Students: don’t give up on the library just yet…

There’s a good article in The Guardian today, about the struggle to improve the usability and presence of academic online sources, to try and wean a generation brought up on Google onto more reliable, establishment information sources. This is pretty important, given the range of mad sad and bad results returned from many a Google search.

There’s a quote from a former lecturer of mine – Ian Rowlands – who (now at UCL) used to teach on City University’s Information Science masters programs.

On the matter of where library catalogues fall down, he draws in interesting analogy:

Stores are laid out by type – fresh fruit, wines, cheese. Library catalogues offer jars, cartons, loose stuff”

Shopping makes us choose in terms of the types of things we want. We don’t choose our groceries in terms of what they might be contained in any more than we (intuitively) think of War and Peace as 891.73 T588wEg*. When newspapers went online, they broadly kept with the layout conventions established in the world of hard-copy newspapers for similar reasons.

A key problem with many old school academic sources is that they were inherently systems-oriented. They were designed by and for specialists, with the rest of the population having to play catch-up from the off; first with command lines, then with a dizzying array of fields to deal with.

Caroline Williams, of Intute (which is, I have to say a refreshingly well constructed and user-friendly academic source) points the way forward. She suggests ‘aggregated personalisation’ is what’s needed (that’s suggestions to the rest of us!). Of course this lies at the heart of just why services like Amazon are making big profits, not to mention Google, with it’s bundling-type results. In the hunt for a specifically literary equivalent, Intute and others would do well to cast a glance over LibraryThing.

Of course getting it right with university library catalogues is pretty important, if for no other reason that to dis-incline unruly undergraduates from loitering, facebooking, and generally enjoying themselves at the expense of more self-important researchers at the new British Library…

* That’s Dewey Decimal for the unititiated. You will not be surprised to learn I’ve no idea what the number actually means subject-wise.


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