Is it always a fail? No, but that was the general tone of the session. If library discovery systems are perceived as consistently problematic across our spectrum of users, then we have a serious issue.
Godin’s post, titled Convenience and Boredom got me thinking about the conundrum academic librarians face with their search systems. He writes:
The last fifty years have seen a worldwide effort to maximize one and eliminate the other.
Marketers and technologists work overtime to create convenience. We’ve gone from hunting and growing our food to pressing three buttons on a phone to get it…
And the cost of that convenience is high. We give up privacy, control and satisfaction to get it, in every corner of our lives.
At the same time, the market has figured out that we simply don’t like to be bored. And so there’s more stimulation, more options and more noise than ever before.
Despite years of effort to Googleize our search interfaces, whether it’s the library collection discovery system or a multitude of aggregator databases, students and faculty continue to overwhelmingly conduct research with their preferred Internet search tools according to the Librarian Futures report (cited below).
The problem, to my way of thinking, is not so much the initial search interface. We’ve figured out how to make that similar to the Internet search engine experience. It’s what happens after our discovery tools do their thing. Actually getting to the content is both inconvenient and boring.
Results screens, in almost any of our discovery systems, are a challenge at best and incomprehensible at worst. They can present multiple buttons and options to the point of distraction and confusion. Though we think users should be at ease with filters, few dare to use them. Lack of consistency between systems further complicates the pain points. One minute the user is searching the library discovery system, with which they may have developed some comfort level, but click a link and they’re whisked away to an entirely different interface where they struggle to decipher access to a full-text article, let alone modifying a search. Don’t get me started on link resolver screens.
These challenges are reinforced by a report available from Lean Library titled “Librarian Futures: Charting Librarian-Patron Behaviors and Relationships in the Networked Digital Age”. I first learned of this report when attending the above mentioned Charleston Hub webinar. The report claims to be “the result of the most extensive librarian and patron survey on patron workflows ever conducted – with over 4,000 surveyed”, including a wide range of librarians and their stakeholders.
The report offers multiple findings of interest and even a few revelations, though I suspect academic librarians would find most of them more familiar than shocking. They reinforce or confirm what we know from our personal knowledge of contemporary information-seeking behaviors and the challenges presented by our discovery system workflows. For example:
- There is an identifiable knowledge gap between librarians and their clientele. They are not aware of nor do they take advantage of the full extent of librarian support available to them. Librarians lack knowledge of the emerging needs of their library customers and the new or enhanced service possibilities those needs would suggest.
- For students and faculty, the discovery workflow begins outside the library. Roughly 80% of these respondents choose Internet search tools over their library’s discovery systems. Despite this behavior, these same individuals proclaim their appreciation for library services and resources. So there appears to exist a great opportunity for librarians to embed themselves in the student and faculty research workflow.
- Almost 90% of respondents would install a library app that integrates with their workflow in order to access library services, resources and expertise when needed.
- The same proportion of students report using Wikipedia as often as they consult librarians “as a source of information”.
You can read the report for all the details – and there’s much more of interest here. Say what you will about vendor-sponsored surveys and the subsequent reports that are produced. Reports like this one are clarion calls to academic librarians. We must act to better connect with students and faculty in order to better understand why we are so highly admired and yet so rarely consulted.
Could it be that despite our best efforts the library website, catalog and research databases are off putting? As one of the presenters put it, “Google is a comfortable old shoe at this point and our users don’t have the same chance to gain comfort and confidence with library discovery systems because just when they do we pull out the rug from [under] them.” What if we could get Godin’s reaction to our discovery systems? I suspect he’d find the drudgery of completing even the most basic information-seeking tasks with them a dreadful combination of inconvenience and boredom.
Is library discovery a lost cause? Is it too late to recapture our once captive audience for library services? Or will we be perceived as an information age anachronism to the next generation of researchers? In Part Two I’ll share thoughts on what we can do to remedy this situation – if we are willing to take some risks.
About the Author: Steven J. Bell is the Associate University Librarian at Temple University Libraries. His past blogs have included The Kept-Up Academic Librarian and Designing Better Libraries. He started the blog ACRLog in 2005 and was its primary contributor through 2011. Between 2009 and 2019 he authored two monthly columns, “From the Bell Tower” and “Leading From the Library” for Library Journal. You can learn more about Steven at http://stevenbell.info or follow him on twitter @blendedlib