Library search tools. Could we make them harder to use?

I don’t normally post rants, especially rants about libraries that could easily offend colleagues or future employers, but I’m about to make one big exception. You have been warned!

My daughter has just started studying as a part-time off-campus mature-age student at a university I shall discreetly not name and sent me a photo of her notes from the compulsory library instruction class she had to do. There were apparently a number of sections to the class, some of which were very helpful (plagiarism, referencing, google scholar) but the classes began with detailed instructions on how to use the library search tools. Her notes included extensive points, details and a Venn diagram explaining Boolean searching, phrase searching, truncation and substitution, nesting and mathematical operators.

Despite years of using library systems (including the obligatory unpaid shelving all loved ones of librarians have to do) she found this class incredibly challenging. Her marks were 100% for topics such as plagiarism, referencing, putting items in Dewey order (see earlier note re unpaid labour), setting Google Scholar preferences and the like. She barely passed the first section though, which was all about how to search the library catalogue.

I checked the website for the library concerned and was surprised to see they had only one search tool on their page, a discovery system in which almost none of these search strategies will work. Which meant that trying them out while learning about them was, shall we say, a bit tricky??

My daughter now thinks, perhaps rightly, that the library search tools are complicated, old fashioned and very hard to use. She will most certainly be avoiding using them and I would think this would mean she will avoid using the library and will stick with Google Scholar which she feels comfortable using without training. Let me just reiterate here: week one of a degree which will take six years part time to do and the compulsory library instruction class, which threw the hardest and least useful content up first, completely alienated the student. She sees the library and it’s search tools as a last resort now and it will be incredibly difficult to change her mind.

Dear fellow librarians, people who are returning to education as adults are easily scared away by overly complicated messages. Think about the content, timing and delivery of your messages from your customers and potential customers perspective, not from your own perspective. If you make them feel stupid or scare them off the first time they hear about you they are unlikely to ever come back because they have plenty of other ways to get just enough information that is just good enough for their purposes. Except for the very small number who are planning to take library courses they just do not need to know what a nested Boolean search is, most especially they do not need to know it in week one of their three or four year degree.

This is 2012 not 1980. We can design our communications to be friendly and welcoming so they suit our users just like Facebook and Amazon do. If we can make our search tools easy to use without instruction students will have a go and then hopefully get help if they get stuck. We can let go of the outdated notion that everyone who enrols at university needs to develop searching skills based on arcane library-only metadata standards. They will never need to use Dialog on a dial up modem so constructing complicated nested queries is pointless! If we try to give them just enough instruction at just the time they need it there is a far greater chance they will retain that knowledge and use it again.

I know that class material takes ages to construct and it is really hard to get the time and resources to update or fix instructional material it once it is up and running tolerably well (oh boy do I know!). But I do think we need to give a bit more thought to our student’s experience of our services. Too many services like this and we will have no more customers. With a little tweaking this class would not have alienated students but instead could have given them the impression that the librarians were friendly helpful people who could answer questions and give advice about searching and accessing information, which in my experience they universally are. I wish the same could be said for their online presence.

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34 thoughts on “Library search tools. Could we make them harder to use?

  1. NewGradLibrarian

    Great post Carol, how sad your daughter had to come across this – how much sadder that it seems to be institutionalised and ‘the way we do things around here’ at her university.

    1. carolgauld Post author

      Being my daughter she of course made some polite comments in the satisfaction survey at the end of the tests. I hope they take them on board.

  2. Sandy Lim

    Very interesting post. :) I like to think simplicity will save us all. Wouldn’t be surprised at all if search and other systems are they way they are because they’re descended from systems that couldn’t support the simplicity we expect nowadays. Technology would have come a long way since they were first set up, I’m guessing.

    1. carolgauld Post author

      YOu are right, technology has come a long way since we first setup library search tools. The ironic thing is that the search we think of as simple is in fact incredibly technically difficult. But that might be another blog post.

  3. snail

    One of the curious things from my vendor days and databases in libraries: you have to sell the product to the librarian and thus support librarian type searching (boolean, proximity, etc), however they’re going to renew based on usage ie relying on how well folk who don’t use librarian type searching find stuff. Interfaces needed to be designed to support different types of users. For particular databases, the number of folk using “advanced” search methods was less than 5%.

