Usability – A Library Student’s View

I guess much of being a librarian is about usability: arranging and cataloguing resources so they are accessible and easy to find and access. Two of my MA modules at the moment are very heavily focussed on usability testing and user experience and it-s crystallised my thoughts of what being a librarian is all about.

Search and Retrieval is a module all about cataloguing and organising libraries. Some people have complained that it hasn’t been practical enough, or focussed enough on examining if we can catalogue correctly (if such a thing exists), but it has certainly made me consider the philosophical nature of how and why we catalogue and organise libraries as we do. Our final assessment is to assess the usability of a search instrument. Some people see this as an easy get out, but really it is fundamental to what we do as information managers, especially in the Google age. In past times when librarians were gatekeepers to information, as long as we were trained to know how to search the catalogue there was no problem and librarians could present information to users. Now people expect to be able to search for and find information quickly themselves and the role of the librarian has changed from gatekeeper to facilitator, working to ensure that the access points to information are as easy and intuitive as possible.

At the same time in Web Design we have had to design and implement a test of the usability of the websites we have been designing. I conducted my test today. An undergrad acted as tester and we used Camtasia to record the users verbalisation of their thoughts and feelings as they used the site together with their mouse movements. I based my session on Steve Krug’s templates and method as outlined in ‘It’s Not Rocket Surgery’. I really enjoyed planning and conducting the session and it was gratifying when the lecturer it was one of the best student tests he had seen (mainly down to me being organised with a script, pens etc!). The site is only tiny, but a couple of issues came to light which I have subsequently fixed. It was eye opening to see how different people (I tested the test on my husband the night before too) expected information to be arranged and organised.

Later we had a tour of the computing department’s testing suite which runs as a commercial enterprise. They have eye movement tracking devices and software, in addition to a separate observation room and screen tracking software. The technician described how the suite is used to spot what users are looking at, or possibly more importantly, what information they are missing.

All of this has made me think long and hard about the church website I manage. I’m keen to do some testing of that site too. I think I have already spotted some issues just by trying to place myself in some scenarios, but I’m sure real users will identify even more.

I would love to be able to develop a career in usability testing, but even if this isn’t a direction I can follow, I’m sure it will inform my career as a librarian: keeping the users needs foremost and remembering that just because something is obvious to me as a trained professional, it may not be so obvious to everyone else. There will always be usability issues in any system, especially a large complex one like a library, and there is not one ‘right’ answer to usability, but asking questions, listening to users and always being open to making improvements should help keep library systems as ‘user friendly’ and easy to use as possible.


RNCM Days 8 & 9

Didn’t get round to blogging last night as we had promised to take Mum and Dad out to thank them for having the children this week, however all three restaurants we tried had an hours wait to be seated, so we came home and had a chinese instead!  Ended up being a bit late though.

Day 8 began with further project work until break time when I had another session with Geoff learning about the on-line resources the library subscribes to such as Grove on-line, Jstor and ProQuest.  On-line access is a bit different at RNCM to MMU as each student at RNCM has an individual log-in with Athens, whereas at MMU, being a much bigger institution everything is much more automated and all done through Shibboleth with the students library log-in.  However, the MyAthens homepage did seem to have a lot of useful features.

After lunch Kelly showed me the Inter-library loan system.  This is an area of library work which I have never been involved with either as customer or librarian so it was interesting to see the process.  She showed me ordering both music, books and journals as well as the receiving process as 140 parts of 3 different choral works had just arrived from 4 different libraries and they all needed to be checked and processed ready to be collected by the choir members.

The final part of the day was spent with Doug seeing how he creates resources for the students by recording TV programmes under a special educational license.

Day 9 was spent working on my cataloguing project.  Mostly early editions of Gluck operas and Handel Oratorios today.  Most of the pieces are quite straightforward and the records can be copied from the British Library, but a couple today took quite a bit of investigation to catalogue, especially some extracts from Cherubini’s Medea which were bound into the back of one of the Gluck operas and which didn’t have a title page or publisher information.

I’ve really enjoyed my week at the RNCM.  I’ve seen so many aspects of librarianship that are transferable to any library such as cataloguing, inter-library loans and acquisitions as well as much that is specific to music librarianship.  I would love to work in a music library, but the jobs are few and far between.  I will just have to keep my eyes open.  I’m back at the RNCM in a couple of weeks for a few more days of placement though.

