I’ve referred often to the clever line by librarian, columnist, and blogger Roy Tennant, “only librarians like to search; everyone else likes to find.” Saying it brings a smile to students and librarians alike, but to librarians it’s funny mostly because of its underlying truth. It is quite easy to get caught up in the thrill of the chase, but at the same time, lose sight of, or not stop to think about, why the student didn’t have success in the first place.
In more reflective moments it should give us pause to consider that perhaps we are sometimes the cause of the library user’s lack of success in tracking down needed information. Not intentionally, of course, but what if our carefully constructed catalog search interfaces and websites are not helping the discovery process, and may even be making it more difficult?
So how can we be more certain that our library catalogs and websites, if not the total solution, are at least not an ongoing part of the problem? Making these essential tools less user unfriendly is something librarians everywhere spend a considerable amount of time thinking about and working to improve.
Looking for a smoking gun? We might need to look no further than the terminology we employ. Despite how precise we think we are being by using terms like Library Catalog, Resource, Holdings, and so forth, studies indicate that these labels don’t necessarily communicate well to our users.
John Kupersmith’s website, Library Terms That Users Understand, is aimed to, “help library web developers decide how to label key resources and services in such a way that most users can understand them well enough to make productive choices.” His survey of usability studies suggests that searchers do best with labels that use natural language and correspond with the end product being sought, e.g. Find Books, Find Articles, etc.
If you’ve made it this far, you may well be asking why am I writing about all this now? It’s because in a few short weeks we will be upgrading the software that runs MARTIN, our library online catalog. Not only will it look different (see one rendition of a new banner above), but we will also be rethinking and, undoubtedly, revising, some of the terms we use to guide our users as they search for and (we sincerely hope) find the information they need. If you have any thoughts or suggestions in this regard, we would love to hear your comments. Here’s to finding!
-- Bruce Eldevik, Reference Librarian