13 August 2012

Was Worldcat Designed By People Who Actually Use Libraries?

Update: Attention has been paid! Please see the comments for a nice response from a WorldCat representative. We now have an answer to the title question: Yes.

My beloved university library has now switched over from an in-house computerized catalogue to using WorldCat. There are definite advantages to this, and some neat things WorldCat can do.

But for all its many useful features, I wonder: Does anybody at WorldCat actually use libraries?

Let's say you are the sort of person who takes out more than one book at a time from a library. Perhaps you're doing a research project. You might want to find, for instance, books where the author is named Matthew Cheney (you must be really desperate for something to read). We'll put aside for the moment the fact that the author search brings up an anthology that includes work by somebody named George Cheney and other work by somebody named Matthew W. Seeger (and thus the author search is only marginally more useful than a keyword search; it is, though, better than a search with "Matthew Cheney" in quotation marks, since that search doesn't even bring up a book for which Mr. Cheney is listed in the author field — which, in the old catalogue, was the only book that came up on that author search [and, arguably, is the only one that should, because it's the only book our library has for which my name is in the author field]). We'll ignore all that because lots of things play into the inaccuracies of searches, and there's a fine art to search improvement. WorldCat can certainly get better at it, but it's not awful.

What's awful becomes apparent when you think about yourself as a person doing research in actual books that are in the library. Let's say the author search on Matthew Cheney works just fine for you. You see what you need — for instance, Logorrhea and Handbook of Public Relations (because you realize that public relations and logorrhea are exactly what you want to write a paper on). You don't need to search anymore, you've found what you need. Now you just need to go find the books and see if they're actually useful to you.

But how will you find the books? The search screen lists titles, authors, publishers, media, etc. ... but not the call number.

How do we know that WorldCat was designed by people who don't get books out of libraries? Because call numbers are vital information that is relegated only to each specific book's page (and in a fairly small font). So to find a book, you have to go to its page.

That may not seem like a big deal if you've never used a library. If you have, though, it's probably pretty obvious to you how annoying it is.

Okay, I know it's not that big a problem to go into every book's page and then write down the call number for yourself. It's a waste of time and it's annoying, but you're going to be looking at individual book pages with some frequency, anyway, because a lot of the time a basic search results screen doesn't have enough information with which to evaluate the usefulness of the book. (Often it does, though. Recently, I did a keyword search for "pentagon hollywood", looking for books about the relationship between Hollywood and the U.S. military. The first item on the list was obviously the book I wanted, and nothing else that came up was immediately useful.)

But limiting the display of call numbers only to the book's individual page is a huge waste of potential for WorldCat. Consider the ability to create lists, a potentially useful function that is currently pretty useless (at least to me, somebody who gets books out of the library). It's got all sorts of social media functions, ability to share, export, etc. — but nowhere are call numbers visible in the list!

So let's say you don't necessarily want to make a list of books to share with your socially mediated friends, you don't want to make a list into a bibliography, you just want to make a list of books to get at the library. (A bizarre thing to do, I know!) You can make the list, but you won't be able to easily find the books in the physical library.

Am I really the only person who searches for books from home and then needs a simple list of titles and call numbers to find the books in the library?

Imagine what a wonder the list function would be if it included call numbers! Or even if you could sort the list by call numbers so that then you knew which of the books you were looking for were near each other! I know it's an esoteric request and most people are probably not like me — I usually go to the library with a handwritten list of 10-20 books to take a look at — so knowing whether a book is on the first floor or third floor may not be all that important ... but still. WorldCat can show the holdings of 7200 libraries, but it can't figure out that call numbers are essential information?

Though I've written this primarily to vent an annoyance in public, and I've submitted feedback to WorldCat, there's a larger point. WorldCat is now a perfect example of a tool that gives us access to all sorts of information and services ... but in doing so has lost sight of what information is most important and useful. It's software created by people who clearly know a lot about programming, but who don't seem to have done enough reflection on how patrons actually use libraries. One of the things good librarians know is that in this world of information overload, the presentation and filtering of information is as important as access to it.


  1. In answer to your query (or at least the query I can answer), here are the last five lines of "books.txt" on my laptop & phone:

    Mathematics as metaphor : selected essays of Yuri I. Manin - Mathematics QA7 .M279 2007
    Innovations of antiquity / edited by Ralph Hexter and Daniel Selden. PA3003 .I56 1992
    Crisis in editing : texts of the English Renaissance - edited by Randall McLeod. PR418.T48 C66 1988
    Ulysses in focus : genetic, textual, and personal views. PR6019.O9 U65328 2010
    Ways of the hand : a rewritten account / David Sudnow. Music - MT68 .S89 2001

  2. Hi Matthew from a fellow Granite stater closer to the seacoast. Thanks for your comments to help make WorldCat.org and WorldCat Local (your library's specific "view" of WorldCat that incorporates additional electronic and digital content, journals, etc that Plymouth State subscribes to) even better for the library-using population.

    We've done extensive user testing and will continue to refine the user experience moving forward to make sure you (and other people like you) are getting the MOST useful information in as few screens and clicks as possible. The placement of call numbers is very important for exactly the use cases you describe, and your example is helpful. Thank you, too, for taking the time to submit feedback through the feedback tool and again here in a public forum. This way we can continue to improve and refine the experience for everyone. Please keep sending your feedback!

  3. Thanks so much for responding to my cry into the internet wilderness, Alice! I look forward to seeing Worldcat become refined and improved further, as it's already an impressive tool.

  4. Ray, I'm glad I'm not the only one walking around with a list of call numbers on my phone!