Life Lessons from the Library: Think Like Your User.

Ray Stantz: [finding a tower of stacked books] Look!

Egon Spengler: This is hot, Ray.

Ray Stanz: Symmetrical book stacking, just like the Philadelphia mass turbulence of 1947.

Peter Venkman: You’re right. No human being would stack books like this.

From Ghostbusters.

I’m sure students often think that college libraries were not organized by human beings but by aliens with a vocabulary that bears little relationship to their actual experiences. Of course, all of academia could be accused of this. Just yesterday, I sat in a meeting listening to a spirited discussion of the difference in meaning between elearning and online learning. I had to wonder if our students made such fine distinctions or if they even cared. And would their learning experience be different in either case?

I know that students need to learn a new vocabulary when they come to college, and as an English major, I have no problem with that. But I think it’s counterproductive to throw new terms just because they’re words we know and use.

“But they’re so obvious,” some people say to me. I’m not so sure.

Take the typical new student. He sits in one of our orientations and hears that he can look up books in the online catalog. A few weeks later, he needs to do some research, clicks on the college web page, sees the familiar term ‘catalog,’ and clicks on it, only to find the college listing of courses and policies.

Then once he finds the right catalog and looks up a book, he discovers it’s in the stacks. Umm, he looks around: There are books shelved neatly (most of the time) on both levels of the library. But he doesn’t see any stacked up. Where should he go?

One of the most helpful things we can do is approach our work as one of our users and not as experts in the subject. Recently, I bought an iPad. When I got home, I took it out of its box and hooked it up to iTunes on my computer. Without my doing anything else, suddenly I was up and running. There is a beautiful genius in making things uncomplicated.

We listen to our students when they complain about our webpages or when they don’t understand how to find something. When we make changes, we keep those problems in mind.

And while we don’t always succeed, I’ m proud of us for making the effort, especially when I’m a consumer/user of an unncessarily complicated, convoluted, and incomprehensible system.


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