    1. carolgauld Post author

      You are so right! And those of us who work with system know that less than 1% of users ever click on a help page or read instruction pages. I babble on endlessly at my team about the user experience and adjusting the system so it fits users workflows. I have to say it doesn’t help when we don’t really have a clear idea of what skills our users have and how low their thresholds are for attention and patience.

  4. Ruan

    Rebuilt mine a few years ago, I am a high school librarian so much lower level but found I was loseing them just as quick, now I do a ‘basic’ introduction and get hold of higher years to teach more detailed skills!

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  6. jeroen bosman

    i agree that each moment of contact that leaves people behind frustrated is a chance missed. However I would like to be fair to patrons: tell them in advance that there is a simple story and a difficult story. The simple story learns you to get reasonable results 85 percent of the time, the difficult story is 5 times longer, includes a bit of hard thinking but will give you excellent results 85 percent of the time and reasonable results for another 10 percent of instances. It depends on students or the norms set by teachers whethter someone would choose or need the simple or the difficult story. O and BTW known item searches for which google scholar gives you a worldwide working full text link are not included in the 100 percent as they do not need instruction.

  7. Angela Pashia

    First , as frustrating as they are, fixing the systems involve money & often decisions at a level above us in the hierarchy. We regularly complain about our library online catalog, but that decision happens a few levels above me (or my boss).

    However, we can readily redesign our instruction. I’m actually on my way to a conference where some colleagues and I will be presenting on redesigning instruction sessions to cover just the minimum skills students actually know for that class – which means freshmen don’t need to know advanced nested Boolean search techniques!

  8. Mac Haniff (@MacHaniff)

    This is a good read. When I think of these library search engines, a universal library search engine would be enough. But people always think of new ways to sell their product (search engines), thus, librarians will have to learn to use it. If change is always better, I disagree. Sometimes, just sticking to the simpler way of doing things is still the best way for optimum results. Complicated stuff just irks everybody.

  9. Tatielane

    Carol you are so right. I like your simple message, that libraries and librarians are inceredibly helpful but that the online presence needs work.

    As a systems librarian I have to deliver and support the technologies required to support the students of my university. We have a simple discovery tool, in my opinion quite a good one. And I have done what I can to make the catalogue useful too. But I feel like my subject librarians just don’t get it. They hate the discovery tool with its single search box, and don’t encourage students to use it. They suffer google scholar with a bad grace and don’t want me to link to it from the catalogue. And last month I was forced at gunpoint to change the library catalogue’s default search from simple to advanced. “because it’s more useful and it’s the first thing we tell people to do”. Arrgh! (I fought it for a year but they took it to LMT and got me in the end).

    They want to condition students to do things their way. But what about the students who can’t remember what they were taught, or miss the class (supposing generously that every student does get a class)? Library systems should require no instruction. They should be simple and self evident.

    1. carolgauld Post author

      Oh my Kathy, how sad that you have had to take such a backward step with your catalogue! When I was at Melbourne I did some usability testing with the search tool there, which at the time had two search boxes with boolean options to link them. Every single student assumed that they had to put a word or words into both boxes and not one of them saw or understood the purpose of the boolean connectors. Consequently every student constructed a search that was far too narrow and they had either zero results or results that were irrelevant. The saddest part was that most students then assumed that the library didn’t have anything they could use and they went right back to Google. At least when I presented my findings to the LMT and librarians I was able to win the argument and go to a single search box but then I did have a couple of supporters higher up.

      We really need to accept that librarians are not the users of these systems, our students are. All our decisions about the system should be based on student needs and student preferences.

      1. Tatielane

        Ah thank you for that reminder about your usability study. To a similar end I have started up google analytics for our catalogue, to gather evidence that people generally do just fill in the one general box. I’m not letting it lie till the decision is overturned!

      2. carolgauld Post author

        We should catch up and compare notes! I am trying to arrange a visit to the UK in October to attend Internet Librarian International…

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  11. katze

    Reblogged this on Bibliokatze und kommentierte:
    Es braucht eigentlich keinen Kommentar. Leider ist das auch in deutschen Bibliotheken immer noch ein großes Problem. Es wird gelehrt, was eigentlich nicht mehr wichtig ist, oder? Versagt da die Informationskompetenz der Vermittelnden?

