Wednesday, March 9, 2011

What "fix the catalog" might really mean

I often wonder what users mean when they say that we should "fix" the library catalog.

I think that there are a lot of folks who find the catalog difficult to use. It is true that our catalogs have user un-friendly interfaces. It is true that our jargon makes the barrier to entry pretty steep.

These are real issues that require much consideration and better answers than the ones we've come up with so far.

But I have come to the conclusion that "fix the catalog" can also mean one of two things:
1. I don't know how to use the library catalog.
2. The library catalog gave me wrong information (e.g., that book was supposed to be on the shelf, but it's not there).

I feel like libraries confuse these two issues with the idea that people find the catalog difficult to use. They buy discovery layers and web-scale discovery systems. They design and re-design their websites. All of this time and money, and we still hear about how we need to "fix" the library catalog.

All of this has led me to two conclusions:

1. We need to educate our users on how to get from the catalog to the stacks and what to do if the information in the catalog isn't right. A reference librarian at MPOW had a brilliant idea--teach a workshop that is aimed at Freshmen about how to find a book in the catalog and then locate it on the shelves in the library. We've created many video tutorials on how to come up with keywords, how to search the catalog, and how to request books from other libraries. Make your users good at using your catalog is more difficult than buying a new ILS add-on to make your catalog user-friendly. But it also pays rich rewards.

2. Allocate more resources for circulation services like shelf-reading or circulation inventory. One of my first job duties as a library page in a public library was to shelf-read the sections that I was responsible for shelving. It was amazing how many books we had decided were lost that were actually hiding out in another area. When I worked at a middle school library, we did circulation inventory at the end of every school year. We found many books on the shelf that we'd either considered lost or still checked out.

I think that we need to be mindful of the ways in which our catalogs work. But I also think we need to listen to our users and really figure out what they're trying to tell us about our resources. It's wise to remember that the quickest (and easiest) fix isn't always the best one.

Be visible. Be proactive. Be awesome.