Saturday, November 15, 2008

Library Software Sucks

Every so often I decide I should use the library more, instead of buying quite so many books. Since the books I want are almost always out or at another branch, I don't go to the library in person much. Instead, I use their web interface.

First, I guess I should be grateful / thankful that they have a web interface at all.

But it could be so much better!

I'm going to compare to Amazon, not because Amazon is necessarily perfect, but it's pretty good and most people are familiar with it.

Obviously, I'm talking about the web interface for my local library. There could be better systems out there, but I suspect most of them are just as bad.

Amazon has a Search box on every page. The library forces you to go to a separate search page. Although "Keyword Search" is probably what you want, it's on the right. On the left, where you naturally tend to go first, is "Exact Search". Except it's not exactly "exact", since they carefully put instructions on the screen to drop "the", "a", "an" from the beginning. This kind of thing drives me crazy. Why can't the software do that automatically? (It's like almost every site that takes a credit card number wants you to omit the spaces, even though it could do that trivially for you.) However, they don't tell you equally or more important tips like if you're searching for an author you have to enter last name first.

Assuming you're paying attention enough to realize you want the keyword search, you now have to read the fine print:
Searching by "Keyword" searches all indexed fields. Use the words and, or, and not to combine words to limit or broaden a search. If you enter more than one word without and, or, or not, then your keywords will be searched as an exact phrase.
Since they don't tell you which fields are indexed the first sentence is useless. The last sentence is surprising. Why would you make the default searching by "exact phrase". If you wanted "exact" wouldn't you be using the exact search on the left?
Oops. I guess I was too slow. I'm not sure what session it's talking about since I didn't log in. When I click on "begin a new session" it takes me back to the Search screen, with my search gone, of course.

Let's try "edward abbey" - 7 results including some about him or with prefaces by him.

How about "abbey, edward" - 5 results including one by "Carpenter, Edward" called "Westminster Abby". So much for exact phrase. Maybe the comma?

Try "abbey edward" - same results so I'm not sure what they mean by "exact phrase"

The search results themselves could be a lot nicer. No cover images. And nothing to make the title stand out. And the titles are all lower case. That may be how librarians treat them, but it's not how anyone else writes titles.

Oops, sat on the search results screen too long. At least this time it didn't talk about my session.

Back on the search results, there's a check box to add to "My Hitlist". When I first saw that I was excited. Then I read that the list disappears when my "session" ends. Since my "session" seems to get abrubtly ended fairly regularly, the hitlist doesn't appear too useful.

It would be really nice if you could have persistent "wish lists" like on Amazon.

Once you find a book you can reserve it. That's great and it's the whole reason I'm on here. But it presents you with a bit of a dilemma. If you reserve a bunch of books, they tend to arrive in bunches, and you can't read them all before they're due back. But if you only reserve one or two, then you could be waiting a month or two to get them.

Ideally, I'd like to see something like Rogers Video Direct, where I can add as many movies as I want to my "Zip List" (where do they come up with these names?) and they send me three at a time as they become available. When I return one then they send me another.

Notice the "Log Out" on the top right. This is a strange one since there's no "Log In". It seems to take you to the same screen as when your "session" times out. The only way to log in that I've found is to choose "My Account", which then opens a new window. This window doesn't have a Log Out link, instead it tells you to close the window when you're finished by clicking the "X" in the top right corner. Of course, I'm on a Max so my "X" is in the top left. But that's not a problem because if you stay in the My Account window too long (a minute or so) it closes itself.

Of course, this assumes you didn't delay too long in clicking on My Account, because then you'll get:
Obviously, the lesson here is that you better not dither. But why? The reason the web scales is that once I've downloaded a page, I can sit and look at it as long as I like, without requiring any additional effort from the server. I'm not sure why this library system is so intent on getting rid of me. I could see if it was storing a bunch of session data for me that it might just be over aggressive about purging sessions. But I'm just browsing, it should be stateless as far as the server is concerned.

And then there's the quality of the data itself. I'd show you some examples, but:
I've tried reporting errors in the data, like author's name duplicated or mis-spelled but there doesn't seem to be any process for users to report errors. It'd be nice if users could simply mark possible errors as they were browsing so library staff could clean them up.

I could go on longer - what about new releases? what about suggestions based on my previous selections? what about a history of the books I've borrowed? what about reviews? Amazon has all these. But I'm sure by now you get the point.

I suspect the public web interface is an afterthought that didn't get much attention. And it's a case where the buyers (the libraries/librarians) aren't the end users (of the public web interface anyway). And since these are huge expensive systems there's large amounts of inertia. Even if something better did come along it would be an uphill battle to get libraries to switch.

And it's unlikely any complaints or suggestions from users even get back to the software developers. There are too many layers in between. I've tried to politely suggest the software could be better but all I get is a blank look and an offer to teach me how to use it. After all, I should be grateful, it's not that long ago we had to search a paper card catalog. I'm afraid at this rate it's not likely to improve very quickly.

The copyright at the bottom reads:

Copyright © Sirsi-Dynix. All rights reserved.
Version 2003.1.3 (Build 405.8)

I wonder if that means this version of the software is from 2003. Five years is a long time in the software business. Either the library isn't buying the updates, or Sirsi-Dynix is a tad behind on their development. But hey, their web site says "SirsiDynix is the global leader in strategic technology solutions for libraries". If so, technology solutions for libraries are in a pretty sad state.


Penny said...

I really appreciate having a partner in frustration. I was so excited when they introduced the wish list feature - and it's completely useless. You just have to lower your expectations - if you search for a specific title or author, you are reasonably successful. Subject searches are almost useless. And be careful you don't select the audio version of a title instead of the text - I've done that more than once.

Larry Reid said...

The Vancouver Public Library system sucks, too, but not as much as the Saskatoon system. I think you're right: The combination of staff using a different interface and the high cost of switching software has frozen library systems at an unfortunate moment in their evolution.

By the way, when I read the headline of this article in Google Reader, I thought you had got frustrated with someone's code you were trying to use in jSuneido.

Anonymous said...

Well, your title paints broad strokes based on an experience with a single system, but it turns out that you're right - a lot of library software sucks. It's the result of a niche market with just a few predominant vendors who had no impetus to actually be innovative.

That's the reason open source projects like Evergreen (, Koha (, along with a whole lot of other projects. And there's a community called "code4lib" ( that is rather anarchically concerned about crappy library software.

BTW, yes, your library could update to a newer version of that particular software, but it would probably look and act almost identically (unless they paid through the nose to move to a brand new user interface currently being pushed by the vendor).

Anonymous said...

The problem with open source projects is they are great on paper but the actual end users are left with a substandard product years behind in functionality just so a closet programmer at the library can feel in control. Talk to anyone in Georgia, they hate Evergreen.

andrew said...

Note: the system I'm talking about is commercial, not open source.

Sure, some open source software sucks too. The advantage is that you're NOT stuck with what some programmer in a back room does. If it's open source and you feel strongly enough, you can change it, or fork the project, or whatever. Although you'd still have to convince people (the library in this case) to use an "improved" version.