Guest post: Notes from a techie patron, part 2

(Part 1 was yesterday. Onward and upward!)


Recall that book record I showed earlier, FRBR nuts will note that in fact there is not one but three copies of this book in Minuteman. The other two were first editions indexed without the subtitle. At one point the one copy with the full title had 80+ holds, while the two with the partial title were in stock. Situation Normal, All FRB’d Up. This is a job for (cue music) WorldCat!

WorldCat finds them all correctly, and with a decent UI to boot, but introduces three new problems:

  • No way to actually get the book. Yes, there’s a clickable link to buy it from Amazon but no way to actually obtain the book in library fashion.
  • I can "friend" libraries, which I think is meant to give them pride of place in my search results. But I can’t friend the Minuteman. I could friend every single one of its member libraries I suppose… more than once, since some of them are in there twice… and randomly do or don’t include branch libraries…
  • The library results are to physical library buildings ordered by distance. Libraries from which I cannot borrow, but with nearby physical presences, rank ahead of libraries that are subsets of My Library (the Minuteman). This is an almost perfect storm of stupid, because the links themselves go into the Minuteman catalog — but add a completely useless restriction by site! For this reason I have to go to the fourth page of search results to get to the actually available copy that I can borrow — and then only if I happen to know that Mount Ida is part of My Library.
  • It seems like we might try to understand the forgoing by acceding temporarily to the "consortium" versus "library" distinction. But this is not true. There on page four is "Merrimack Val Library Consortium."

In conclusion, WTF? I really like WorldCat — it looks like a site created by modern, competent people to serve actual, tested use-cases. But as soon as you get under its skin, it’s just pervasively weird.

The worst thing is that WorldCat makes me care less about the things I could be doing (eg, a guerilla mashup of the Minuteman web app to make it less bad). I can see that all of the hard technical problems have been solved; the remaining problems are presumably of more aggravating flavors. It’s in some uncanny valley between competence and uselessness.

Things I don’t care about (but maybe should)

Andromeda is always telling me about the comprehensive range of services that are provided by a physical library — services that range far beyond the simple curation of bound volumes — that I should care about. And I feel bad for not caring about them. But to be honest these days I only use physical libraries for two things:

  • Picking up or dropping off bound volumes that I have requested online
  • A quiet place to work

The first of these could be done better in almost any structure other than monumental civic architecture — mailboxes and coffeehouses come to mind. The second of these is actually an outstanding use of a library, except that they almost always turn out to be closed, plus the whole no-food-or-drink thing. I wrote much of this post sitting at a restaurant table for exactly those two reasons.

(Moreover, the Death of Shushing means that it is often quieter at Starbucks than at the library. Some day when I finally lose my mind and go postal, noise-triggered bombs will correct this problem.)

Other information services

But perhaps I should be using those Other Information Services. I find it hard to believe that anyone would actually find it a superior use of their time to answer the sorts of vague questions that google does not answer already ("I read a textbook in 2002 or so that drew a causal connection Chinese brainwashing practices in the Korean War and between modern management theory…" "The phrase ‘failure-generating tendencies’ appeared in a book that I read in the last five years…")

Other patrons seem to make heavy use of some other information services — in particular the ability to play World of Warcraft on library computers (see above about shushing, noise-triggered bombs) or to employ modern communications media such as carving gang signs onto the restroom doors.

Physically local bound volumes

The Art History stacks make a great place to work because nobody ever goes there. But if the only purpose the bound volumes are serving is noise insulation, why not stick them in a warehouse and get some curtains instead?

Moreover, my requests seem to take just as long whether the physical object I’ve requested is in Somerville or Southampton. I can simply find no reason to care what bound volumes are located in which pieces of civic architecture (which makes it all the more aggravating that WorldCat seems optimized to tell me this uniquely dull piece of information).

Strange DRM’d e- and audio-books

I am technologically inclined and I can’t make head or tail of these things. They all seem to want special-purpose applications with little or no cross-platform support. And half of them are abridged.

But I guess they must be popular with somebody, right?

My library’s facebook page

Look, fellows. If you have time to spend on "digital outreach", why not spend it making your actually existing website less dire? I know everyone and their dog has a facebook page now, but is that really the most valuable thing?

6 thoughts on “Guest post: Notes from a techie patron, part 2

  1. I would totally love to get a major library software vendor to hire my father and my husband simultaneously — my father because he could fill entire books (or blogs) with his rants about the various idiosyncracies and shortcomings of existing library software (some of which you have mentioned here, but there are tons more), and my husband because he could give them valuable ideas about how to use existing software to go about solving some of these things. Sadly, I do not know any of the right people to make this happen.

    “The death of shushing” amuses me. My library does have shushing, but mostly of latch-key kids who get too loud; they do allow some talking, and when all the latch-key kids in the area go to the library after school, that adds up to enough kids that “some” talking by each of them adds up to a lot of noise. The library is much quieter during school hours and after people start getting home from work. (Not, I realize, that your physical library is actually open that much after working hours; mine seems to be much better about having evening hours.)

    On the facebook page issue — good grief, yes! Start providing actual services, and quit mucking about with facebook already!



    1. To address the Facebook & services thing a bit more —

      WorldCat provides a couple of slick FB apps, CiteMe (for generating appropriately formatted citations) and a social reading application (think goodreads or whatever, except with a worldcat back end). You can see how CiteMe could be useful in an academic setting, and I can imagine the social reading app used as part of library outreach (book groups for the digital age, e.g.).

      Some other things I’ve seen on library facebook pages…

      Video tutorials on library services (cf. New England College of Optometry, and think about how video tutorials can be timed to fit with patron needs (end-of-term projects, holidays, etc.)
      Announcements of information patrons need to interact with the library (e.g. extended hours for finals, reduced hours for holidays)
      Coordination of library events — announcements, invitations, etc. — FB has some pretty useful event-coordination features (check out the Princeton (NJ) Public Library, where my friend Janie Hermann hyperactively coordinates an astonishing range of events)

      I would absolutely characterize these as “actual services”.


  2. Yay, first comment on the new site!

    I share your belief that there need to be better patron/librarian/engineer conversations going on in the library software world. (Actually I think these conversations are going on in some places, but since, for both financial and logistical reasons, library software tends to be slow to change, the outcomes of those conversations are not always available to users…)

    As for Facebook, I have mixed feelings. I definitely don’t think a FB presence substitutes for a solid library web site, which is really the sine qua non of library web presence. On the other hand, I do think it’s very important to be able to engage with users where they’re at, and FB is a part of that (with some populations, e.g. a university library, a very large part of that). And library staff might well have the skills to maintain a decent FB page without having the skills to overhaul their web site, much less their catalog, so spending effort on the former does not necessarily substitute for spending effort on the latter.


  3. I’ve come to the conclusion that something is broken on WorldCat vis a vis the Minuteman Library Network. If only my local library is listed in my favorites, then I get a box at the top of an items library listings saying “None of your favorite libraries carry this item”. If MLN is in my favorites, that box simply is not there. At all. Even if the item in question is on the front page of MLN’s WorldCat page.

    Which is a shame, since they have nearly 1.2 million listed items in WorldCat, apparently. Too bad none of them show up.


    1. The fact that the MLN is not returned by a library search for “minuteman” (which is what had caused me to think it wasn’t there at all) would tend to support that.

      I wonder if they simply haven’t re-run their indexer or something like that. That things might be in the database but not returned by a search suggests a nasty back-end problem.

      (and of course my company could sell them a solution to that… 🙂 )


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