Monday, September 27, 2010

RE: OPAC design, philosophical

Posting to Autocat

On Fri, 24 Sep 2010 09:56:54 -0400, Murphy-Walters, Angela wrote:
>I wonder, where are the children, young adults, adults -- students, professors, researchers -- who want to learn? Are there really no longer enough people interested in learning, in mastering a subject or a topic within a subject, to make it worth our while to provide full catalog records and the systems to access them fully? Is it really true that every, or nearly every, student who walks into a library is interested in getting just enough material to complete an assignment without regard to what is best or most interesting? Do researchers, whether in academia, corporations, the media, etc., no longer want comprehensive information from which they can glean what is relevant for their work? That seems to be the argument made by many on Autocat and elsewhere the past few years and I find it very disheartening--if not frightening.
>There have always been people who will do the bare minimum needed to get by in their school and work assignments. Is it okay to simply do what is best for them and make it a hurculean chore for the very people who may stand a chance of improving our future to do real research? Is there no way that catalog librarians, despite limited resources, can serve the greater good?
While I agree with these sentiments, there is at base, an assumption that must be analyzed, and the analysis may not lead to conclusions we would like. This assumption is that our tools provide better access than these other tools. Is this assumption correct? And in any case, we need to determine what "better" means. I agree a serious consideration of these, and related, assumptions may be disheartening and frightening--at least at first--but I think it is still absolutely necessary to do it.

In my own experience, I cannot conclude that I get "better" results using traditional library tools instead of newer tools. I get "different" results. I also cannot conclude that one is easier than the other, since in order to get useful results from e.g. Google Scholar, I find it to be a lot of work and time consuming because there are no controls at all, while when I use a library catalog, I understand how it works.

This makes me quite different from a regular user of these tools, who rarely understands how a catalog works, and doesn't realize how difficult it really is to search the new tools, that is, until they are doing something serious such as research for a paper, and their favorite tools and methods begin to break down.

Concerning those people who do the bare minimum, I have several times mentioned a paper by Marcia Bates. I think it would be most efficient for me to just point to a former post of mine at:, which is relevant to this topic and has a link, plus a quote where she summarized decades of research as the "Principle of least effort": "People do not just use information that is easy to find; they even use information they know to be of poor quality and less reliable--so long as it requires little effort to find--rather than using information they know to be of high quality and reliable, though harder to find."

The conclusion, in my opinion, is not to just throw up our hands and give up, but to make reliable, quality information much easier to get. Expecting the mass of people to work harder to get information, to learn how to use unwieldy systems and so on, is just unrealistic, I think. But there is a lot we can all do to make the information that is *really* available to people (i.e. not just through the library's local collection), much, much easier to find.

There are an entire number of discussions and arguments hidden within this statement, but I think it is essential to open them and realize that the traditional methods are not better than the newer ones, but they are different, and if correctly merged, could complement one another very nicely to provide something that is genuinely new *and* better than ever.

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