My dentist told me two noteworthy things yesterday: I need to floss more, and she misses the card catalog. I’ll leave aside my dental hygiene, it being a bit out of the scope of this blog, to focus on the latter.
She complained that the online catalog never works for her for one simple reason: she’s a horrible speller. With the card catalog, she could get to the general area and then thumb through the cards until she found what she was looking for. With an online catalog, a mistyped word gets you, “No results matched your query”, or some such. Then it’s off to the dictionary to figure out how to spell what you’re looking for. Or the user just assumes your library doesn’t have any relevant resources and goes to find the first match on Google.
There are some rather simple solutions for this that I have seen implemented. The catalog can suggest similarly spelled words when the user searches for an unknown term, much in the same way that Google or Amazon asks, “Did you mean: properly spelled word”. Or the user can land in a list of indexed terms that are nearby, alphabetically. (I’ll leave it to others to determine the optimal user interface for dealing with multiple misspelled words.)
The point is that our catalogs are failing our users, in this way among others. Someone would prefer, with good reason, to manually flip through printed cards rather than take advantage of the far greater search capabilities of the computer, because we haven’t replicated the functionality of a stack of paper. Vendors, why don’t we have these tools in place as a standard part of every catalog, of every journal database, of every digital library? It would be nice to finally offer quarter-century old technology to our users.