Of Course Our Libraries Should Be Easier To Use

Is there anyone out there who doesn’t think that making libraries and their resources easier to use is a good idea? Probably not. I’ve been working in academic libraries for close to 20 years, and most of that time the planning and implementation activities I’ve been involved in were geared to reducing barriers to access for end users. First we offered only mediated online searching. Then we introduced online searching for end users on BRS and Dialog. Then we adopted CD-ROMs so end users could spend as much time as they liked doing their own searches using less complex interfaces. Next came the ability to allow remote access to web-based aggregator databases. Next up, perhaps true anytime, anywhere access to library content on your choice of device. Seems like a case of continuous improvement to me.

The ease with which search engines can be used for information retrieval, the comfort and convenience of book store chains, and consumers’ increased expectations to be able to do things themselves are just some of the examples of pressures on academic libraries to give library users a better experience. And taking into account past efforts to reduce barriers to access, ongoing discussions about the ways in which OPACs must be improved, the introduction of more creature comforts into libraries, the use of technology to integrate the library into the learning process, and the general innovation we find in academic libraries, can our profession really be characterized as being complacent about improving our operations and fixing what doesn’t work.

I tuned into Rick Anderson’s (Director of Resource Acquisition at Univ. of Nevada, Reno Libraries) Soaring To Excellence program on Friday, February 3rd, and one of the strong messages I came away with is that libraries are broken, patrons are running to get away from us at top speed, and that we don’t have a clue as to how to turn things around – nor do we care to. Anderson was prepared with advice on how to stop the bleeding, but I certainly found myself disagreeing with more than a few of his generalized observations and propositions (e.g., librarians are obsessed with making and enforcing rules; academic libraries should give up on educating users; abandon print – go totally online; we force users to find information the hard way because that’s how we’ve always done it; cataloging details are a waste of time; etc.). An outline of the program with more of Anderson’s problems and fixes is found at the STE site.

I do applaud Anderson’s effort to encourage academic librarians to take risks in finding ways to make using the library a better experience, and to continually question our values to determine if they still make sense in these challenging times. I think we would all agree with Anderson that our libraries need to improve, even if some of his radical propositions are questionable. As evidenced by the recent University of California Libraries report on “Rethinking How We Provide Bibliographic Services“, even catalogers are asking how to make OPAC content easier for end users to digest and interpret. But are our academic libraries broken? Do we need to make the radical changes Anderson suggests? I certainly don’t think so, and I’m sure many ACRLog readers would agree. I would encourage Anderson to look more closely at the many innovative ways in which academic (public and K-12 too) libraries are developing better user experiences. The picture, I believe, is much brighter than the one he painted on the program.

Many of the ideas upon which Anderson’s program was based can be found in a speech he made at a library conference in 2003. It’s provocative and worthwhile reading, and I commend it to you. In a recent unrelated e-mail communication to Anderson I shared the quote, “I never learned anything from a man who agreed with me.” (Dudley Field Malone). So while we will have our points of disagreement I’m likely to continue reading and listening to what he has to say – and you probably should as well.

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