Human factors for librarians

by Andy Oram

I love libraries and applaud every step they make into the digital age. But I wish they knew something about interface design and human-computer interaction.

I'll start on a positive note: I returned recently to my alma mater (Brandeis University) and found that they had put in a comprehensive, Web-based, intuitive application that let me find the Dewey Decimal numbers I wanted in less than a minute. So it can be done. But usually my experience is quite different.

The first problem with computerized library catalogs (as with computers in the schools) is availability. Yesterday I visited the main branch of my home town library (Arlington, Mass.) and found three terminals, one of which was malfunctioning. That means that when two people are looking up something, everybody else has to wait. In the days of card catalogs, hundreds of visitors could search at once. This high-tech bottleneck, in computer terms, could be called the problem of coarse-grained locking.

The standard library catalog interface dates way back; I used to see it running on Vax/VMS systems. Everything about it is counter-intuitive, unforgiving, and obstructive. At some times you need to use the keyboard, at other times the keypad. The interface apparantly predated (or was designed by someone ignorant of) simple conventions such as "Space key moves forward" or "Return key selects current item." Authors have to be looked up by last name only, and heaven help you if something you want begins with a letter late in the alphabet: there's no way to sort entries differently or skip past the several dozen you don't want.

I couldn't imagine anybody designing anything worse than this venerable database application, but in my home town they managed to do so. The system has a spiffy look and mimics Web browsers, but only as if to mock them. Imagine a hierarchical interface that does not let the user backtrack! Having chosen one path, you cannot try a second--all you can do it choose from the arbitrary options presented later.

Since the books I wanted (I was researching Marshall McLuhan) were either not listed or missing from the shelves, I had to resort to a human interaction that did little better. I had the devil of a time explaining what I wanted to the reference librarian, who seemed to have no familiarity with these classic works. It occurred to me that schools of Library Science probably dislike McLuhan.

Let me end on a positive note once again. Once I get hooked into the interlibrary loan system, its operation is nearly miraculous. In my opinion, has nothing on my area's Minuteman system, particularly when you consider that the library offers free shipping. And they can even notify me by email when the book has arrived.