Why, oh why, are so many university library websites dreadful?
Well, I’ve been involved in helping to design a couple of university library websites, and I know from this experience that sometimes, and for various reasons, it simply isn’t possible to design the website the way you’d like to. There can be all sorts of restrictions and requirements arising from university templates, for example. Also, a number of people are usually involved in the design of a library website, and sometimes ideas get watered down or changed as a result. Sometimes it’s impossible to get everyone’s agreement on a particular idea, style or concept, and even when everyone does agree, their interpretations may vary when it comes to writing content. Furthermore, and despite the amount of money and funding that university libraries consume, some facilities and services which you might expect to be present, simply can’t be afforded. It’s a shame, and it can result in library websites being barely fit for purpose.
As one example, you’d think that it would by now be possible for authenticated library users of every university to easily search for what they want across various subscription-based bibliographic databases, via such methods as federated, or meta search. Yet this is often not the case. Take the example of Concordia University, St. Paul, where they are actually discontinuing their federated search service because:
“…the technology needed to support the idea isn’t quite there yet. The relevancy rankings don’t seem to work correctly or consistently, links were frequently broken, searches executed slowly, and the interface left a lot to be desired. We also felt there was a possibility that it was misleading searchers to think they were searching “everything”, while in fact there are a number of both purchased and freely available resources that aren’t included in a BearHunt search. Also, the search is not complete in that it stops at a predetermined time interval instead of continuing until all searches have had a chance to complete.”
There, and elsewhere, students haven’t been getting what they want and what they expect after their experiences at well organised commercial search services and websites that allow them to search for books they can buy, or music they can listen to, or apps they can download, from a number of different sources. Maybe the daft name of the federated search service at Concordia University, Bear Hunt, was more appropriate than you’d think, as bear hunts take a lot of time and effort, and are not always successful. But don’t get me started on daft names for university library search services!
By the way, look at this federated search help page. It is FAR too complicated. You can’t expect the average student to be motivated to work through all of that. Here’s the Concordia University BearHunt tutorial, which is a reasonable example of a relatively simple and short tutorial, but, you have to tell yourself, you don’t need such explanations when you search the relatively more complex Amazon site – why? – because Amazon have designed a much better, and user-friendly, interface in the first place.
I had reason to look at a few UK university library websites the other day, and in general, I was dismayed by what I found. They were simply not user-orientated or user-friendly.
I won’t name names, but here’s a few things I found.
Even before we start on the library websites, from many university home pages, it can be very difficult to actually find a link to the library section! This doesn’t say much for the way that some universities seem to regard their library, does it?
The only link to ‘Library’ I could find on one university website, which was arranged by type of user (‘Potential students’, ‘International students’, etc), was in a drop-down list under ‘Current students’. That same university home page had a search box, but searching under ‘library’ gave 23 results, and the Library home page was not in the first handful (and who looks beyond that?). Not a good start.
At the second, very slow to load, university website I checked, there wasn’t a link to the library under “Research Resources for Staff”, but there was a link near the top of the page to ‘eLibrary’, which lead to the “Library and Learning Services” site (so…why was the link entitled ‘eLibrary’, then?). This link to eLibrary is part of the university website template. Good…and also good that a link to the Library section appeared first in search results for ‘library’.
The third university website I checked had a link to the Library under “The University & Staff”, which is fine, but there was no link under ‘Quicklinks’, and there was no way to search the university website. You cannot be serious!
I almost gave up looking for a link to the library at the fourth university website. It was not listed under ‘Prospective students’ (don’t they reckon that prospective students care about the state of the library?) or under ‘Research’ (don’t their researchers use the library?). Searching the site for ‘library’ gave “about 3550” results, and the first link in the list got me lost at some local centre, rather than the university library. There were lots of other links on the university home page. Ah…finally…there’s the library section…a link (below the fold and not in the main section) under ‘Student Life’.
So…definitely not a great start.
Chris Pinder, CILIPS President, stated recently (Information Scotland News, Feb 2010) “As librarians we are in the communication business; we pride ourselves on being the necessary intermediaries between our customers and the information they seek.” Well, the library websites I’ve been looking at were making a very poor job of acting as intermediaries. In many cases they were making the process of finding information far too complicated.
Here’s a few examples of what I found.
It may be the case that some libraries cannot afford Primo, Summon or equivalent, but why not? If finances are so bad, and there’s no other viable way, they should get rid of a member of library staff and invest instead in improving the services that are actually needed. The only thing worse than having a poor federated/meta search service is having no cross-search service at all.
At Library A website I couldn’t find any such tool. Instead, on the library home page they had an interface for a ‘Library Catalogue Quick Search’ (which begs the question – is there a slow search?) and another box for doing an ‘eJournal Quick Search’. In neither case is there any indication that what is being searched is not the full text of everything in the library (which is what most students will surely expect, nowadays, from the main search box on a library website), but instead simply keywords in book/ebook/journal/theses titles. That sucks! Incidentally, the only indications given are that you can do a ‘Quick Keyword Search’ in their ‘Library Catalogue Quick Search’ – What’s with all these ‘quicks’ for goodness sake? As well as a Search button, there’s a Search link, which doesn’t in fact search, but rather takes you to the not very user friendly main library catalogue search interface. Two ‘search’ options – that sucks. The Search link actually takes you to the same place as the link to ‘Catalogue” at the top of the same page does (so why bother having two links to the same place so near each other?). The eJournal Quick Search at Library A also doesn’t let you search the actual contents of their journals (why not, you may well ask?), but instead only searches titles of journals held. If you search the Library Catalogue Quick Search, results are opened in a new window, but if you search the eJournal Quick Search, they aren’t. All of that absolutely sucks, as far as I’m concerned. User unfriendly, stupid wording, no consistency, and the search boxes don’t do what most students want them, and nowadays expect them, to do.
