Who are your users?

July 17, 2006

[Hey! I made the ever expanding list of libr* blogs over at LibraryStuff!]

Who are your users?

No, I’m not kidding. I’m sick of decisions being made without (as near as I can tell) any sort of data driving them.

Let’s do a little exercise.

  • Think about everyone who uses your library resources.
  • Now eliminate all the people who never walk into the library.
  • Get rid of all the people who made it into the library, but didn’t talk to a library employee.
  • Cut out all the people who came into the library and talked to a library employee, but that employee was a student worker of some sort and not an actual librarian.

OK. NOW tell me how much sense it makes to have the public services librarians be the sole voice for “the users” when making decisions. For most of us in university libraries, the vast majority of our patrons never make it in the door. If they do, it’s usually just to pick something up, or use a public computer or something. It’s not hard to do the math. If you look at how many people are on campus, how many librarians are on duty at any given time, how much time you spend on average with a patron…it’s pretty easy to see that a tiny, tiny percentage of patrons are being represented when we just ask the public service librarians what they think “the users” would like.

Let’s play again:

  • Think of all the undergraduates you know and how much they vary.
  • Think of all the grad students you know and how much they vary.
  • Think of all the faculty members you know and how much they vary.

Now tell me why people insist on talking about library patrons in terms of categories used by the registrar.All grad students are not the same. All undergrads are certainly not the same. Faculty members vary wildly from each other, and when people step (even slightly) outside of their fields of expertise, things change completely. So don’t treat them as if they’re homogeneous groups! In fact, lose the labels entirely — they just confuse things, unless your only concern is how long they can check out a book for.

So…what’s a camel to do?

At least take the first step, which is to admit you have a problem.

After that, it’s a hard question. You can hire someone to systematize research on users. You can create annual surveys and things (provided through many channels) to see what’s what. You can, at the very least, really learn how to use the statistics being generated by your many systems.

Anyone out there with thoughts on this?

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Why we’ll never be as good at search as Google

July 11, 2006

librarian.net ยป asking the right questions, when to be simple, when to be complex echo Dan Chudnov to make a point that I think a lot of people miss:

Maybe 20% of the collection is responsible for 80% of the use but that other 80% includes some really important stuff

When people talk about how sucky their OPAC searches are, usually they’re talking about relevance ranking. Yes, yes, there are a zillion things we can (and must) do to help our patrons search better, incluing spellcheck-like suggestions, better stemming, etc. I won’t argue against any of that, and in fact have argued for it fairly forcefully recently at MPOW.

But what makes Google (and their catching-up competitors) truly useful is PageRank, their authority-based relevency ranking algorithm. And PageRank is absolutely useless for libraries.

PageRank presupposes that (a) there are lots of people “voting” by making links to given resources, and (b) the best resources are the most popular/linked-to.

A research library doens’t follow that model. We don’t have “voting” because, except for the most popular items, it would be worthless. And we don’t focus on popularity because the vast, vast majority of our collection is stupendiously unpopular. I could take a stackful of books at random off the shelf and wander around campus all day and never find a single person who gives a rat’s ass about any of them. Any given journal article is likely to remain unread by anyone on campus forever. Forever!

The obvious candidates to drive ranking — circulation, clickthroughs, etc. — will over ever apply to such a small percentage of items that they’re basically worthless.

Relevence ranking is hard stuff. Can we do better than we are? God, I hope so. But will we ever do as well with our catalogs as Google does with popular web pages? It seems really unlikely — the problem space is just too complex.


Are your patrons “passionate”?

April 25, 2006

Are your users passionate? I'm not talking about the occasional run-in with overly-friendly folks in the stacks. I'm asking if they give a crap about going to the library.

Creating Passionate Users is a blog that deals, incredibly well, I think, with the problem of trying to make your users come to you for the experience of buying/using/whatever your product.

Do your patrons love to use the library? Do they talk it up to their friends, try to get other people involved, try to find like-minded zealots wherever they may be?

Video games can do that. TV shows (Buffy, or Lost) can do that. Hell, VW can do that with a car the size of a freakin' park bench.

Libraries have things no one else can offer. Are you delivering an experience that promotes passion in your users? Or are you delivering an experience that is not quite frustrating enough to drive patrons away.

Or, are you in fact delivering an experience that is frustrating enough to drive most of your users away. To Google. To Amazon. To almost anywhere but your website or your front door.