Grouse about your next-generation catalogue – LibCamp@Brunel

A journey to the the wild wild west (of London)

On Saturday 28th January I attended LibCamp@Brunel, a library unconference generously hosted by the library at Brunel University in Uxbridge. I’ve never been this far west in London as a destination, but on arriving I was pleased to recognise the station at Uxbridge as one of Charles Holden’s designs which I took as a good omen for the day.

At the opening introduction and pitching, I pitched a session about staff perception versus library user perception of  next-generation library catalogues. As the unconference attendees were by and large library workers, I also wanted to invite everyone to come and grouse about problems they’d had with these systems. And let’s be honest, “Grouse about your next-gen catalogue” is going to be fun.

I had modest expectations for this session but it was very well attended, so much so our allotted space was too small and we had to move somewhere roomier. As I was facilitating I couldn’t live-tweet the session and following a few requests from people who couldn’t attend I decided to expand on the points made to give you a flavour of the discussion.

Perceptions of the catalogue

For some time I’ve been trying to understand problems readers have with the catalogue, and had wondered if it was possible to generalise this to talk about staff versus reader perception of Encore and next-generation systems. I hoped we could work towards this in discussion. As well as Encore, Aquabrowser, VUfind, and Summon were mentioned in discussion.

We’ve come a long way. I expected I would have to define next-generation catalogue in the session, but I was delighted when one of the graduate trainees present explained what I call next-gen was simply what she expected from a normal library catalogue. I had to give a really quick potted history of four generations of catalogue interfaces. (This is how to make your systems librarian feel old…)

I explained our experience of implementing Innovative Interfaces Encore at Senate House Library, and particularly how different I have found the perspectives of the library staff versus our readers. To be clear, my colleagues were almost entirely positive towards the new catalogue. I was pushing at an open door implementing a catalogue that offers a much better experience to readers used to using modern Web sites compared with the previous catalogue, relatively little changed since the 2000s.

However, I think it’s important to answer criticism and deal with objections as there could easily be problems I’d overlooked, and there’s a need to have these arguments as one step in bringing people with you.

Andrew, you can’t implement without feature x

In the early days pre-implementation I heard various objections to Encore along the lines of it being feature-incomplete compared with the previous catalogue. Some of my colleagues were hopeful that it would be possible to put off implementing Encore on this basis: we should wait until the next release, or the next-plus-one release, where these issues would be resolved…

It is correct that the new catalogue:

  • Doesn’t generate any left-to-right phrase indexes as our old catalogue did. Everything is indexed as keywords.
  • Doesn’t deal with classmarks for most of our multitude of classification schemes at all. At all. It doesn’t index them as classmarks and doesn’t allow you to browse by classmark.
  • Has fewer options for presenting a ‘scoped’ view of the catalogue limited to just a particular library or collection.
  • In the version we launched with, didn’t offer an advanced search with pre-limits and didn’t support boolean operators at all. (This has been added since.)

Having already done some user testing of the new catalogue I was reasonably confident none of the missing features were a show-stopper for implementation. If there were problems for some readers, we had a simple solution: allow everyone to continue using the old catalogue in parallel to the old one.

One of the Library Campers had pointed out in advanced this is an unusual approach. I explained further in discussion this was partly by necessity as the ‘patron’ features – the ability to log in to view your loans, place a reservation and renew loans – were still based in the old catalogue anyway.

I was asked about how we make sure readers find and use Encore. To drive reader uptake of the new catalogue I wanted to offer Encore as the default option on that places that really matter to us – on the Senate House Library homepage and on the old catalogue homepage. The latter uses some JavaScript to redirect your search depending on what options you select, but if you keep the default ‘Quick Search’ you get Encore. It was important to me that by following the path of least resistance readers would end up with the new catalogue.

I have said before and I stand by it: if you want to buy and implement a new system you should have the courage in your convictions and implement it properly. It amazes me to see libraries that offer their new discovery interfaces as an “alternative search” that can be ignored, or that requires special effort to find and use. I do see the value in doing this during a public beta test or preview, as the British Library did with Primo (branded as Explore the British Library), but absolutely not when you’ve made it live.

As of January 2012 we see slightly more use of the new catalogue in terms of visits, ~56% of the combined total based on Google Analytics data (I said ~50% based on data from Q4 2011 in the session). I consider this a reasonable start.

In the eight months since going live with the new catalogue several types of problem have emerged with Encore.

Longer term: how staff use the catalogue

It’s surprised me how many unusual uses of the old catalogue interface our staff have built up over time and the extent to which the catalogue has taken on functions I wouldn’t expect. For example, making use of the way classmarks are indexed to produce a list of everything from a particular classmark, particularly useful for Special Collections where the classmark might be used to describe what collection something is in. Or a need to produce a list that represents everything related to some sub-set of our catalogue – that is, a search strategy that you can be confident represents 100% true positives!

Much of this has been presented to me in good humour in a playful spirit of showing me how Encore can be “beaten” by a particular use case.

There are uses of the old catalogue that are simply impossible in the Encore catalogue, but my answer is first they don’t tend to represent realistic use cases our readers make, second they can more or less easily be moved to the staff client for our library system. Apart from Encore, Katharine Schopflin and Graham Seaman discussed how next-generation systems can have problems with known item searching and in attempting to present a search interface biased towards too much towards browsing and subject searching can be actively unhelpful when you have specific items in mind. I explained I think Encore is quite good for known item search, in particular the way it prioritises exact hits from MARC field 245 $a, my favourite examples are journals like Text and Agenda.

Generally I don’t think we should aim every discovery tool only at our most expert users, information professionals with great experience with our collections, when they have working alternatives available. I explained in response to a question there is no staff-specific view of Encore if you sign in using a staff account. I think this is right and proper from a “dogfooding” point of view, but I confess I daydream about a catalogue that is this flexible enough to offer a different interfaces with different features for novice to expert as required…

Longer term: you need to sort out your metadata

It’s become a truism that because next-generation systems make better use of our bibliographic data they force us to sort out existing problems with our metadata. We’ve certainly found our fair share of these problems since launching Encore, but not all of them are fixable.

The first we’ve tried to address is the way different types of material were described in our catalogue, the combination of print monographs (er, books) and print periodicals (um, journals) into a single material type termed “printed material”. Cue amused smiles from the Library Campers! Since then we’ve split them into books and journals as I explain on a blog post on our Encore blog – ‘Helping you find print journals more easily’.

The general problem is Encore can only act on the metadata it has available, but realistically you won’t always have time and money to do the work required to make it good. Encore does useful things like provide facets based on geographical names in your subject headings, or dates of publication, or languages. The problem is the data being missing or coded ‘undetermined’.

We know there are some very good items in our collection that are not findable during subject searching by readers because they have a record that’s not very good. Graham Seaman mentioned a problem in Summon in the way dates can be described in different ways, understandable by humans but not machines. For example you could refer to things from the same time period as ’16th century’, ‘1500–1525’, or ‘Renaissance’ and so miss out on relevant items.

These are problems that existed with our old catalogue but which the next-generation catalogue brings into sharper relief.