:: Digital Libraries Columns


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 They have not been altered in content, so please keep in mind some of this content will be out of date. :: Digital Libraries Columns

Avoiding Unintended Consequences


   We digital library developers don't get up in the morning wondering how
   we can ruin the lives of our patrons. Nonetheless, unintended
   consequences of our work may damage the capacity of libraries to serve
   their clienteles, from public library patrons looking for books to
   researchers searching archives.

   We're not the only field that may fall victim to unintended
   consequences. For an overview of such dangers, see the paper 'The
   Unanticipated Consequences of Technology' by Tim Healy.

   The convenience factor
   Anyone who has worked on a reference desk is familiar with this: most
   of our clientele would rather stand in line to use a computer-based
   periodical index than to use a more appropriate print index. As more
   material goes online, this problem gets worse, as patrons may be
   tempted to do it all from home.

   Students already believe that they can get all the information they
   need to write most reports from the Internet. Sometimes -- and
   increasingly so, often due to our own efforts -- they are right. Only
   instructors who require the use of print materials are likely to force
   students to enter the library.

   So how can we combat the tendency to use what is easy over what is
   often better? One strategy would be for libraries to make print
   materials much more enticing. Most library catalog records for books
   offer such miniscule descriptions that it is surprising that anyone
   enters the stacks at all.

   An author, title, and a few broad subject headings are a beginning but
   only that. What about the table of contents and index for nonfiction
   books? How about taking a cue from and add jacket covers,
   reviews, and ratings? The more information we provide about the books
   we have, the more interesting they will be to those who may have
   otherwise ignored them. (See Steve Coffman's original idea 'Building
   Earth's Largest Library' and the response to it.)

   The 'act globally' phenomenon
   Internet users not only think globally but also act that way. Some
   seeking library books will prefer a catalog of a large library --
   Harvard, Berkeley, the Library of Congress -- rather than their own
   neighborhood branch. They search the catalog, find one or more books
   they want, and then request them from that library. In most cases this
   means they will be referred back to their local branch to request the
   items via interlibrary loan.

   But wouldn't it be great if we could create one place users could go to
   search the holdings of their local library as well as all others? This
   megacatalog (did someone mention OCLC?) could automatically highlight
   local materials via zip code. The basic idea is that we need to get
   proficient at using technology to allow users to think globally (as in
   one place to search) but act locally (as in checking out books). Again,
   see Coffman.

   If we want to get really good at this kind of thing, we must get
   serious about providing opportunities for co-branding (see [126]Digital
   Libraries, LJ 12/00). Co-branding is much more than simply attaching
   your name to something. It is also a way to offer local services while
   a user is viewing remote resources (in the example above, a zip code
   entry should prompt a local library link).

   The keyword search hegemony
   Due to the popularity of web search engines, nearly all of which offer
   one keyword search box to search among millions (and soon billions) of
   items, users think they can find everything on a topic with a few
   well-chosen words. Why, they think, should they be forced to understand
   things like field-restricted searching and controlled vocabularies?

   Why, indeed? Our search systems are still too primitive to do the
   behind-the-scenes processing needed to handle these kinds of searches
   well. So instead of making some informed guesses about whether they
   entered a call number or a subject, we make them tell us.

   We should be making computers do this. For example, imagine a library
   catalog in which the person must only enter a few keywords -- a
   person's name, or a few words from a title, or the subject of a book.
   Names are fairly easy to detect if you compare the search words against
   a dictionary, limiting the search to appropriate name fields

   If the search is not a name, perform a combined title and subject
   search and determine the top five subject headings from the returned
   records. Present those subjects to the user as links, with the
   question, 'Is one of these topics what you are looking for?' By
   clicking on one of the topics, the user would be using controlled
   vocabulary terms limited to a particular field in the record, all
   without knowing anything about the underlying complexity behind it.

   We must get much better at meeting users where they are or want to be
   -- and it isn't picking an index from a long list of title, author, or
   subject. To paraphrase Herb White, 'Only librarians like to search;
   everyone else likes to find.'

   Ignorance is no defense. Errors of omission can have as substantial a
   set of consequences as errors of commission, so we must try to
   understand the unintended consequences of both what we do and what we
   fail to do.

                                  LINK LIST

                                          Building Earth's Largest Library
                        The Response to 'Building Earth's Largest Library'
                              The Unanticipated Consequences of Technology