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Usability in Libraries

Peter Webster

Peter Webster, Systems Librarian at St. Mary’s University in Halifax, Nova  Scotia noted that libraries know that online services are imperfect, but in surveys and interviews, users have stronger opinions.  They often speak of frustration, inconvenience, and confusion and frequently view services as not merely imperfect but as “broken” or unusable.  Here are some of the problems that users have:

  • There are too many choices and places to search.
  • The library needs more stuff.  Finding good references that are not available is frustrating.
  • Something often goes wrong getting to the material they need.  It is often surprising where the breaks are in the chain of access.
  • “Why isn’t everything in Google anyway?”

The chain of access is only as strong as its weakest link.  The interface may not be the problem.  Remote access, printing services, and link resolvers are often key parts of the chain.  Old and inconvenient formats (like paper or microfiche) are also a problem; people often will not deal  with them and will find ways to work around them.  The chain of access is changing all the time; laptops and smart phones have become a part of the chain.  Users expect easy, direct, and immediate access to information (the whole world of it) and have low tolerance when library services fail to meet their expectations.

A Siloed E-content Environment is Broken!

Here are some ways to solve these usability problems:

  • Create seamless, simple,  fast, and reliable systems and services.
  • Use common interfaces, seamless and integrated discovery–one-stop shopping is what users want.
  • Provide comprehensive information access.  Digital availability has come far enough that we can begin to talk about that.  We must challenge vendors to provide electronic access to all of their content.

Carol Anne Germain


Yu-Hui Chen

Yu-Hui Chen and Carol Anne Germain at the University of Albany conducted a survey of 84 ARL academic libraries to determine the current state of usability policies, standards, and guidelines and their impact on usability testing and whether available resources affected the amount of testing.  Over half of the respondents had no policies; the remainder consider guidelines important.  Many of them consider usability testing and have conducted tests.

Many library staff members’ jobs do not include Web usability.  Training in usability should be added to library school curricula.  In many libraries, there is little knowledge of and support of usability, staff and time limitations, and political agendas hinder usability testing.  Good policies generate good practices.

Details on the survey and the results are in an article by Chen, Germain, and Yang in Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology, 60(5), 953-968 (2009).

Don Hawkins
Columnist, Information Today and CIL  2010 Blog  Coordinator

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