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NFAIS Workshop

Written on: May 15th, 2010 by: in Blog Posts

Division of Libraries staff attended a recent workshop in Philadelphia hosted by Lyrasis and NFAIS, the National Federation of Advanced Information Services. The workshop looked at how publishers and librarians can leverage technology to improve their users’ search experience, and how to design their services to optimize discovery and usability.

The first presentation was by Cody Hanson, technology librarian at U. of Minnesota, who discussed a recent project on Discoverability, an effort to identify trends in user discovery behavior which would enable the school to support new technology initiatives.
The project’s main question was “how can we make relevant resources more visible and easy to find?”. Their final report can be read in full here, but Cody was kind enough to break down the major findings for the attendees. A literature review and other research on how their own users interacted with the school’s online services outlined the main current discovery trends that needed to be placed at the forefront of institutional strategy:

  • Users are discovering relevant information outside of traditional library systems- they’re not starting with library resources and the traditional library catalog. The recent Ithaka study also identified this as the most significant issues facing research and academic libraries.
  • Users expect discovery and delivery to coincide- it’s no longer sufficient to just be told by a library service that a resource exists- people expect that when they find what they want, they have what they want
  • Discovery increasingly happens through recommending- going beyond traditional book reviews and citations, users are now increasingly looking to recommendations gathered through social networking, link sharing, and reviews generated through algorithms connecting purchases with similiar purchases by others
  • Our users increasingly rely on “nontraditional information objects”: that is to say, youtube videos, social network conversations, wikis and other ephemeral and transitional artifacts.
  • User of portable internet-capable devices is expanding.

More discussion of this and other presentations below the fold…

The first point can be summarized as “discovery happens elsewhere”. Why? Most students come to schools with a set of core skills for discovering online information, learned outside the library and “Ur doing it wrong!” is not a compelling information literacy policy, but one that many institutions have depended on- “Google is lamentably good..I know I shouldn’t use Google, but it’s too good not to.” according to a faculty member. The Minn. study showed that 75% of requests to their online resources originated from external systems, primarily Google- in some senses Google had become the defacto home page for the library, in effect. So should a library even worry about its homepage? Perhaps libraries should look for ways to bundle up their information resources and distribute them on multiple, even disconnected platforms? If Facebook is everyone’s own homepage, should we emphasize creating plugins and widgets that they can download to their phones and homepages?

Expanding on the expectation for discovery and delivery to coincide: The school takes Lorcan Dempsey’s statement seriously: “In an environment of scarce attention and abundant information, a high transaction cost equals low or no availability” Minnesota has seen an ongoing trend of decreasing print circulation- much higher in graduate students who should be the bread and butter of a university’s print collection. In some of their online resources, there was a 1:1 ratio of locating a resource and downloading it, which supports this contention. For most libraries, this kind of restriction of access is part of the status quo- we make users log in, authenticate, search, before offering any content- Dempsey’s statements, which is supported by both empirical research and anecdotal experience raises the question- how can we compete under this self-imposed paradigm?

The next focus of the workshop was on Making a Good Impression- how to create a user interface that clearly communicates with people looking for your information. Presenters included Harold Hambrose, CEO of Electronic Ink; Loren Frant from the National Library of Medicine; Jennifer Mayfield from the Optical Society of America; and Joseph Lucia, of Villanova University.

Hambrose, who is also the author of Wrench in the System suggested that we are at the same point in information discovery as we were at several other technology tipping points, and that our experience is “as miserable” as it was for the first adopters of the automobile or many other new technologies- which for the first people to use them, were entirely difficult experiences which the utility of the new technology barely outstripped the hazards and complications of using it! What made the difference between Ford’s Model T and later, better automobiles was design improvements made over time which aligned the needs and desires of the user community with the advances and possibilities of the technology. Hambrose discussed Microsoft Outlook as a Model-T technology product- a device that was created by engineers to solve a problem- it’s a struggle to use, it’s frustrating, but “it sure beats walking”- and as Henry Ford said when asked what would have happened if he’d asked people what THEY wanted instead of following his own vision “they’d have asked for faster horses.”

Hambrose’s point is that design allows products to transcend the business requirements. It allows developers to explore the user’s needs to create new products AND new opportunities and potentials, rather than just ‘faster horses’- or faster spreadsheets. Many technology projects are as expensive as some architectural projects- but the development model is entirely different: there is much less tolerance for risk, for one, because of an interpretation of acceptable ‘real-world’ consequences, so the process is more iterative, much more input is introduced at many more earlier points in the process. In software development, by contrast, products can almost be ready to be rolled out and completed before there’s an opportunity to point out that they are failures- a more design-focused development process could eliminate this risk, which is unacceptable in any other industry- and if you think that design is an expensive luxury, Hambrose pointed out that training, documentation, and development on an unsuccessful product is probably more so, and design creates products, like the iPod- “make us want to be with them.”

Want more updates from this workshop? Click over to our library staff blog for more liveblogging on the rest of the sessions.