We’ve been planning to do some usability studies on our web site this year since it’s been a couple of years since our current site was implemented, and it’s time to check and see if the things that made sense to students a few years ago still make sense to them now. So I was interested to have several interactions with students over the course of the last week or so which indicated that students really are interacting with the site differently now. In short, they’re looking for anything that might look like a search box, and they’re using any and all search boxes in same way. More than at any previous time, I’m noticing that my students expect every single search box to be their point of entry into all library resources. At the same time, when they search through collections of collections, they’re highly frustrated. So what gives? (And I really mean that as a serious question. I simply cannot resolve these two frustrations in my head.)
But leaving that conundrum aside for the moment, here’s what I’ve noticed about the “any search box is the same search box and searches everything” mentality.
First, there was a student last week who was searching our catalog for “information on her topic” when what she clearly needed were newspaper articles, and she knew that. But, you see, we had a search box sitting at the top of our “Find” page, so that’s what she used. It’s quite logical, really. If I didn’t know what “The Bridge” is, the difference between a catalog and a database, or if I just didn’t bother to read the labels, that’s what I’d do too.
Later, another student who knew the difference between catalogs and databases came up because she wasn’t getting any results when she searched our article databases. Well… it turned out she was using the “search for a particular database from this long list of databases” box as if it were, you guessed it, a “search within these databases” search box. And it’s quite logical. That box simply says “search.”
Well, today was the kicker. I was teaching a class, and I got the whole class up into the reference room to actually use the Encyclopedia Britannica and to figure out what other subject encyclopedias might be useful as entries into their topics. I’d just shown them how to navigate Britannica’s index, and then showed them a custom search form I’d made so that they could find subject encyclopeidas to browse. Got that? I’d shown them Britannica. Ok. Well, one student clicked from the course guide I’d made into the catalog record for Britannica, and then was trying to use the search box there to search Britannica for his topic. I guess he figured that would be a much more efficient way than the way I’d just demonstrated. And he’s right… but that’s simply not possible from within our catalogs.
My conclusion? Somehow, every search box is a Google box. Every search box is presumed to query everything. And yet, when search boxes do query everything, the students are frustrated to the point of paralysis with the results they get. So basically, if we are to fix this problem, we need federated search that guides students so expertly through result lists and items and collections that they can actually find what they want in the mess that is “all available information.” Oh, and all content must be digitized. This is (currently) impossible. Which brings me back to my conundrum… what do we do now? with today’s library technology? Or is it just a case of needing to label our search boxes better? …. I’ve got no answers.