Stop Blaming the User

[This blog post by Jenica Rogers]( “Stop blaming the user at Attempting Elegance”) is a perfect example of the way more libraries ought to be thinking.

Money quote (emphasis mine):

> The user is not broken in that **our job is to fulfill the user’s needs**, and the user’s needs are, while not always well-defined, possible to meet, or understood by either side, valid — so accusing the user of Doing It Wrong is counterproductive to our goals and needs, and should be avoided. This applies to space usage, reference inquiries, customer service, and use of our online tools.

I couldn’t have put it better myself. Libraries need to pay a lot more attention to how our patrons behave and start adapting our systems to [the way our patrons *expect* search to behave]( “The Smart Firehose: a blog post at Bits and Books”). Our seemingly in-built desire to force patrons to search for things our way is counterproductive and ultimately damaging to our credibility and our profession.

If there’s one point that I’d like to add to hers, it’s that a big part of the problem is that very few libraries actually take real responsibility for the software that’s used to build their site. By [relying on external vendors]( “Libraries Need More Coders: a blog post at Bits and Books”) and not having *in-house* coders who can improve the system, many libraries pretend that any deficiencies in it are minor and/or not their responsibility. But *everything* that happens under your logo — whether it’s on your website, at the Reference Desk or how you organize your stacks — is ultimately *your* responsibility. That means that, like it or not, it’s your job to make things as easy and intuitive for your patrons as you can. As Jenica so wonderfully puts it:

> We can sit back, all of us, in libraries and outside of them, and with smug self-satisfaction explain why our tools, websites, spaces, and services are just brilliantly perfect… or we can thoughtfully observe our environment, acknowledge that the user has needs and is showing us what they are, and adapt.

In Praise of Browsability and Serendipity

The University of Chicago is about to open their newest library, [the Joe and Rika Mansueto Library][mansueto], which stores all of its items in a fully-automated underground vault. Library users can request a book online and the system will automatically fetch the appropriate container, from which library staff can retrieve it.


It’s all very cool, but I find myself wondering about the implications of a library where users can’t browse the collection. At [my own library][Woodson], we have a [research collection][Harsh] whose stacks are closed to the public. While this means that material can be preserved – there are some extremely rare, valuable and fragile works in the collection – the opportunity cost of such a setup means that patrons can’t browse the collection and discover things they didn’t know they wanted.

Continue reading In Praise of Browsability and Serendipity

The Smart Firehose

I’m an unabashed Google user.  I think Google has long provided the best search results on the Web and I don’t see any sign that’s going to change any time soon.  The reason I think Google has so totally eclipsed its competitors like Yahoo!, Ask and Excite (remember them?) is that Google is the search engine that follows what I like to call the “smart firehose” principle.

Google spends millions and millions of dollars every year on tweaking their search results to make them better.  Engineers at Google constantly ask themselves:  How can we give people the information they want in as few clicks as possible?  Can we add context-relevant information such as a map, movie showtimes or images in order to make the search results more useful? In other words, Google would rather just give you the information you need if it possibly can, instead of sending you somewhere else.

When you search for something using a standard Google search (that is, at or through your browser’s search box), the search engine doesn’t separate relevant results, forcing you to click various sections of results. Instead, Google just gives you a list of the best results, depending on what you’re searching for and regardless of what type of result it is; consequently, a Google search results list will include links to web pages, maps, images, videos and more, all in one list. This “smart firehose” model works well for Google because it gives good results and then trusts people to make the right choice.

Libraries, in comparison, are woefully behind in search. Catalog searches are almost always totally separate from research information, so in order to find good information about, say, diabetes, a user will need to do multiple searches; one for the library’s catalog and at least one for the research databases. Often, users will need to go into several different research databases and perform individual searches.

Library users need a smart firehose.

Continue reading The Smart Firehose