Daily Archives: August 15, 2006

Moving Beyond Beginner’s Level

Creating Passionate Users is a popular blog, and I came across one or two other bloggers that mentioned this post that appeared there last week. The gist of the post is feature overload in electronic devices that causes their owners to simply stick with the basic default settings (sound familiar?). It made me think about our feature-laden aggregator databases. How many academic libraries stick with the default basic search screen? Basic mode hides many good features from the searcher. The author says:

If users are stuck in permanent beginner mode, and can’t really do anything interesting or cool with a thing they’re not likely to become passionate. They grow bored or frustrated and the “tool” turns into shelfware.

That part of the post really reasonated with me because I think we tend to convince ourselves that shielding our user community from some of the complexities of our library databases somehow benefits them. But that is apparently a good strategy for encouraging apathy and a lack of intellectual curiousity. These same library resources do offer features that could support the author’s other advice which is to “help passionate users learn to do something cool.” Okay, library databases are generally the opposite of cool, but in what ways can they open students’ eyes and get then interested, activated, and on the road to developing some passion.

Like what, for example. Well, I’ve always had good success getting undergrads to sit up and pay attention when I show them those databases that incorporate tools for creating formatted citations. They tend to think that is pretty cool because deep down no one really likes writing citations. [click on thumbnail to go to enlarged image]


What else don’t academic searchers like? Well they tend to love Lexis/Nexis but they don’t care much for getting loads and loads of real short and unsubstantial articles (you know the ones I mean). So they find it pretty cool when I show them how to use the “length>wordcount” command (as in length>500) to limit retrieval to those articles that exceed the required number of words. It’s easy to remember, takes no great skill, you don’t have to use the word “boolean”, and it’s easy to do because of the FOCUS feature, which they also find to be a revelation. Sure, it would be great if these things were more intuitive. Yes, there should be a prompt that says “would you like to remove all the articles with less than (insert number) words?” But the reality is that we’re not there yet. Learning something like “length>” is partially about exposure to more features, but it’s also about understanding what makes some information better than other information – and how to get it more quickly and efficiently. [click on thumbnail to go to enlarged image]


There are probably dozens of other ways in which we can move our users beyond the beginner’s level. But to take the first step in that direction we need to put some faith into user education. Those who claim library users don’t want to learn how to search, who advocate eliminating user education, and who will tell you it all needs to be simple are the same ones who want to keep the users on automatic mode where they’ll remain bored and void of passion. As the author of the post said, “it’s not that we couldn’t learn how to use anything but the automatic mode…the problem was that we didn’t know why or when to use anything else.” That strikes me as a good mission for library instructors, which is to move beyond the how and instead focus more on the why and when of our resources’ cool features. All we’ve got to lose are bored and passionless users.