Academic journal article Information Technology and Libraries

An Empirical Analysis of Web Catalog User Experiences

Academic journal article Information Technology and Libraries

An Empirical Analysis of Web Catalog User Experiences

Article excerpt

Data from an observation study of a Web catalog in a small private arts college library are used to analyze the determinants of user success and satisfaction. Multiple regression models are estimated to identify the most important causative factors determining catalog user success in finding information, user attitudes to catalog organization, and user ability to navigate the catalog. It is found that subject-search users are more likely to assign a low score to catalog organization and to encounter difficulty navigating the catalog than users of known item and other search methods. These findings accord with the extensive literature on the problems associated with subject searching. Also, it is found that the more time spent searching and the larger the number of search results, the more likely it is that the user would report difficulty navigating the catalog. A significant result is that although the user's perception of success or failure of the search is the most important factor determining both the user's evaluation of the catalog organization and the navigability of the catalog, the success or failure of the search itself is not explained by any other variables included in the model. This exogeneity of search success has important implications for library instruction because it suggests that a user's perception of success is dependent on the expectations the user brings to the search rather than specific features of the catalog design.


Use studies of online catalogs reveal several empirical regularities, namely that users adapt to the tools provided and typically prefer online systems, and that subject retrieval capabilities are inadequate. (1) According to Lewis, users "do not understand the complexities of bibliographic structures in any form" and "inconsistencies in cataloging practices cause confusion" for users. (2) Moreover, use studies consistently indicate that the information users bring to catalog searches is often incomplete, and that users are normally more successful in conducting known item searches than subject searches.

That subject searching, in particular, is troublesome for users is well documented in the literature. (3) Of all the various forms of online catalog searches, users generally report the most difficulty with subject searches. (4) A seminal nationwide study of online catalog use sponsored by the Council on Library Resources found that subject searching was most likely to prove problematic for users, with 43 percent of users reporting difficulties with this search method. (5) The main reasons for these difficulties cited in the literature are misspelling of search terms and lack of knowledge of Library of Congress subject headings. (6) Database growth, which produces excessive numbers of results, also causes problems for users. (7)

Given these findings, is there anything an individual library can do to improve its online catalog and thus enhance the quality of service to users? To address this question, we conducted an observation and questionnaire study at a small arts college, the results of which are reported here. The purpose of our study is to identify the determinants of user success with, and attitudes toward, a new Web-based online catalog. We analyze our findings using multiple regression analysis, a departure from most of the existing literature. The multiple regression approach enables us to investigate how various user attributes and search types, as well as characteristics of searches recorded in the observation study, affect search outcomes. Our results will provide guidelines for future improvements in bibliographic instruction and user training.

Literature Survey

Numerous studies of the use of online catalogs have been conducted since they were introduced in the early 1980s. The first generation of online catalogs had minimal capabilities, being little more than library circulation systems made available to general users, with the result that many of the earlier studies have limited applicability to today's catalogs with their advanced subject and keyword searching functions. …

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