Library Journal "Digital Libraries" Columns 1997-2007, Roy Tennant
Please note: these columns are an archive of my Library Journal column from 1997-2007. They have not been altered in content, so please keep in mind some of this content will be out of date.
The Trouble with Online
Imagine you are a student with a paper due the next day and the library is closed. You fire up your web browser, go to the library catalog, and enter a search, limiting to only those items that are available online. Simple, right? Think again. Sadly, we are far away from making such a scenario come true, even those institutions that have attempted to make it work. As an experiment, go to a number of library catalogs in your region and attempt to limit your search to items available online and in full text. I did, and the result was not pretty (a sample of such catalogs is in the Link List). A litany of failures The first place we fail is on the opening screen. With many catalogs, there is no apparent way to limit a search to online resources. Not only is there no option to limit your search initially, there is sometimes not even an "advanced search" choice where you could insist on such a limit. Some libraries offer a special "collection" of online resources, and for those libraries the user can specify that collection (which performs the same function as a search limit). Other libraries require users to first hit a difficult-to-find "Set limits" button, select the limit they wish to apply, and then search. Still others offer no such option but require users to search first, then apply a limit, and reexecute the search. Should hapless users find an option to limit their search in some way, they are often faced with a bewildering array of choices. One catalog provides the option to limit the "item type" to "web site" or "etext" or "ebook" or "compfile." Which to choose? And why? Even as a librarian I am at a loss to discern the difference between "etext" and "ebook." In the end, it is probably better to choose "online" from the "Location" menu, but this option appears after item type, and there is nothing that highlights it as a useful selection. Going from library catalog to library catalog is a particularly frustrating experience, since almost every library feels the need to state the option differently. Labels I've encountered in a quick survey include E-books, Electronic Resources, Web Resources, Internet, Online/Computer Resources, Computer File, Online Resources, Electronic Resources (web), and Internet Resources. I'm being generous with the above categories, since some are probably not exactly what our imaginary students want. Selections such as "Computer File" will often include items that are definitely not online, such as CD-ROMs. The "E-book" category likely leaves out resources like web sites, government reports, and other non-e-book items. Getting to full-text Assuming that our users have been able to specify they only want online items, they have roughly a 50-50 chance that the search results will offer an option to click straight through the full text. Many systems do not display a link to an item until the "full record" is displayed, thereby requiring the user to do about twice as much clicking than if a link had been on the initial results screen. A particularly bad example is a library that buries the link way below the full record in the holdings statement, hiding that the full text is available online until the user scrolls down far enough. So if our poor students have gotten this far, finally find the link and click it, what happens? Often what is returned isn't the full text. It may only be the table of contents. Why? Because we can't even agree what "online" means, at least in our library catalogs. Varying coding practices for the 856 field in MARC sometimes make it impossible to know whether the link in the record leads to the full text of the item, or simply to some additional information about the book. This must be fixed. Over a decade after the Internet revolution we are still waking up to what our users want and what we could give them. In most cases our users want to know what they can get now and what they need to fetch from the shelf or from another library. These options should be much more apparent. We exert much more control over our library catalogs than we do with article indexes, where we are at the mercy of vendors. Since our catalogs are at least partly in our control (automated system vendors largely respond to market demand, and we control how we catalog our items), we need to find ways to enable users to limit searches to full text online. Users rightly expect this ability. Their not being able to do it easily, or at all, is a disturbing failure of our profession. __________________________________________________________________ Link List Sample Catalogs sunsite.berkeley.edu/Web4Lib/archive/0408/0019.html