User friendly libraries


How user-friendly are the libraries: Issues dealing with the future survival of the profession

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, p.34)

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.

User Friendly:
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.

Library profession 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 report.

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 users. 

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 these.

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!

Lancaster's statement 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, and height.

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 friendly.

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 everyone.

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 provide.

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 management!

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 charge?

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 fault?

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 to?

"...research 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: 1990).

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: 62-63).

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.

Albaric, M. "The librarian's role: from job to profession" Library Culture, 24:96-8, Wint., 1989.

Albritton, R L and Shaughnessy, T W. Developing leadership skills: A source book for librarians. Englewood, Libraries Unlimited, 1990.

Bawden, D. User-oriented evaluation of information systems and services. Vermont, Gower, 1980.

Bennet, J M. Librarians in search of science and identity: the elusive profession. Scarecrow Press, 1988.

Bessler, J M. Staff service for patrons -- putting service into library staff training: A patron-centered guide. Chicago, 1994.

Birdsall, W F.,  "Dematerialization of librarianship" Canadian Libr J., 41:319-21 Dec 1984.

Campbell, Jerry D., "It's tough job looking ahead when you've seen what's dragging behind" J Acad Librarianship 17:3 July 1991, 148-151.

Clack, Dorris H.  "Collection access through subject headings" in Social responsibility in librarianship. Essays on equality. Ed. by Donnarae MacCann. Jefferson N.C., MacFarland, 1989, pp. 53-80.

Dervin, Brenda & Clark, Kathleen. ASQ (Asking significant Questions) alternative tools for information need and accountability by libraries. Belmont, Peninsula Lib.System, 1987.

Do you use the library? and why?

Dewdney, P and Ross, C S. "Flying a light aircraft: Reference service evaluation from a user's viewpoint" RQ 34:2 Winter 1994, 217-30

Durance, J C. Librarians: The invisible professionals. In The Bowker Annual and Book Trade Almanac, 1990-91, 35th ed. Bowker, 1990. p. 92-9.

Finks, L W. "What do we stand for? Value without shame," Am Libr 20:352-4 Apr 1989.

Harris, R M "Information technology and de-skilling of librarians; or the erosion of a women's profession", Comput Libra 12:8  Ja 1992

Henige, David "Waiting for the Great Pumpkin? On the whereabouts of justification in library research: A symposium" J Acad Librarianship 17:6 Jan 1992,  354-55

Isaac, K A. Literature search.  New Delhi, Concept, 1990.

Iyer, Hemalata "Ask Hypothesis and Ranganathan's fundamental categories" in Ranganathan's Philosophy: Assessment, impact and relevance, edited by T S Rajagopalan. Delhi, Vikas, 1986. 191-99.

Lancaster, F W Measurement and evaluation of library services. Arlington, Information Resources Press, 1977.

Lancaster, F W., ed. What is user friendly. University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign, 1987.

Park, Bruce, "Libraries without walls: or, Librarians without a profession", Am Libr 23:746-7, Oct. 1992.

Pfaffenberger, Bryan. Democratizing information: Online databases and rise of end-user searching. Hall, 1990.

Plaiss, M., Libraryland: Pseudo-intellectuals and semidullards; a librarian tells us, in no uncertain terms, that professionalism is a dead horse we should stop beating", Am Libr 21:588-9 Je 1990, 21:717-18, Sept. 1990.

Shera, J H. Introduction to library science. Littleton, Libraries Unlimited, 1976.

Smith, K. "Are unruly patrons our fault? - serving the difficult customer: A how-to-do-it manual for library staff. Neal Schuman, 1994.

Smith, Eldred. The librarian, the scholar, and the future of the research library. Greenwood, 1990.

Smith, W C., Islamic Near East: Intellectual role of librarianship, Lib Quarterly 35: (1965), 283-94.

Swan, J C., "Rehumanizing information: An  alternative future" Lib J. 115:178-82, Sept. 1 1990

Tyckson, David "Wrong questions, wrong answers: Behavioral vs. factual evaluation of reference service" The Reference Librarian, 17 (1992) 151-73

White H S "Respect for librarians and librarian self-respect" Lib J 111:58-9 Feb. 1 1986.

Whitlatch, J B., "Getting close to the customer (reference service and professionalism) J Acad Librarianship 18 : 281-2 Nov. 1992

Wiener,  P B., The library inside [why do so many librarians have a shaky sense of self] Catholic Libr World 60: 204-5, Mr/Ap 1989.

Wills, M. "Pride or professionalism" (seven deadly sins of librarianship)" Library Assoc. Rec. 91:286, May 1989.

Appendix I
Staff Behavior with users
Staff behavior that helped  Staff behavior that didn't help
The staff member: The staff member:
Moved out from behind the desk Did not look up 
Looked up and smiled Kept me waiting, while talking to staff 
Took the initiative by approaching me and offering help Made me feel unwelcome
Really listened Didn't say anything, but just started typing on the terminal
Took me to the right area, rather than pointing or giving directions Didn't seem to really listen
Explained what he was doing and why made assumptions about what I wanted 
and cut me off when I explained
Asked questions that clarified in my own mind what I wanted Didn't ask me anything about my question made no effort to determine my specific need
Seemed genuinely interested in me and my question Didn't tell me what he was doing, left me wondering whether I should follow or wait
Included me as a partner in the search and seemed interested in my suggestions Didn't explain how to use the index or microfilm reader or CD-ROM or catalog
Was very knowledgeable about the sources of information  Was not aware of the resources of the library and didn't suggest options other than the catalog
Didn't get discouraged and was willing to investigate further Just said, "no we don't have it",  and didn't suggest further leads
Didn't overwhelm me with too much information Made no effort to follow up or verify that I had found what I was looking for
Said to come back if I didn't find what I wanted
Came over and asked, "Are your finding the information you are looking for?"

1 setstats 1