How user-friendly are the
libraries: Issues dealing with the future survival of the
Dr. Mohamed Taher
("A new paradigm is
needed to serve user interest and to foster the ideas of extending critical
thinking through library service ... Abandon narrowly conceived services and
look to novel techniques and developmental strategies for assisting library
users ... that is move towards academic engineering ... If user specific
invitations are to be issued, then librarians may have to become information
advocates, or sociologists of information paradigm for librarianship", in
Academic Libraries: Myths and realities. Chicago, ACRL, 1984,
This paper attempts
to present the reasons why the library is not the center of the modern
society. Rather it is destined, as the trends have shown since WW II, that it
will remain marginalized, despite technological advances and despite the
Internet emerging as a full-fledged competitor to library's role as an
information resource. What is the role of the technology in information
handling and how the profession has sidelined the technology all thro' is
assessed by June Abbas, "The library profession and the Internet: Implications
and scenarios for change", at www. Hence the present paper does not handle the
side effects of all thro' ignoring technocracy.
A user friendly system is defined as that in which
relatively untrained users can interact easily. It refers to an atmosphere
which is congenial, and healthy. It is so designed that it fits most types of
users in a friendly environment. It also connotes as a library which is easy
to use, attractive, warm and comforting place which welcomes to use the
resources. It is, in other words, providing personalized or in-person help to
users of a library.
To view this in its
correct perspective, it is appropriate to see the existing practices, and make
a self-appriasal of professionalism. It will also show, where libraries stand
with the onslaught of IT and Internet -- the two virtual competitors, and
alternative information providers.
and the practices in the library are so over dressed, or sometimes formalized
to the extent, that some find all this exercise as mysterious. They feel that
the functions and activities of a library are mysterious to the user -
that is for the same user, for whom the bell tolls. This requires a look into
the following categories:
a) Library catalog:
The first sight of this mystery is the catalog-- presumably the key to a
modern library. Incidentally, it has now become a tool and is used as a
survival medium--befittingly for the librarian, by the librarian and of the
librarian. The purpose of its existence, its functionality, its
approaches all are understood only by the creator. The terminology of the
catalog is misleading: a dictionary catalog is one instance. It is called so
because it is like a dictionary, or it gives the meaning of the information
the user needs, or a handbook of words, or what?
If the user needs a
medium to identify the material, and there is no way but to use the jargon,
let the profession mend its access mechanism. There could be many other ways
to tell the user what the library has, and where it is available. For the
survival of the profession it is high time that it mends its ways, and create
alternative ways and means to resolve this problem.
b) Headings: Subject
headings used in the catalog, are not simple or understood either -- as a
fashion we call them keywords. SSubject headings, as we are made to understand
are an omnibus, and are meant to convey themes or subjects, in all possible
perspectives, broad and narrow divisions of a genre, secondary sources of
information, literary criticism of a subject, etc.. These headings are
hypothetical, less helpful -- generic or specific, and confusing. The
subheadings are further mysterious, even catalogers are fond of using
different subheadings for similar documents. For example, a user needs
information on a committee report. Our catalogs do have the committee report,
but under the caption which the user would never dream -- may be a government
appointed committee. The record will be found under U.S., Department of
Interior, Committee on Human Relations, Subcommittee on India, and then the
name of the Committee--with no easy way to find the actual
c) Bibliography: We
give the user a bibliography, and presume to have done the best
job. Whereas the user who likes fast foods, and expects information, per
se, finds in this bibliography, details which are only possible indications of
sorts. Our document delivery mechanisms are mere lip service to the
user, and we have hardly develop this area. The primary concern has been
only as identifier of information, if possible, if easily accomodatable, and
if within the easy reach. We have forgotten that in the past bibliographers,
were themselves scholars and did both identification as well document delivery
jobs. This they could do when they had all type of resource shortage, whereas
today we talk of most resourceful and powerful access mechanisms, and we are
proud of being in an information age. But the status of use and user is still
marginal, and is unlikely to improve given the antique ideas the profession is
holding and has presumed that they have done best service to the customer.
