Friday, October 23, 2009

I can see why other library websites fail but not my own

As part of my responsibilities at MPOW, I do 1 to 2 hours a week of AskON "chat reference" - a collaborative service that is shared among a number of public, college and academic libraries in Ontario. Its been an illuminating experience and one that I think has really helped my design thinking about library websites.

Before I explain why, let me back up first and tell you that I know some library staff who are terrified at the thought of having to provide reference service to the students of institutions other than their own because they don't think they'll be able to get find the necessary information they need to share to the student.

Now let's unpack this. When librarians are faced with having to use another library's website they become anxious. The librarians are experiencing the same anxiety that our students have when they visit their own library's website.

To ease these fears, the folks at AskON have created a very useful intranet where every library has a profile with detailed service information listed in one long text page. What does this tell us about the usability of our library's websites?

Because of my own anxious experiences of having to, for example, figure out where the ebooks are kept at an academic library that's not my own while someone is waiting, I have found that I have become much more empathic with our online users. I can see with their fresh eyes that perhaps the University of Guelph's Library hours page might be a bit confusing, or that the ebook results from U of T's e-resources database may appear hidden to a student when in fact they are all there if you just click on the ebooks tab. I wish I could see the obvious failings of my own library's website, but its become too familiar to me, so I can't.

(BTW, if the design gaffs on MPOW's website are obvious to you, I would be grateful if you let me know by comment or an email.)

And since you are kind enough to be reading this, I'll let you in on a little secret. In order to better serve the students who use AskON, I have added all the other academic libraries to my personal instance of Google Scholar and it has served me so well. With it, I can usually figure out whether the snippet of a citation I've been given is a chapter of a book or a journal article or the likelihood of finding the full-text of what is being asked for, before I go through the ten or so steps necessary to find an article from the library using the "right way".

I've come to the conclusion that libraries must give up their insistence that using the title of an article is not an acceptable means by which one can search a library's collection.

What next? Ask on!

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