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Usability and Communication in Catalog Design

Geri Hutchins, University of Nebraska at Omaha
Barbara Dean, University of Arkansas, Fayetteville
Ella Jane Bailey, University of Nebraska at Omaha

This presentation focused on the library catalog as a communication tool. This communication function requires that catalog developers understand their user base and the features of the system in order to design a usable catalog.

Geri Hutchins began the presentation with some key questions that should be answered by catalog developers: What do library catalogs communicate? What do customers need and want to know? What can we do to make our catalogs more usable? How do we find out if the catalog is usable? The catalog has had many roles over the years. With the virtual disappearance of a constraint on the number of access points, the communication capability of the catalog has increased tremendously. Its traditional functions of collection inventory and location tool have been expanded to allow it to be a true community resource. In order to make that resource user-centered, easy to use, with needed options and a low learning curve; developers need to assess the usability of the catalog. Is it an effective and efficient interface from the users point of view? Do we have the right balance of content - not too little as many web sites but also not too much. If there is a problem with balance, library catalogs probably err on the side of having too much content. Information in the catalog must be easy to find and the tone of help screens should be active, positive and accurate.

Barbara Dean emphasized the need to know who our patrons are, what we want to communicate, what is in our collections and what hardware, software and connectivity we have at our institutions. She encouraged librarians to get what is unique in our collections into the catalog so we can add to the store of total information available. Focus should be on the customer, with a catalog design that instructs and helps build their confidence allowing them to meet their information needs without having to ask. Dean’s recommendation was to delete those “see a reference librarian” notes from the catalog. We can also make libraries more personal. If you offer an online tour, let the user choose his or her tour guide from onscreen photographs. Meet supply and demand by using III capabilities to identify heavily used items. Look at the “no hit” list to identify problems in searching. Look to see when the catalog is used to determine service hours. Establish a focus group to review what is being done and to determine if it is still needed. Make extensive use of user surveys.

Ella Jane Bailey addressed the issue of making our catalogs more usable by sharing specific examples of how cataloging can increase access in the online public access catalog (OPAC). These examples are intended to stimulate thought about the idea of access rather than suggest these should be done in all libraries.

Some of the specific examples included:

Geri Hutchins concluded the session with more ideas for improving usability. Your institution might want to review indexes and consider adding more. Do you need a journal title index? Re-indexing might be an option for older INNOPAC libraries to take advantage of subsequent enhancements. Review your labels and make sure the language is understandable. Do we need different types of displays for different types of records? Think laterally not hierarchically. Talk up to your customers, not down; encourage don’t discourage. Review your catalog and identify any functionality (such as boolean searching, truncation, etc) that might be hidden and make it visible. Think about coordinating your OPAC with what your library web site developers are doing. Perhaps you can point to the same files and save on duplicate effort.

Taking a hard look at the online catalog with these things in mind should lead to a more usable resource and a more satisfied customer.

Recorded by: Janet Chisman, Washington State University Libraries

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