Surveys and studies abound to say that the resources in all types of libraries
are marginally used, and the user population has not gained the right benefit
of library collections. The question then is either the resource that the
libraries hold is not the right choice or the marketing of the required level
and type is not being performed.
d) Pathfinders &
user guides: These namesakes don't solve the user needs. The user is expected
to navigate all through and find out his way. Librarians, mostly compile,
these indicative sources, for their own survival, than for the benefit of the
e) Terminology: When
we use the terms, (normally, while communicating to the user), call number,
index, catalog, abstracting and indexing journals, periodicals or journals, or
magazines, review journals, check-in or check-out, CDs, micro-film reader
printer, stacks, checkpoint, issue counter, see and see also references,
cross-references, etc. we presume that the user understands the jargon. Do we
have any idea of what all these mysterious things are meant to be -- even
experienced users have difficulties, as these terms and their meanings vary
from library to library.
We may quote "For the
majority of materials collected by libraries, Library of Congress or Sears
Subject Headings are relatively successful in fulfilling the functions
expected of them, perhaps not as efficiently or easily as desired but they do
work" (Clark: 1989: 56). Note that these sources are neither "efficient" nor
"easy", and yet these are only tools of the trade, and hence we have to use
Further, the same
author states: "In a majority of the instances when subject headings were used
for Black literature, they were not coextensive with the subject treated in
the work. Instead, general subject headings were invariably assigned to more
specific concepts" (Clark: 1989: 56).
Is this the main
purpose of the catalog, to be useless, un-friendly, and chasing away users?
Will our catalogs and catalog codes and practices remain static and never be
flexible for the user!
supports the issue: "While it is relatively easy to measure the volume of
catalog use within a library, it is far more difficult to measure the
effectiveness of catalog use (i.e., to determine whether the user is able to
find entries for items or subjects he is seeking, and how long it takes to
locate relevant entries). Micro-evaluation of a catalog requires
differentiation between successes and failures, identification of specific
instances of failure, and determination of precise causes of failure. This is
not an easy task, and it is certainly not readily susceptible to unobtrusive
observation" (Lancaster: 1977: 20). He has listed in the same work a list of
nonstandard book characteristics for catalog search, like date, type of work
(handbook or textbook), number of pages, binding, color, level of treatment,
Lancaster also says,
"of course, the use of several "nonstandard" elements in catalog searching
presupposes that the searcher is looking for an item he has previously seen or
used or which has been vaguely described to him by someone else (color, size,
for example), rather an item he has discovered in a bibliography or reading
list" (p. 46). This is then to say that mere author or title information are
not satisfactory for satisfying majority search needs. The process is more
often compound and indirect.
We may quote yet
another source "...the complexity of knowledge is such that a perfect scheme
of classification that would meet the demands of all situations is difficult
to be achieved and will remain elusive" (Isaac: 1990: 45). This is adding salt
to the injury, even our schemes of classification are not user
f) Physical setup:
Let's see how much of the library is usable and useful for the different kinds
of users --elderly, children, handicapped, etc.. While planning a library how
much we care for the user's needs and user behavior, including physiological,
social, cultural, aptitudes, safety, etc. Do we have equal opportunities for
different types of users. Our catalog does not allow a person on wheel chair
to reach it. The building is not planned for a wheel chair to move in
freely of a handicapped - yet the presumption is that all users have equal
access-priveleges. The furniture, equipment, design and space planning are not
according to the needs of different users. Even among the fit and fine users,
we cater only to the literates, and nothing is available for the masses and
classes of the non-literate category. The chairs, reading tables, stacks, none
confirm the standards. Poor aesthetics, dark stacks, and unlit reading areas,
isolated library locations, cause inconvenience to
g) Service: What we
call service to users, is in fact truly lip service, rather than real service.
We issue books, file books, and at the most provide some sort of 'reference
service'. This is the end all and be all. Our training and practice don't make
us good service oriented professionals. We don't have nay idea of marketing,
selling the library as an idea in the market place. We at the most, try some
listing and relax, as we are tired after all the 'serious' service that we
We have a debate on
the issue, whether user education is a part of reference service, whether this
is to be performed by a reference librarian, by performing reference service
does one satisfy the need for user education, why should we educate the user,
why are we librarians expected to make the user self dependent by teaching
methods of self-support.
