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?