Why can’t library searches be this simple?

Time for a rant – and I know I’m preaching to the choir here, but why the heck does it have to be so hard to find things in libraries??

Yesterday my husband was traveling and he was worried that he’d miss his connection so while he was on the ground but not at the gate I wanted to find out where his next gate was. I decided to try a little something on Google. I typed in (without quotes) ‘United Flight 2456 gate’ and right there at the top of my results were the flights and the gate info!

I then thought, boy wouldn’t it be great if library catalogs were that smart and that friendly. So I went to my public library catalog and searched for (without quotes) ‘the help’. I don’t know where in the results (if at all) my book was, but it wasn’t on page one and there was no way to filter the results by author (that I saw).

So then I thought, well WorldCat does searching much better, so let’s see how hard it is to find out if my library has a copy of the book available using WorldCat. So I went and did the same exact search and results numbers 1, 3, and 4 were all The Help (no idea how result #2 got in there).

So then I clicked to see if my library had the material and things just went downhill. The first 4 libraries on the list of local libraries didn’t take me to the book, but to the library catalog homepage and then the one that did show me the book made me click yet again to get the availability information.

Why the heck does it have to be this hard?? I want to know if my library has a book and if it’s available and I know how to use the library, but our patrons are going through this nonsense when they can type in simple queries like ‘United Flight 2456 gate’ to Google and get the info they need without any additional clicks.

Now, Koha isn’t perfect, but I would be remiss if I didn’t mention here that when you search for ‘the help’ (without quotes) on a Koha catalog the material you want is the first result (if you have your search set to sort by relevance – which is the default) and availability information displays right on the search results page (if you have that preference turned on – and why the heck wouldn’t you?) so that I don’t have to click any further unless I want to learn more about the material.

No wonder everyone turns to Google instead of to libraries for answers …


  1. I love Blacklight!! It’s one of my top recommendations when teaching open source! And I know that even if the availability info on WorldCat was easy (which I know it’s not) it would still be up to the libraries and their software to provide OCLC with the right info to show. It’s just sad when I see how easy it is to use some tools to see libraries still using archaic proprietary systems. Obviously it can be done cause Koha, Blacklight and probably other open source systems do it!

  2. I’m pleasantly surprised that we win The Help challenge as well! However, there are a lot of searches that snowball into “the” misery.

  3. 1) libraries assume that the user knows the library well; Google assumes that the user knows what she wants in her own words but doesn’t know anything about searching
    2) libraries assume that the user has time, but the librarian does not; Google knows that none of us want to spend a lot of time searching, we want results
    3) libraries assume that the user wants to get a bunch of books; Google assumes that the user wants an answer

  4. Karen’s three points are spot-on: libraries are making assumptions about the user that might once have been true, but aren’t any more in the Internet Age.

    I’ll add a couple more points:

    4) Many libraries rely on “boxed” solutions from vendors. Although vendors want to make good software, they are making fundamentally *generic* software that can be applied to the most number of libraries out there and therefore is not customized and tuned for your patrons’ specific needs.
    5) Libraries install “boxed” solutions and don’t give it another thought. Google has a team of people whose job is to analyze what people are searching for, as well as how successful they are and how they can make their search engine better with that info. Many libraries would do well to dedicate time, personnel and resources to analyzing and improving their search system beyond the default settings provided by a vendor.

  5. Rob,

    I totally agree:

    For #4 I’d say that Google isn’t customized to any one person or audience’s need either – it just works. If you’re an experienced searcher you know how to find the more advanced options, if you’re not then the answers are usually right there on page one for you.

    For #5 I’d argue that for the money we pay these vendors they had better be doing usability testing and getting the opinions of the general public in their design decisions. Yes, we in libraries should do a bit of that, but that means paying for more staff time and we don’t all have that – but we’re paying a salary or more to these vendors for sub-par software! Why aren’t they doing the job? And if they aren’t doing the job why not take a look at open source – pay less and put that money you saved in to that staff time to test the software/improve the software instead?

  6. Of course, even if they were doing the job, people should be using Free and Open Source Software anyway.

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