My library uses LibGuides and LibAnswers from Springshare. LibAnswers provides a wonderful way for students to contact us to get assistance, and it is heavily used. Unfortunately, not everyone makes use of it. We also have comments enabled in LibGuides, which I am starting to think is a bad idea. We recently received the following comment on our “Databases by Subject” guide:
“. . . these databases are useless. When you finally find something you need (after hours of looking) and bookmark the page, you can NEVER find it again. This site is NOT user friendly! I have the authors [sic] name, the name of the piece and still can not find it. And why is it when I bookmark it on my computer, and try to retrieve it, I end up on some other site that says I do not have access. What’s the point of having these databases if you can never find the article again?”
Users have the option of providing their email address when they submit a comment, but this user opted not to do so. Which means the only way we, as librarians, have to respond is by posting another comment, which the user is unlikely ever to see.
This situation highlights several very different problems.
- Problem with the databases: I agree with the student that the databases are not user-friendly. I cannot count how many times I have had to explain to a student (after the fact) that unless they created an account in the database, the articles they “saved” were not actually saved. I have no idea why the student was unable to find the article by searching the title, but I do know that, thanks to our EBSCO A-to-Z journal search tool, the most reliable way to find that article would be with the journal title and date. But that is certainly not intuitive, and who can blame the student for assuming that the article title and author would be sufficient to find it again? Not to mention, the ability to bookmark a page that you are on in your browser is taken for granted. Some other libraries have fixed this problem by creating an EZProxy bookmarklet, but that is beyond most librarians’ technical capabilities (or at least, it’s beyond mine!). If I knew what databases the student tried to use, I’d happily send this feedback on to the company. In fact, I might just send it to all the companies anyway, as they could all stand to be a little (or a lot) more user-friendly.
- Problem with the library’s website: We don’t have tutorials for all our databases. The ones that do have tutorials, though, the link to the tutorial is right there next to the link to the database. It is, theoretically, hard to miss. But I suspect they are missed. And if they are, then it is a problem with our website design. We need to find a way to make them more visible. If this student had had access to a tutorial (or noticed that she had access to one), perhaps she would have been more successful with her research. Then again, perhaps not. Perhaps she chose not to view the tutorial. Perhaps she even viewed it and didn’t find it enlightening. We’ll never know. Which brings me to the third problem. . .
- Problem with the student: Sometimes, though I know it’s not kosher to say so, the student is at least partially to blame. In this case, the student had the option of providing an email address so that we could contact her with a solution to her problem. She did not. There is also a very large “Ask Us” button on the page that she could have used to submit a question for a librarian to answer. She didn’t use that either. Instead, she posted a more or less anonymous (first name only) comment. We have multiple channels for contacting the librarians – live chat, LibAnswers, email, SMS, and of course phone and face-to-face. If the student chooses not to use any of these methods and instead posts a comment with no contact information, there is only so much we can do to help.
I titled this post “User Feedback and Librarian Paralysis” because this sort of feedback makes me feel paralyzed. I see a student out there in distress, but I can’t get to them, can’t throw them a life vest. In an ideal world, these students would come in, like so many of their compatriots do, ask for help, spend a few minutes with a librarian, and leave feeling more confident in their ability to use the library’s resources. But it is not an ideal world. Our systems need to meet the needs of our users, and we cannot do that alone. I can leave this post and go look at usability studies and, as time permits, try to redesign my LibGuides in a way that is more user-friendly. But the database companies need to be on board too. Cornell University Libraries and Columbia University Libraries have partnered to look at the usability of databases and electronic resources that they both subscribe to, and provide feedback to the companies. Cornell and Columbia are major players, and thus such a partnership could have a great impact. Could we, as smaller colleges, work together in a similar fashion to prompt change? It would take more than two of us, for sure.