Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Hey, You!

Wolf moon (January's full moon)

Today when millions of people took time out of their days (one way or another) for President Obama's inauguration, and when it was difficult to avoid what America was collectively paying attention to, there were plenty of people in the library who walked straight past the broadcast of the swearing-in and speech of the new president of the country and barely looked up. Were they too busy? Indifferent? Was this event just not part of their current set of concerns and mental space? If not this event, then what would do it? 

I've been noticing a habit of my own that I think will sound familiar to many lifelong computer users: In order to be really productive, I have to have a single track mind when working online. In the face of attention deficit disorders and constant multi-tasking, the power of ignoring is sometimes more important than the power to take in.

I bring this up in the context of libraries because we're unveiling a new website with a federated search this week, and it reflects a common trend in library web design thinking: Make it clean-looking, and have a google-esque search box front and center. Get rid of the text-heavy pages that librarians tend to be fond of. The thinking is that library patrons don't want to figure out what a catalog is and how it works, nor do they want to figure out what 'reference' materials are. They don't want to have to hunt through a million native interfaces of databases and ebook platforms. I think the new page bears all this in mind, without preventing patrons who DO want the catalog and reference sources and individual databases from getting to those things easily.

But the underlying difficulty is that it can be hard to anticipate the exact needs and expectation patrons have when they go to the library home page. Maybe they want to know if we own a book, maybe they want help with how to start a research paper, or maybe they're tracking down a citation...and when they are focused on their particular task at hand, they walk right by the screen broadcasting the presidential inauguration -- that is, they don't see the new books slideshow, or the opportunity to subscribe online to a journal they like, or the other neat features and services the library provides. They figure out how to do the one task they came for -- as efficiently and quickly as possible -- and then they disappear again. 

And this is very natural, but it means that when everything goes well and works seamlessly, the library (as an online entity) draws minimal attention to itself. It's a strange thought, that we'll be doing our jobs best if people don't even realize we have their attention. 

1 comment:

  1. The thinking is that library patrons don't want to figure out what a catalog is and how it works, nor do they want to figure out what 'reference' materials are.

    I second that.

    I guess one thing that Google changed was that people now expect to get the results they want without being very specific with their query. But just because we don't realize that you have our attention doesn't diminish your impact... it took a while for people to realize google was controlling their lives. Maybe we dont really realize how much now either.

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