RNCM Day 7

I’ve spent most of today getting on with my cataloguing project. My most interesting find today was some early editions of Corelli Trio Sonatas which had belonged to Chester Library (with wonderful old library rules plates in the front) and which had apparently been rescued from a skip by a beady eyed librarian.

I spent a couple of hours on the counter dealing with the students. The hardest thing is I keep forgetting to unset the security tags so the alarms keep going off, it’s one of the major differences from being on counter at Warrington. Sarah went through cataloguing CDs in lulls at the counter. I’m beginning to get more confident at some of the cataloguing now, but still struggle to remember punctuation and indicators. I’m so glad I have some practical experience of cataloguing to put on my CV.

One advantage of working the full week is meeting all the staff who work part-time through the week. Today I met Doug and Alison for the first time. Alison and I got on really well and found we had lots in common as we both have several children and run!

Mum and Dad took the children to Liverpool World Museum today and then Mum cooked tea for us as Paul is away in Bath with work.  We stayed on a bit and played an old game the children had found, although they were a bit tired to finish it.

RNCM Day 6

Today I spent the morning shadowing two more members of staff, Nigel who purchases and processes audio-visual items and Mimi who processes reservations.

The AV system is fairly similar to the book and music purchasing, except most things are purchased from one supplier.  Again a lot of things are purchased from student and staff requests, but the college has also benefitted from a number of donations of CDs from musicians.  I processed a few of these donations onto the catalogue to see how the processing of CDs is done.  Nigel only adds a brief catalogue record and Sarah does the full cataloguing in due course, but as it can take a while for the full record to be done it’s still important to add a meaningful entry to the catalogue so students can find the CD straight away.

After a break Mimi showed me the reservation process.  This is quite similar to the process we have at the public library where I work, except we probably spend much more of our time at Warrington processing reservations as so much stock is requested to and from branch libraries.

I spent my lunchtime photographing the Geoffrey Manton building at MMU for my Web Design project and reading a SSADM textbook.  My coursework and it’s deadlines are never far from my mind.

After lunch I continued with my project of cataloguing the Early Printed Music archive.  It’s an interesting project.  I catalogued a couple of little known works today by Peter Benoit and Julius Benedict, complete with inscriptions from the composers to Sir Charles Hallé.  Hopefully if I’ve added them to the catalogue properly other people will be able to discovere them too.

RNCM Day 5

Today I started my first full week placement at the RNCM library.  It started early as I had to pick up youngest from swimming at 7.30am and then went straight on to drop all three children with my mum who is looking after them for three days this week.  A truly heroic feat!

Today I have been shadowing some of the library assistants and doing some processing of acquisitions which involves allocating barcodes, adding security tags and covering books or putting into envelopes if it is music with multiple parts.  The fun bit is covering books with vistafoil – essentially sticky backed plastic.

This afternoon I spent some time with Mary Anne, the archivist, finding out about her job.  Mary Anne works alone and although she trained as an archivist, her job also has records management appended to it, which is a full-time job in itself.  The records of the RNCM have not really been managed properly until now and there are two storage rooms full of documents which are only beginning to be recorded and catalogued so they can be accessed, stored and ultimately disposed of properly.  Records Management also involves Freedom of Information requests and Mary Anne showed me some of the wide range of requests they get, which are often just sent out to all Higher Education establishments, but which all have to be supplied within a really tight deadline.

The archives themselves comprise three main areas: the archives of the Northern School of Music, the archives of the Royal Manchester College of Music, and the archives of the current college, the Royal Northern College of Music which formed in 1973 when the other two schools merged.  There are lots of unique and interesting collections, including the collections of several composers.  Mary Anne explained some of the issues of cataloguing archives, how do you maintain the integrity of a ‘collection’ but still make it accessible to searchers in the google age where keyword searches do not always show context?

One of the biggest challenges Mary Anne faces is making the archives available and promoting them to students and other researchers.  She does this through workshops, talks, displays and through the website.  One of the more innovative promotions is a resource for KS3 and 4 developed with Bolton and Trafford archives ‘Investigating the life of Thomas Baron Pitfield’ a local musician, artist and craftsman which links the Music, English, Drama, Art and Design, Citizenship and History curriculums

I finished off the day by processing a few more books.  Already looking forward to tomorrow.

