Notes: Why are online catalogs still hard to use?

Borgman, C.L. (1996). Why are online catalogs still hard to use? Journal of the American Society for Information Science, 47 (7): 493-503. 

In this 1996 study, Borgman revisits a 1986 study of online library catalogs. In the original study, computer interfaces and online catalogs were still fairly new—the study looked at how the design of traditional card catalogs could inform the design of new online catalogs. By the time of this study online catalogs were common but still not easy to use. Three kinds of knowledge were seen as necessary for online catalog searching: conceptual knowledge about the information retrieval process in general, semantic knowledge of how to query the particular system, and technical knowledge including basic computer skills. Semantic knowledge and technical knowledge differ here in the same way as semantic and syntactic knowledge in computer science. The study also covers specific concepts like action, access points, search terms, boolean logic, and file organization. In the short term, Borgman recommends training and help facilities to help users gain the skills they need to use current systems. In the long run, though, libraries must employ the findings of information-seeking process research if they are ever going to create usable interfaces.

The study does point out a number of reasons why online catalogs are difficult for users, whether it’s because they lack computer skills or semantic knowledge. One good example is from a common type of query language. Even if the user knows that “FI” means “find” and “AU” means author, they may not know whether to use “FI AU ROBERT M. HAYES,” “FI AU R M HAYES,” “FI AU HAYES, ROBERT M,” etc., and how the results will differ. Unfortunately the article lacks clear instructions or examples of how to make the systems better. The conclusion that different types of training materials could be helpful seems to me like a bandage rather than a cure.

I think a lot of the criticisms are still true, but that modern cataloging and searching systems have become easier. I’m not so sure it’s because catalog designers have started applying information-seeking research in their interfaces, though. It almost seems like library systems are being made easier in self-defense. Users are getting more and more used to a Google or Yahoo type interface—a simple search box that looks at full text and uses advanced algorithms to find relevant results. I think part of this is due to the fact that people in the library field have experience with complicated, powerful structure search systems and are used to a lot of manual encoding of records. Web developers, lacking this background, have been more free to think in terms of searching massive amounts of unstructured data and automating the collection and indexing process. I also think that simple things such as showing the results, including summaries of each item, in a scrollable, clickable list, have helped a great deal to support the information seeking process. Things like search history and “back” and “forward” buttons, “search within these results,” automatic spell checking, etc. are becoming pretty standard as well.