Saturday, June 6, 2009

What do users understand? (NGC4LIB)

... wrote:

>�Of course no one is saying we shouldn't try to create the best
>�possible information infrastructure. This must provide easy ways
>�for easy questions. It must also invite (not "require") users to learn
>�more to get more out of it. Index browsing, as it appears at the moment,
>�can be a useful part of the picture. Alas, it doesn't work without a bit
>�of learning. Out the door with it then?

The question of requiring/inviting/insisting/requesting users to learn how to use the catalog is completely different from what it was a couple of decades ago. Back then, the library catalog was the only game in town: you either used it or did without. Today, people have several options: Google, Amazon (yes, people really use amazon this way!), blogs and other things. People like and prefer these other things. Because of the existence of these options, the moment we "require" or "invite" people to learn these other ways, we lose them. That is, we lose them *if* we cannot convince them that it is in their interests to devote the time and effort into learning something.

This will become absolutely critical once the Google Books agreement is implemented. People will see no reason whatsoever to use a library catalog once they can search the full-text online, except to search it for "inventory purposes," i.e. does my library have a physical copy and is it on the shelf? I have tried to go to some pains to demonstrate that the Google Book searching capability is simply not good enough for users and that library metadata is still needed. Also, that people like searching Google Books *not* because they truly believe they are getting such good results, but because it is so easy to do and the results are not completely off the mark most of the time. Still, they rarely consider what they are genuinely missing in a search such as "wwi" or "gays" or "african-americans" or whatever. That takes an expert to really understand.

So, do we throw it all out the door? Just give up? We may be fated to lose in the end, but I think we owe it to the profession and society in general to give it the best try that we can to succeed. The fact is, I don't think anybody in the world would say that people no longer want to do reliable searches for names and concepts, e.g. "No, I don't want everything by Leo Tolstoy in this collection, just the random ones that match the text string I happened to enter." or "No, I don't want all the memoirs by German soldiers who fought in WWII in North Africa I prefer a sample based on an algorithm that is secret, on random text strings, and that can be manipulated by unknown powers." I don't think that is what anyone would prefer, *but* this is actually what they are saying when they say the words, "I prefer Google to a library catalog." We must be very plain and clear about this because this is the truth. This is not saying that Google doesn't have its undoubted strengths, but it has weaknesses that must be pointed out since they have been very cleverly hidden.

But then comes the problem: we must put our money where our mouths are, and it all begins to break down because we are stuck with our 19th century catalogs with keyword searching thrown in.

I think my ideas on what we need to do are clear enough so I won't restate them. I just don't know if the those in the library world can find it within themselves to change (look at the "unchanges" in FRBR and RDA, which change nothing of any substance).

This is a pessimistic Friday the 13th for me.

Jim Weinheimer

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