If Your Patrons Continually Use Your Catalog the Wrong Way the Problem Isn’t Them, It’s You

I was reading through an article (Found via What I Learned Today) on The Chronicle of Higher Education website about improving library catalog search functionality, when this comment caught my eye.

The problem is people are trying to use the catalog the wrong way. Instead of a keyword search like on the internet and online databases, the catalog offers something unique– direct access to exactly what you want through a browse or exact search using subject headings, authors, titles. An old idea but it still works–give it a try!

CC image used courtesy of JanneM on flickr

“The problem is people are trying to use the catalog the wrong way.” Wow. Really. Are we really still blaming the patrons for the archaic, non-intuitive functionality of our catalogs?  Wake up and smell the musty old books people! If libraries were a business and we were selling books using our catalog we’d have gone bankrupt ages ago.  Frankly, if this is the attitude we’re spouting off we are damn lucky if we don’t go out of business tomorrow.

The right way IS the way your customers are using your services.  Continuing to insist they use them the way you want them too will only lead to your failure.

Your product is what your customer says it is.  If they continually use the catalog the “wrong” way, the problem isn’t them it’s you.

There is a great essay, Somethings Just Don’t Translate, in The Big Moo that illustrates this point from a non-library perspective. A very successful Italian businessman who sells handcrafted housewares decided to expand his business to Washington D.C. Many people came into the store to browse but no one was buying. When he finally approached a woman and asked how she was finding things, she replies that she didn’t understand why he was selling the bud vases in packs of 6 and the water glasses were sold individually. What this customer saw as a bud vase was a drinking glass for people all over Italy. What she saw as a water glass were flower vases in Italy. He changed his definition of the items to meet customers definitions.

If this man had insisted that Americans learn the correct (Italian) uses for these items, do you think he would have been successful? No. It doesn’t matter how beautiful or functional the items are, if customers can’t find what they are looking for, even if it’s right in front of their face, the business will fail.

It doesn’t matter how well organized your collection is, how extensive your services are, if your patrons can’t use them, if they can’t find what they are looking for, you have failed.

Insisting you are right wont make people to search the catalog the *correct* way it, will make them stop coming to the library.

11 thoughts on “If Your Patrons Continually Use Your Catalog the Wrong Way the Problem Isn’t Them, It’s You

  1. Amen, sistah! I think the biggest problem in our profession is the assumption we KNOW what our customers want. Time and time again my communication with our customers have busted old myths we have about what they are doing with our catalog. The ILS companies need to have conversations with our customers in order to provide better search capabilities. I’ve yet to see a catalog that gives me the results I’m expecting. However, Google gets it right much more often. Hmm….now there is a thought (actually we did explore the idea of using Google Search with our catalog at one point).


    1. “The ILS companies need to have conversations with our customers in order to provide better search capabilities.” This is very true and makes me think that these are not really our catalogues, they are our vendors catalogues …


  2. This is a great point, though we should keep in mind that the small percentage of users who *do* use the catalog to its full functionality are important. I think there is no reason that the catalog can’t function for all kinds of users: If the metadata is strong, the interface should be flexible enough for users to perform the kinds of searches that are most useful to them. Novice or casual users should be able to perform more complex searches, too, whether by a guide in the OPAC (I’m thinking in public libraries) or library instruction (in academic libraries).


    1. Marie I agree we need to include an option for our “power users” It should be intuitive how to narrow or redefine or expand your search, unfortunately most often it is not.


  3. While I understand the issue your here – the customer is always right – the problem really is the variety in our patrons. Who do you adjust to? Imagine Italian imigrants/tourists walking into that man’s store and thinking he was a bad ambassador for their country because he didn’t know a vase from a glass.


    1. Winnie – I’m not saying the customer is always right (I actually don’t believe that)

      You’re right we do have a wide range of skills sets among our patrons. We do need to adjust for that and it is possible. Google allows for the most basic search functions but there is also and advance option for people who want them.

      If a tool isn’t achieving the task it was designed for the tool is a failure. In this case the catalog is designed to allow patrons to more easily locate items in our collection. If that is not happening something is wrong and it most likely isn’t your users.

      As for other Italians thinking he makes a bad ambassador – (I think this reaction unlikely, but its hard to argue probability in this case) They aren’t his audience/client/customers. His primary concern is not what the few Italians who might come in to the store think. Others can and will always find fault with something, but if he is meeting his goal, providing something his customers can easily and successfully identify then he is succeeding.


  4. “Wow. Really.” YES!

    and then we ask them “did you find what you were looking for?” and we don’t see how often they hear it as “were you smart enough to crack our code?” and so they say sure, and walk away (and often never come back… 😦


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