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  13. Shannon

    Good stuff! I don’t think the post was harsh – it’s the reality. Libraries are desperate for people to use them and make sure that people know the value of them.

    I don’t work in a library but work as a solo information specialist in a research institute. I teach a bit of information literacy on an MSc module and do mention advanced search features – boolean, truncation, etc. The searches these students need to do for their dissertation are generally complex (medical/health related), but speaking for myself, also a mature MSc student, I’ve not had to use this same sort of search strategy for my course.

    I’ve always been of the mind that we are the professionals and can, and should, know how to interrogate the catalogue/database intelligently, but it’s not really the place for students or other professionals to know how to do this unless they want to. This is especially true in a world where users can easily navigate their way around Google and Amazon.

    I think our role is teaching them more about sources of information and distinguishing good from bad – especially when using Google. I wonder how many of those librarians that cringe when people use Google/Google Scholar use it (or an equivalent) on a daily basis to find out information.

    1. carolgauld Post author

      I wholeheartedly agree with you about our role in helping people distinguish quality information resources. Search results from Google and Bing offer a vast number of results of very dubious quality, especially with the explosion of self-publishing made possible by the web and the loss of editing and refinement through traditional publishing processes.

  14. Jeroen Bosman

    If students really want to make the most of their studies they are wiling to accept that they have to invest. If they are doing anthropology and carrying out a survey they will have to invest in learning statistics and using complex software such as SPSS or R. If they are doing a literature study in anthropology and want to get the best results they will also have to invest a bit and realise that is is not always as simple as putting in the first two words that come to mind and rely on the search engine’s magic. For instance we will have to explain why it is that Google Scholar by default gives you older articles and how to overcome that. Without honest but thorough instruction students will miss out on the best results when it really matters. Yes, it is boring, but yes, it has to be done.

    1. carolgauld Post author

      I’m afraid you might have missed one of the main points of my post. It is not possible for her to apply the search techniques included in the training as they do not work on the library discovery tool that is the only search engine on the library web page. Her attempts to apply the training as she was undertaking the online, self-paced course resulted in a constant stream of incomprehensible errors because the training was designed for an earlier catalogue-based system that is no longer promoted by the library. The training was not boring, and she was not unmotivated, she was three weeks ahead only four days after she enrolled in her self-paced course. She managed 100% on all the other sections of the library course, however the training on searching was absolutely wrong and should have been updated to match the existing search tool.

  15. Mellanye

    Points noted! As a librarian who often delivers sessions on how to search, I struggle with what to present. If you (your daughter) had to choose 3-4 items to learn in that first class, what would they be?

    1. carolgauld Post author

      What a fabulous question Melianye! I think the most important thing would be to remember that students will go first to the library home page when they want to search so the training should be for the search tool offered there. She would more easily remember anything she was taught if it was conveyed to her in a way she could relate to. Rather than using a Venn diagram to explain searching for cats and dogs perhaps demonstrate a search for a real assignment topic like opportunity cost or whatever is a common first year topic at your institute. The biggest problem she seems to have is in evaluating the quality and reliability of sources. Showing how to work out what the source is for an item, how to find scholarly items rather than opinion pieces and how to choose the best items for her assignments would be most beneficial as they would answer her most urgent questions.
      Like every other first year student my daughter doesn’t know what she needs to learn in order to do well in her classes. If the library offers training in that first week that is directly relevant to what she is doing then for her classes she would immediately form the impression that the library is an incredibly useful place full of helpful people. But if she is forced to do search training that has no relevance to her study she will see the anything to do with the library as a chore distracting her from her real study.
      I pointed her to the recently revamped online tutorials at my library called Study Smart because I think the training offered there is much more engaging and useful.

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  18. Jenne

    We’ve just implemented summon and are struggling with that. Our search tools have always been several layers in on the website, but with the new summon we’re putting it right out front because it’s a good first tool and a good way to find known items (plus our catalog sucks); the subject databases are behind a tab and a link because I’m still struggling with how to put them closer to the user.

    But we do need to teach our graduate school users how to do some types of Boolean searching because once they get into their subject areas they are going to be better off in their subject databases (otherwise they get lots of unrelated junk in summon). So providing both, and training for both, is a hassle! :) One thing I get from your comments is that we need to be sure we explain both types of searching, and make it easy to get to the subject databases as well as to Summon.

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