Magazine article American Libraries

Can Online Catalogs Be Too Easy? User-Easy Is Not User-Friendly If Progressive Learning and System Mastery Are Sacrificed

Magazine article American Libraries

Can Online Catalogs Be Too Easy? User-Easy Is Not User-Friendly If Progressive Learning and System Mastery Are Sacrificed

Article excerpt

"USER-FRIENDLY" IS THE term of the day in the online industry, and we librarians are right out front in our own drive to make online public access catalogs (OPACs) as easy as possible to use. Yet I wonder: Does it help our users for us to say that anything a system can do is better than the users doing it themselves? We may be short-changing our users not only in search results, but in searching ability, with systems so simple to use that learning cannot occur.

What have our users told us so far about this, and what can we derive from other disciplines to help us design systems and library environments that encourage intelligent and independent searching?

User in a daze

I doubt that the user who came to me last week lost in the maze of our message DFH2001I INVALID TRANSACTION IDENTIFICATION PLEASE RESUBMIT 12:03:13 was all that happy to know the time of day when she couldn't figure how to start her search. And although she may sense it, she probably does not know that the amount of information is doubling every five years and that reference questions in libraries were up 64 percent between 1979 and 1982.

In fact, the reference apparatus has also grown and become more complex. With online systems, a library's catalog may be only one of the many files available on a large system comprised of automated versions of our traditional reference sources. The Library of Congress Information System (LOCIS) may be a peek into the future in this respect; it has legislative, current event, and organization files in addition to the catalog. Yet, even those files with more and direct subject terms are no easier to search than the online catalog.

What user could ever approach a card catalog for All the President's Men and find it by looking under ptk all, t, p, m, a compression command in LOCIS not unlike those in many other OPACs. D.H. Lawrence may be searched in these OPACs in a number of ways:

AU; david herbert lawrence AUT/lawrence david herbert lawr, dav, h ppnk lawre, d b lawrence, d.h. (david herbert)

As Patrick Wilson has noted, the number of permissible search requests (and permissible search commands) has multiplied along with the amount of information.

Into this world of more information, we introduce the complex technology of the OPAC, and our users are telling us two things above all: they want to feel in CONTROL of their searching, and they want to be able to LEARN and RELEARN a system easily. Yes, users want everything in the bibliographic universe to be available. They want better subject searching, call-number searching, and services such as circulation status. But to single out any one of these features or others at the expense of control and learning is not to improve our users' ability to manipulate the increasingly complex universe of information and catalogs. Improve command and control on the one hand, and learnability/relearnability on the other, and nearly all the other features mentioned as desirable in the 1982 Council on Library Resources (CLR) OPAC study will begin to fall into place.

Shortcuts--at a price

Lately, however, the drive for easy-to-use systems has taken several other directions: menu systems, natural-language systems, term weighting, command-language standards, microcomputer front-ends.

What librarian has not heard of at least one of these: After Dark, CONIT, Knowledge Index, Sci-Mate, IIDA, Search Helper, Search Master, PRIMATE? These are all micro or other front-end systems that may be moderately successful in getting the end user into the system, but that frequently do not make all the vendor databases or the commands available, and rarely leave the users with the sense of mastery that comes from the process of learning.

In addition, the popularity of systems such as NEXIS and the common belief that the commercial database vendors have done it right have given rise to a new wave of key or component-word searching. …

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