Tuesday, June 13, 2006

The Motivation Behind the Search

In reading different blog posts, articles, listserv emails, etc. about problems with library search mechanisms, one will inevitably come across conversations regarding the debate over dumbing down library web sites. There are many who believe that users need to be taught to use library services and that we are "dumbing down" our systems if we remove or reconfigure little used functionality. While I personally understand the arguments on both sides of the debate, I find the overall debate to be a bit off-putting. A recent post by Iris at Pegasus Librarian included the following phrase:

. . . "What's Better? Dumbed Down or Loaded with Functionality" (don't get me started on the ideology of "either-or" that's inherent in this question).

This phrase made me realize that I am bothered by the debate because of the inherent "either-or." Trying to make search mechanisms easier to use for our patrons isn't dumbing them down. By the same token, there may be some things that a user needs to learn to use a library effectively. We can't expect users to learn complicated systems (subject searchine with Library of Congress Subject Headings comes to mind immediately), but they will probably be able to learn how to use intuitive and friendly systems with decent interfaces. People do learn how to use search sites such as Google, Amazon and Ebay - even though they may not realize they are learning as they search. This makes the learning process seemless to the patron - something that we should strive for in designing library systems.

Iris makes another point about the motivation of the user. Someone who believes that a system has the information they need may well make several attempts to find the answer. The problem here is that the majority of library users don't know or don't believe that our library systems have any information they need - but they do believe that Google has answers. While I am not specifically trying to say that users would be able to successfully use our systems if they knew what they contained (we still need better systems), I do think that this highlights the need for better marketing. Better marketing is an integral piece of this whole puzzle.

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