Monday, April 26, 2010

RE: Designing future "catalogs" - where do the users come in?

Posting to NGC4LIB

Alexander Johannesen wrote:

<snip>
B.G. Sloan <bgsloan2@yahoo.com> wrote:
> In short, how do we design systems that help users find what they really need, rather than designing systems where we librarians assume we know what users need?

There's an approach that is rarely used but that I have some experience in doing :

Ask them.
</snip>

Absolutely. This is the major problem with FRBR and its user tasks that supposedly, everything is based upon: I don't think anybody would ever say that the FRBR user tasks are what people want and/or need in the current information environment. Nobody has ever pointed to any research that shows FRBR builds a tool that users want. If anybody questions themselves about their own searching habits, I doubt if anybody will say that what I really want and need are the FRBR user tasks. This doesn't mean that people no longer need to be able to: find "stuff" by their authors, titles, and subjects, but we need to recognize the startling fact that in era of "Google-one-box" services, the very idea of being able to limit a search by "author" or "title" or "subject" is becoming lost. And people on this list know what I think of the use and even artificiality of "Work-Expression-Manifestation-Item," which have no relationship to user tasks (except for those very rare users who need the 1917 Harper's edition of Huckleberry Finn; but let's face it--if somebody needs that level of detail, they probably need more information than what a regular library catalog gives them). And anyway, full-text searching has made clear that people want and expect many other powers as well.

But on a broader level, if we define a catalog as an "aid for finding different resources that exist within a local collection," I think this needs to change because now with the web, where people can see a lot more than ever before, the "local collection" is necessarily limiting from the very beginning. And our users see it clearly. Much more useful for our patrons would be for everyone who feeds into the catalog (i.e. those who select materials for cataloging, plus those who do the actual cataloging itself) to think in broader terms than a "local catalog," envisioning something more akin to a "bibliography."

In this way, selection turns into something other than, "what is being paid for and/or housed in my individual collection and other institutions where I have a special relationship" into "what are the useful materials available to the members of my local community no matter where they happen to be and if they are free or not."

Showing people what is really and truly available to them and not just what is in a local collection is what I mean by thinking in terms of "bibliography" which is not limited to any one collection. Only when you know what is really out there can the individual or institution decide if it is worth the costs of getting access to it. One major step further in this direction would be to create an "annotated bibliography," and this could be done easily enough with Web2.0 tools.

Making such a tool would simply be too much for librarians to do alone, and we would have to enlist the help of scholars, teachers and other experts for the task of selection; for that of description, access, and record maintenance, we would need lots of other help. Of course, we would have to rethink our current standards into what could be done practically to ensure some standards of quality in these records that must be built cooperatively with many other communities out there.

For example, what is the purpose of the "bibliographic description" when the item itself is instantly available with a simple click? While I don't doubt there is a purpose, it must be seen as fundamentally different from the purpose of the ISBD standard for a book that is available only after trudging through the stacks, or after spending two days retrieving it from an annex location off-site, or through a very expensive ILL that involves both staff time and funding from a number of agencies.

Using a tool such as this would probably demand all different kinds of interfaces: one for novices, another for experts, or perhaps even by specialty: for classicists, for architects, for physicists, ...

To me, viewing the problem in these ways would represent a real "maturing" of the local catalog into something greater than it is now, and would create a tool that would become vital to our users, and I think rather quickly.

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