RNCM Day 4

Just realised I haven’t written up last weeks experiences at the RNCM library, and as I’m about to start my first full week placement I better not get too far behind!

This week gave me an insight into one of the issues of running a small library with a small staff and little room for cover.  One of the library assistants Mimi is ill and although all the other staff were extremely sypathetic to the situation, it did cause a lot of extra work to make sure the desk was always manned.  In the public library where I work I am one of the bank of casual staff who can be called on to cover sick staff or during holiday times.  This is a luxury they don’t have at the RNCM.

I was supposed to be shadowing Mimi today to see the reservations process, but obviously this didn’t happen, so I spent the first part of the morning finishing off my first mini cataloguing project of attaching the individual journal chapters to the parent book record.

Next I spent some time with Alan seeing how he processes journals when they arrive and how he keeps track of missing copies so that the library resources remain complete and up to date.

In the afternoon I spent some time with Anna, the Chief Librarian who explained her role and the various academic committees she and other members of staff sit on.  Anna has the main academic liaison role, ensuring that books and articles required by courses are available in the library and arranging digitisation of key chapters with correct licenses and records.  Anna is also responsible for buying journals and she explained how they keep records of use and relevance to teaching.  She also spoke about getting access to on-line resources and some of the pitfalls and problems they have had with students sharing password access to resources with students from other institutions.  Equally when students were asked to register with Athens to activate their account how many problems this had caused when students had not registered in the required time period.  It is hard to strike a balance between ensuring expensive resources are not abused and making sure access is easily available to all students when they need it.

Anna then introduced my new project which is to catalogue a large collection of early printed music which is currently stored in the archives area.  It is not archive material as it is not original, but it is not being accessed as it has not been catalogued and therefore no-one properly knows what is there and how to find it.  This is where the cataloguing theory from the course all starts to make sense as I can see that if I do the cataloguing correctly I will be making a new resource available to students and possibly scholars around the country.  Luckily most of the material has a catalogue record with the British Library so I have to import the record and then tidy it up to fit the RNCMs catalogue.  Most of the music was printed in the early to mid 19th century so it is a fascinating link to the past.  One piece even had a plate in the front saying ‘Property of Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy’ although there was nothing else to suggest if this was really the case.

It was quite time consuming work trying to track down the correct records at the British Library, especially as my brain is still a bit fuggy following a migraine the previous day.  Hopefully I’ll be in better form tomorrow.

End of the week

Well, the library libday8 ‘Week in the life’ project finished yesterday, but I’ve decided to blog today so that I’ve finished my complete ‘week in my life’.

Woke up at 8am this morning to thick fog in addition to a layer of ice so I was in no rush to get to church to copy the pew sheets.  I spent a while icing my hip and ended up going down to church at 9.30am which is later than I would have liked.  I’d just finished the copying when I noticed the wrong date was on the sheet and on closer inspection I realised I’d printed out the wrong sheet at 11pm last night and I’d just photocopied it double sided 50 times.  Had to dash home to print out the correct one and then dash back to copy it.  I was already in a tizz about the amount of work I need to get done today and this was the last straw.

Paul took the children to church, but I didn’t go to the service.  Instead I caught up on some uni related e-mails and got on with my Web Site Design project which needs to be submitted on Friday.  I finished the home page design, colour choices etc this morning and this afternoon I’ve created the other 10 pages (only a framework, the content is for the next submission) and made sure all the links work.

In between the children had helped Paul to clean the kitchen and do the washing up, but some of the really greasy stuff had defeated them (and Paul can’t help with his bandaged finger) so finished that.  Then I finished reading a systems analysis text book.  Think I’ve got a broad outline of what I want to say in that essay now, just need to find some more sources.

Paul cooked a lovely roast chicken dinner and the children made cakes.  I’m so blessed really.

About 8pm I finished the coding for the Web Design work, so I’ve just got to write a schedule for completing the project before submitting on Friday (and checking all the links work when I upload it at uni).  Off to have a bath and an early night before Monday morning and a 4.30am wake up for youngest’s swimming club sets the week off again.