Commenting on the
responsibility to users there is a thought provoking statement: "Several of
the services which we offer are not of the highest level: according to several
studies of reference service, we provide correct answers roughly half the
time. Similarly, book availability studies conducted in academic libraries
reveal a patron success rate of only about 60 percent. Statistics such as
these indicate that for some patrons, library staff are not adding much value
to the patrons' encounters with the library. Yet we know that all contacts
with an organization are a critical part of one's perceptions and judgments
about the organization. But the quality of the people contacts are often the
firmest and longest lasting" (Albritton: 1990: 130).
h) Dissemination: We
do not know the users personally and do not treat as our own clientele. We do
not welcome new comers with appreciation and understand them. We don't
outreach the surrounding areas, and market our libraries. Is there a way to
make the users feel that there suggestions are welcome? Customer is the source
of our survival, do we have any idea of what customer care is? The success of
the library depends on the importance given to the user, do we know this
fundamental law of library service? Do we know that the user too is a human
being, who is by accident at your doorstep seeking your help. Demonstrating
'that we care for them' is most essential for human resource
i) Pricing: What is
to be priced and why, there is no agreement among the professionals. What are
the core services that cannot be priced, or if priced the charges should be at
lowest possible rates. What are the non core services, for which there can be
prices and for which fee based services can be offered? What shall be the fee,
what norms apply for a service organization to
j) Quality control:
De we have any guidelines for quality service or standards for quality
control? If yes, where are these, if no, where lies the
What emerges from
this is: There is a total deficiency in our communication channels, between
the user and the librarian. The user comes to the library as a last resort.
The image of a librarian in the society, as a service oriented person, does
not exist. The information seeking patterns in the idea plane and the verbal
plane have a vast difference, and the reason for this difference is not known
to the librarians. Where re the professionals leading the user
librarians have failed to achieve their ultimate goals of ensuring adequate
preservation, providing easy accessibility, and acquiring and effectively
controlling the complete scholarly record. Scholars, on the other hand,
actively avoid using the research library's collections and shun its services.
The library's complexity and librarian's insistence that patrons learn its
intricacies are factors which alienate the scholar who is interested in
convenient access to only the most pertinent information" (Smith:
Shera, father of
modern American librarianship, states all this in a fewer words: "Our
civilization could hardly have achieved its present state of sophistication
without repositories for the preservation and utilization of the transcript of
the culture; but it is important for the librarian to see in proper cultural
perspective the institution over which he presides, and to recognize his
position in the total cycle of information gathering and dissemination. The
library, important as it is, is not the sine qua non of man's recourse to
information and vicarious experience ... Librarians, especially public
librarians, are wont to speak of the "general reader," as though he were some
kind of biological and psychological specimen that could be identified,
characterized, motivated in a particular way. But the general reader no more
exists than does the "economic man." Every reader is "special" in his
own eyes and should be so treated by the librarian." (Shera: 1976:
For our survival,
when we are faced with serious competitors, we must pay serious attention
towards: a) curriculum that trains the professionals in our library schools,
b) general attitudes and orientation, including our verbal and written skills,
developing ability in communication and interaction, c) play an intellectual
role. This last role is the main role, which neither the intelligent computers
are as yet prepared to take up, nor are academics capable of finding the right
and accurate resources from the vast array of exploding knowledge and
information. Librarians are expected to perform this role of analyzers and
synthesizers, of information and knowledge.
Then, it is apt to
conclude, that to be a friend of the user, we must develop commitment,
missionary zeal, empathy, sincerity, devotion, and attitude which attracts the
people to "ask", and not which detracts, and sends the user astray. As me, and
may I help you, are better signals, or pathfinders, then expecting the user to
search for the librarian and seek his help. The main concentration of our
service planning and implementing must be user oriented, rather than self
oriented, self appraisal or self elevating. Only then we can move ahead in the
age of the survival of the fittest.
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