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As someone who has worked in library systems/discovery for nearly ten years, I knew our systems had problems, but I generally thought they made the best of a bad situation. I’ve used academic libraries for three degrees, and in general, they were fine - they served their purpose. But I’ve been thinking more and more lately about user experience, and also about the totality of how our systems work together to solve whatever problem they’re supposed to solve (note: I’m being purposefully vague right now as to what that problem is).

I think one of the reasons systems librarians think things are working OK is because a) we know the constraints within each system and b) we tend to work on particular problems connecting two pieces of the puzzle. It’s hard for us to think in terms of the entire process that a user has to go through when trying to find or get access to material. Think about the applications/systems that are involved in a basic discovery system search leading (one hopes) to full text:

  • The library website
  • The discovery system (and article databases)
  • The metadata
  • The link resolver
  • The proxy

This doesn’t address what users need to do within each of these systems, which - when they work - can range from the simple (“enter your ID and password”) to extremely confusing (a user enters an endless discovery-system/link-resolver loop, for example).

Last night I was trying to track down the full text of some book reviews I had written in the early days of my career, which I didn’t think to keep. Knowing - as our students and faculty do - that our library systems are at best OK and at worst actively bad, I started out in Google. But the journals I published these book reviews in aren’t open access, and I find nothing, so I turn to a journal-title level search in our discovery system (because I can’t remember the titles of the reviews themselves). I track down the journal, and inside the proprietary database I do a search within the journal for my last name. Nothing comes up. So a broad-based search in Google has failed and a narrower search in a particular journal has failed. At this point, if I was a student, I would give up and hit the pub. But I’m a professional. So I turn to one of the discovery services that my library licenses (Ebsco). A search for the journal title and my last name finally pulls up some results. I’m off-campus, so before I can click into any of the results I have to be redirected to our proxy and log in.

Once inside the record, I notice (because I know what I’m looking for) that the actual PDF is not available in the discovery system, so I have to click on our link resolver. This gives me two options, one of which is the publisher database I’ve already tried. That should be the canonical record, right? But that link takes me to the journal home page, where I already know I can’t find the article. The second link in the link resolver menu is to an Ebsco database. I’ve just been searching Ebsco, so I figure that won’t work because I already know the record doesn’t have the PDF. But when I click on the link I am taken to an Ebsco record with the PDF. I get my full text.

Now, this account leaves out many of the issues within, for example, the discovery system (e.g. relevancy, search optins, configuration, database activation, etc), which are also esoteric and hard to get right for users (but as David Fiander points out “discovery systems are sold to librarians, not to users”). Having said that, just the fact that all these different systems have to be hooked together in slapdash ways forced on us by vendors, by lack of staff time, by outdated application architectures, means that, in my view, we can’t keep tinkering with all the bits and pieces that make this work and hope to - in the end - have a successful method for students, faculties, and researchers to do what they want.

And we can’t presume to know exactly what they want. As library workers, we can’t (and we shouldn’t) try to guess in advance every use case. User stories and personas, in my view, have been an attempt to try to guess use cases, rather than focusing on user-centred design and development which is abstract and flexible enough to allow for any use case. Known-item search and contextual browse shouldn’t be a zero-sum game.

The vendor solution to all of this is, of course, “buy our new thing!” - that new thing being cloud LSPs with integrated link resolver and proxy. But we all know that under the hood, a vendor’s cloud LSP is just hooking those pieces together (with duct tape and glue) the way we’re doing it right now. Also, one of the major issues is quality and interoperability of metadata - publisher metadata, when it isn’t of abysmally bad quality, doesn’t necessarily follow any of the myriad standards the library world has come up with. Two different vendor records for the same item can appear radically different. And since we trigger system behaviour off metadata (for example, constructing a link resolver URL), the presence or absence of a single field can bring the whole house of cards down.

It’s disheartening to think that the systems you work on are not only pretty crappy, but that there’s no feasible way of fixing them. We can’t redesign our existing systems - they are already in production, and we have so much else on our plates. However, we may - as a profession - need to decide that we’re going to tear everything down and start from scratch. But I’m afraid that the library world’s solution will end up like the library’s world’s solution to institutional repositories: enormous monolithic systems which are hard to implement and are unclear as to the problem they’re trying to solve (institutional memory? long-term preservation? humanities computing corpuses? big data?)

I think we need to start again, but from two “open” principles: one is an open knowledge base. This has been raised before, but the more I think about it, the more I think this is the number one thing we could do to improve our systems. We have to stop relying on vendor or publisher records, especially when those are locked in proprietary systems. If every cataloguing department in North America divvied up the journals that are currently being published, we could produce high-quality records and put them in an open knowledge base for everyone to use. (I know there are open KB project out there; I don’t know how mature they are, and I haven’t heard any library talk about adopting them). Proprietary KBs are what keep us from moving to 100% open-source systems (writing a proxy, a discovery system, or a link resolver is not hard, but you need the data).

Secondly, we need to create data models that are not conceptual models. As someone mentioned this morning on the BIBFRAME listserv, in his opinion BIBFRAME is doomed to fail in part because of the super-heavy conceptual nature of the model. Our systems need simple, lightweight models that we can build simple, lightweight APIs on top of.

There’s a lot more that we would need to do to build library systems that actually work for people, but these are two things I think we would have to commit to at a bare minimum.


Sam Popowich

Discovery and Web Services Librarian, University of Alberta

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