April 23, 2007

When simple might be too simple...

My library is in the process of redesigning the search interface for the OPAC. This is a process done by committee and was started long before I got here. They've rolled it out via a Preview button right now and have put methods there for feedback. Naturally, I'm giving it a test.

Currently, I use the OPAC rather than the ILS client to search for titles currently held (title searching), authors (author browsing), and to see what we have in various subject areas (subject browsing). What is currently being re-done, with Google-like visions, is the Simple Search. Sadly, this is where the current browse feature resides. The new simple search will be one search option only (Catalog Search) and that is over the entire record. Advanced search is still there, but it does not have the option to browse. So, when the OPAC is rolled out (unless they change it based on feedback and I did give feedback), users will no longer have the ability to browse subjects or authors.

I was aghast. It's second nature to me to subject browse and always has been, even before I became a librarian. Maybe it's because I learned to do research with a card catalog and print indexes. These force you to think in terms of subject. When I worked the reference desk and a student wanted information on a particular subject, I showed them how to do a subject search and most were quite pleased when they learned they could could search this way.

Bananas is a search I recently did, but I was looking for titles related to the banana trade, marketing, economic factors, etc. A search in the "Simple Search" box for bananas, netted 40 hits. Not overwhelming. Near the top of the list is Language, bananas and bonobos : linguistic problems, puzzles and polemics by Neil Smith; the only assigned subject is Linguistics. Bananas is simply in the title. Another match midway down the list is Walking after midnight : one woman’s journey through murder, justice & forgiveness by Katy Hutchison; it has a chapter titled "Yes, we have no bananas." I think few students are going to want to cull through 40 matches, but that is better than the several hundred which a Simple Search for Latino Culture brings up.

Advanced Search allows for searching within the subject field which gives much better results, but by title. To actually browse by subject, the user must select a matching title, then expand to the full record, then click on the Subject heading that matches what they are searching for. It takes about three clicks to get to where you can actually browse and then there is no Search box to refine or further browse; you have to either go with "previous" or "next" buttons to browse the subjects. I find myself adapting and the user probably will too, but I still think the ability to browse subjects and authors should be there.

I understand the desire to simplify. However, I think sometimes we underestimate the users and eliminate functionality that some use or would use if taught. I hear librarians say "but, they don't use it." Then, teach them.