Library Website Design, Part II: The Tyranny of Choice, and an Ode to the Reference Interview

Consider the way that many library websites handle online database collections: we list every database we have and let the patron find the one they need. We offer alphabetical listings of our databases, we have categorized lists… we offer multiple points of access to try and provide any given patron an option that might fit how they want to interact with the site.

But there’s a fundamental flaw in this use-case:

It puts the burden of identifying and locating appropriate resources on the patron. The general category and topics lists help somewhat – but the patron still needs to decide which category they need to drill through, and then they need to assess each database offered in that category to determine which might best serve their purpose.

It’s way too many options thrown at patrons too early in the interaction to be maximally useful for most of them. It’s a textbook example of the Tyranny of Choice.

Contrast this with the traditional in-person reference interview: a patron tells the librarian at the desk (or roving the shelves) what they need and the librarian locates those materials that will best serve them. The only time the patron is presented with library resources is a curated selection to serve their stated need. The patron never has to worry about it.

During my Intro to Reference class in my MLIS program, they showed us several examples of reference interviews. The one that stuck in my head was one in which a man who appears to be in his mid-to-late 20s walks up to the desk and asks the librarian on duty where he can find books by Dr. Spock. The librarian, being savvy, recognizes that this is an odd request – Dr. Spock’s work in child rearing and child psychology is woefully out of date (most public libraries haven’t carried his titles for years) and there are certainly better resources for this patron. So the librarian embarks upon a reference interview – only to discover that what the guy really needs is material about how to get a 5 year old to stop wetting his bed. But he was too embarrassed to ask for that; and when he’d asked his parents for advice, they mentioned that they’d used Dr. Spock books when they raised him, so…

In a reference interview, the patron expresses their need, the librarian makes certain they understand it, and then it’s the librarian’s responsibility to identify the best resources to serve the patron’s need.

The full collection is still there on the shelves, and the full list of databases is still there on the website, directly accessible for those patrons who already know what they want and where to find it, and choose to bypass the librarian entirely. Unfortunately, this find-it-yourself aspect of library service is the one that seems to have dominated much of our website design to date (whether or not that was our intention).

When we post all of our research resources and databases online, with a handful of general topic lists, we’re basically telling our patrons to find it themselves. But they’re not trained in the skills to assess, evaluate, and select the best resources to serve their need.* If the young man in the above example came to the databases section on most library websites, he’d start out trying to find Dr. Spock and come up empty; after that frustration, he’d then need to come up with a completely new search strategy; and he’d be facing every resource more-or-less blind – unsure of whether or not this-and-such database will give him useful information, or if this recommended website is really appropriate for his situation. Or he would find Dr. Spock and walk away with that, only to discover later that it won’t actually do him any good.

This is not a user-friendly experience and it can’t guarantee the best result for the patron.

Just about the only benefit to online research environments like these is that it obviates the embarrassment that many patrons feel when face-to-face with a librarian.

What we need to do now is recreate the reference interview online for those patrons who don’t know what they need yet – who just want to come to us, ask their question, and walk off with materials that they can trust to work well for them.

The Omaha Public Library has an interesting interface for their online research resources that I really like, which takes a good step or two in this direction:

I like this a lot better than most library websites out there but it still starts with the patron having to pick a category that they hope will lead them to what they need.

What I want to see is an automated and conditionalized series of questions that a patron can answer to establish their specific need that will then return a curated list of appropriate resources, just like a reference interview.

If we could do this, and retain the direct access options for those patrons who know what they want and just want to go get it, I think we’d have a system for online database and resource access that would finally work without burdening the patron unduly.
* = Another way to address this issue of assessment, evaluation, and selection of resources is for libraries to educate and train their patrons in these skills. This is certainly an initiative that many libraries have already taken on and could significantly alter how patrons expect to interact with our resources. Which may or may not render many of my above arguments moot. I’m certainly excited to find out!

Next Up – Part III: Give Them Paths to Follow, Not Points to Click


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