Elsewhere at Library A website I found confusing, librarian-type-talk advice. There’s also a long list of ‘Databases’, many of which have names which will mean absolutely nothing to the average student, with no indication of what they are, how to use them, or what subjects they cover. If a student simply wants to find a few relevant, full-text articles on a topic of interest, which is exactly what many of them will frequently want, it would take them an immense effort to find them by using this website. I’m sorry Library A, but your website sucks, so badly that I would not encourage my sons to study at your university.
Library B at least has a federated search service. Yes, they’ve given it a daft name and it’s slow to load, but at least you can search across numerous databases and websites, if you have a login. There are some nice graphics at Library B‘s website, and I was beginning to think that the site was OK when I clicked on a link to a ‘Getting started’ demo, and saw the following: This presentation contains content that your browser may not be able to show properly. Well, I ask you! And this is part of what came next:
That sucks. I failed to ‘get started’ – I fell at the first! Is it my fault? I don’t think so, but from the page that said This presentation contains content that your browser may not be able to show properly, there was no information about what to do if it didn’t show properly. This is unforgivable at a page which is supposed to help you get started.
I’ve just noticed a typo on the Library B home page. And another. There are two typos on the main library home page! There are typos on other pages as well. There also seems to be a confusion between ‘resources’, ‘online resources’, ‘electronic resources’ and ‘e-resources’. Library B – why don’t you go through your website and at least make the jargon consistent? Jargon causes enough problems as it is. Elewhere, I see both the terms ’email’ and ‘e-mail’ being used.
Library B‘s website is quite attractive, and there are some nice features, but it is inconsistent. There’s a page about Keeping up to date which is FAR too long and complicated. Oh dear – the first thing it tries to do is explain about RSS! That’s not the best way to start a page about Keeping up to date. I’m aware that there are many, many thousands of library webpages that try to explain about RSS (Google Results: 1 – 10 of about 739,000 for +library +”what is rss”) – and I don’t know why they don’t simply point to a good, existing guide, instead. The average student or researcher would give up before reaching relevant sections of this Keeping up to date page.
Library B – your website is not completely dreadful, but parts of it suck!
So – what’s the latest news at Library C‘s website? It is: Training sessions for staff. It says: Details of further sessions will appear on the Training Sessions for Staff web page, but ‘Training Sessions for Staff web page’ is not a link! On Library C‘s home page there are up and down arrows in the Quicklinks section, but these don’t work/are redundant. Their Catalogue also has a daft name. Their drop-down menus on the home page don’t work well, making it very easy to get confused if you scroll down them.
There’s a Database Directory, which also has the title ‘LIS Database Directory’, which actually gives access to ‘databases, web sites and other information sources’ but which then goes on to give options for finding ‘resources’. Confused yet? I am. Hmm – the breadcrumbs link from this page back to the Library homepage is 404! The subject staff page link is 404! I don’t believe it – the Help page link is 404! H.E.L.P.
Elsewhere on Library C‘s website, the use of menu bars is not consistent.
And, listen to this:
“Journal article search with link to full text:
Searching a bibliographic database allows the user to carry out a more comprehensive search on a topic. Many references may be found but not usually the full text. However the ‘Locate It At [XXXX] University’ service can be use to find the full text of journal articles with some databases such as the Cambridge Scientific Abstracts (CSA) databases, PsycInfo, MLA and INSPEC. Each reference found on these databases will contain a ‘Locate It At [XXXX] University’ link which the user can follow to access the full text of the article if it is available through one of our subscribed resources.”
Apart from the typo, and the impersonal (“allows the user to”), did you understand what was being explained in that paragraph above? Would you be confident about getting the full text of a journal article from this library? I woudn’t be.
I’m afraid that Library C‘s website sucks.
Finally, Library D‘s website. It doesn’t start well, with the following poor English: Access the online library direct, check your account, renew your loans, detailed opening hours and locations. And, given the demand nowadays for 24/7, would you be impressed if each library was “typically open between 55 and 68 hours per week”? I don’t think it’s a good idea to highlight such restricted physical access on a website.
Library D‘s website does attempt to be user orientated, and there is a CrossSearch, and they don’t seem to have given it a silly name, and they do tell you what you’re actually searching before you link to the Catalogue, however, their Online Library and also their Catalogue seem to have completely different interface designs to other parts of the website – this is confusing! If you were to go to Amazon, say, and proceeded towards purchasing something, and were directed to a site with a completely different design, would that give you confidence? No it wouldn’t, and so you have to ask yourself – why is there more than one design interface on Library D‘s website?
Typo alert – on the main Online Library page – what’s wrong with the following?
…which allows you record, watch, and make clips from…
Yes – there’s a missing ‘to’.
Library D – your website sucks less than the other three library websites I looked at, but it still has some elementary errors.
WELL – I visited the above UK university library websites more-or-less at random, and I wasn’t impressed with what I found. As far as the average person/student is concerned, these Library websites SUCK! They are inconsistent, there are typos, they sometimes have confusing information, sometimes there are ‘pages not found’, they are often not written from the user’s perspective, and some of them lack basic search tools. So much for librarians ‘acting as intermediaries’.
More effort needs to go into the very basics of library websites. Maybe too much money is being diverted into fancy information research programmes, rather than the basics of facilitating access for real users to the information they really want.
If you’d like me to run a critical eye over your UK university library website, get in touch [at macleod.roddy [at] gmail.com]. I won’t charge anything, because I’m too passionate about the need for good, solid, easy to use library websites. But I will say what I really think, in public, on this blog.
Challenge me to say that your library website doesn’t suck.