Ebooks: The Library Catalog and Federated Searching Part 1

After participating and watching the MLA ebooks webinar two things became very apparent to me. 

  1. Patrons do not use the catalog
  2. We need a federated ebook search system

If I tried to address both of these issues it would be a very long post, so today I will discuss the catalog and tomorrow I will discuss federated searching.

Patrons do not use the catalog:

We aren’t the only library to notice this problem.  When most of your library’s information content is in the catalog and when patrons aren’t using the catalog, they aren’t finding the information.  I blame librarians and ILS companies. 

Why do I blame librarians?  We are on the front lines, we should be seeing how our patrons are searching (or aren’t searching) and adjust accordingly.  Yet we really don’t completely do that.  If we did then we wouldn’t be cataloging in MeSH!  I like MeSH, I really do, I think it is the best way for me to search for literature in database like Medline.  But really only librarians are the ones who speak MeSH.  The general population does not.  MeSH is the Esperanto of the medical library where only a select few of learned individuals know and use the language yet the vast majority of the population doesn’t. 

Honestly, I only really use MeSH when I search literature databases which contain millions of articles on various subjects.  When it comes to searching the catalog I usually search using keywords, like most of the library patrons.  So why are we even bothering adding MeSH terms to the catalog itself?  Most of my keywords (and I am a librarian) and certainly most of the patron keywords aren’t MeSH, they are at best general subject terms. 

Earlier this week Julie Stielstra posted on Medlib-l a question about alternative cataloging systems.  She described how a public library began to catalog their nonfiction differently by using “plain language” subject headings with author lables.  For example: SPORTS BASEBALL Bouton or COOKING FRENCH Child.  She wondered if her patrons wouldn’t be better served if she cataloged items like this as well.  Her example was NURSING PEDIATRIC Wong  2010 and I kind of agree with her that it is much more intuitive than WY 159 W559e 2010.

Perhaps we need to really investigate why we insist on using MeSH when clearly our patrons don’t want to use it.  Teaching them to use MeSH for Medline searches is at best a challenge, getting them to use MeSH to search a library catalog is sisyphean. 

For those who are ready to strip me of my librarian stripes, you can still have your MeSH cake and eat it too.  Go ahead keep the MeSH in the record but start adding some general terms that make sense to patrons.  I would love to say, let the patrons add the terms, but that won’t fix the problem.  Patrons don’t use our catalog, and by doing that we would be relying on the few that do search it to take it upon themselves to do the tagging of the collection.  Librarians should start tagging the collection themselves so that there is at least a skeleton set of terms for people to work with and build upon.  Giving them a blank canvas and telling them to paint a master piece is not fair to them.  We have to get them started with paint by numbers first.

Why do I blame ILS companies? 

Because librarians can only do so much.  Most of medical librarians are not programmers nor have the time to create a robost ILS that is required these days.  Therefore we need ILS companies to do that.  However, ILS companies are still designing systems with librarians as their primary users not the patrons.  The librarians are not the primary users.  We are the primary users of the back end but not the system. It seems ILS companies don’t know how to design a system that marries the back end necessities to a patron centered front end.

Patrons want an Amazon.com or Barnes and Noble like system, and quite franklyI have not seen an ILS out there that provides that experience.  Some systems are trying to do better, for example Innovative Interfaces just released a news statment about their AirPAC product for smartphones and its use in libraries.  Those kind of enhancements are helpful but the over all experience of ILS products is still pretty dismal.

Here are examples of different libraries or library system’s catalog records for Hurst’s the Heart.  (Names of libraries have been removed.)

  1. Example 1 from a group of small hospital libraries.
  2. Example 2 from an academic medical library.
  3. Example 3 from an large library system.

Which one is better for the patron? 

Example 1 is just a mess of words with no break for the eye and a bunch of gobblty gook that the patron doesn’t care about.  The call number is in the upper left hand corner like a card from a card catalog.  In fact the whole record is pretty much organized like a card from a card catalog.  Get rid of this design/organizational and display method.  Most patrons these days have never used a card catalog so they don’t “get it.”  Hell we have librarians now who never used a card catalog. It is just more of a mess for them to look at and they have to hunt for pertinent information.

Example 2 is better visually but is still kind of a jumble of words (especially in the TOC). Other things that are odd to a patron, do you really need that many words to describe format and does that all make sense to a patron?  Notes does not mean the same thing to patrons as it does librarians, do we need to show that?  I don’t know, I was always told in library school that people like to know if it has an index, bibliographic references, or illustrations but I have rarely had patrons ask me this when I am looking for a book for them.  They want to know if we have it and if so where can they find it.

Example 3 is the best of the bunch, but it too could use some improvement.  I love the picture of the book in the right, that is helpful to see.  (I realize the other examples were to the online book and may not have had images, but why can’t they if they are the online version of a printed book?)  The two biggest things that the patron cares about, does  my library have this and how do I get it are up top just below the title information.  I am not a big fan of adding links to Google Books if the book isn’t free or available through there.  I think “Limited Preview at Google Books” is not helpful to the patron (How limited? One time only? Can I print? Just the first chapter or TOC? etc.)  This is a large consortia of libraries so the call number which is unique to each library is not listed at the top, but patrons can click on the link to the libraries that have it to see the call number.  (I’m not sure that this is intuitive but I am also not sure how else you would do that within a large group catalog.) Finally the TOCs are arranged in a readable manner with links to the authors of the chapters.  That is very helpful.  Only at the bottom of the screen is the librarian cataloging information, patrons are rarely interested in it and it should be that far down.

I realize that some of the examples not only reflect on the ILS but also the library or libraries that set up their catalogs, but do you see any that are as easy as Barnes and Nobel or Amazon.com?  If so I would love to take screen shots and list them here as good examples.  I would also like to know how their usage is and what those librarians report about patrons using the catalog.

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