5 next-gen library catalogs and 5 students: their initial impressions

May 1, 2009, 1:21 pm

This is something I’ve been sitting on for awhile now, sorry for my lack of blog time. It was a very quick and dirty study, but it gives you something to think about.

Ok, so there has been a lot of hype in recent years about building the Next-Generation Catalog. Here at GT we launched ours based on VuFind. I didn’t want to test our implementation but rather I wanted to hear what my students thought about other so-called Next Gen Cats. So I asked them.

I invited five Georgia Tech students (various majors) to volunteer (damn, the price of coffee isn’t what it used to be) to conduct a basic keyword search on five next-gen library catalogs. Basically, I told them that I wanted their first impressions, whatever came to mind. I told them to think about it as if I were designing a new catalog, tell me what they liked and disliked. Granted, it’s not very scholarly, I admit it, but I wanted to do a perceptions study, rather than an efficiently or usability study. I sat beside each student as they worked through the five catalogs that I selected, and took notes as quickly as I could. I also mixed up the order, as an attempt to limit their initial preferences.

Here is a summary of their comments:

Next Generation Melvyl Pilot
(WorldCat + University of California System)

  • Three of them said the initial page was “too empty” “too blah” or “too barren”; the other two said it was “fine” and “clean”
  • Lots of comments on slowness. One student said it took more than ten seconds to provide results, “that’s unacceptable” Another was more blunt stating “slow-motion search, typical library”
  • Two students were confused as to why articles where included in the catalog; the other three didn’t seem to notice.
  • They all liked the book covers… but I noticed (from this very small sample) the impact they had on selection. Almost all the students said they would give preference to an item that had a book cover, and would give less attention to the books that had grayed out covers. One student suggested that if no cover was available that the record shouldn’t show a gray space holder, but should be plain white. This concept of a book-cover preference should be studied more (any takers?), but the gist of my theory is that records that didn’t show the cover are deemed inferior by users. [ALA Editions, get my cover in WorldCat] J
  • They liked the limiters on the left side: format, year, language, topic, etc. In general, they liked the idea of limiters, but there was a definite preference for left over right side. I asked each student if they had ever used limiters before in our library catalog and they all said no, not really, or I’ve never used the catalog before.
  • They generally liked the colors and layout.
  • They loved the “preview in Google books” option and the “similar items” feature.
  • One student said she liked the option to tag, but when I pushed her on that she admitted that she would not tag anything herself, but would use it if others had.
  • When looking at the full record, three of the students felt there was too much information. One student had a “strong dislike” for the large font. Two of them also had issues with “all the tables” in the page design. One of them also said: “orange buttons with white text is a tremendous failure”
  • One student (Computer Science) suggested “wouldn’t it be cool if there was a module so that authors could plug in their blog or twitter feeds, or link to their FaceBook profile? If I’m reading a book and I like it, I might want to know more about the person and what else they have written, as well as what they are working on right now.” So there you go OCLC, something else to work on.


  • They all generally liked the color scheme and design. One said “the green is nice” Another called it “a very pleasant” interface.
  • They reacted negatively to “no image available” in the results. “Don’t tell me there is no image available” “Just don’t show me anything.”
  • Four of five said they preferred the limiters or “narrow search” features on the left, instead of right. My theory is that we start reading left to right and it seemed out of place at the end of content? Odd that all the students reflected on this without any prompting.
  • One student said, “I don’t want to see a heart next to any books unless I have already selected it as a favorite.”
  • “It would be nice to know if this book was a best seller or an award winner or if the author is famous”
  • “I like the comments feature, but I wish it wasn’t public” – Basically said that she might want to leave notes to herself or her friends, but not want others to see them. (I can see this in a techno-thrill, where cryptic spy messages are embedded into library catalog comment selections, like the newspaper classified ads during the Cold War Era.)
  • Two students said they wanted to see a floor map, not just the statement “third floor.”
  • Three students said they “didn’t like” or were “unsure” about the tabs: holdings, description, comments, reviews, and staff view. They seemed to think that the record looked as if information was missing. When I pushed them for more, they couldn’t tell me what they wanted to see, but it wasn’t there, or there were “organizational” issues. The other two students said they preferred these “short and to the point” records compared to other catalogs.
  • Two students said they “really liked” the Amazon reviews included in the records.
  • One student texted himself the record, but it never arrived. We waited 15 minutes but the citation was a no show.
  • One student misspelled a word and said it should “be like Google and tell me how to spell what I am looking for”
  • One student said, “it would be nice to know how long I could check this book out for, tell me right here on the screen”


  • Generally adverse feelings about the initial search screen compared with other catalogs. Students used words like “dumpy” “confusing” or “text is too small” One color comment “Red on white just burns my eyes”
  • They liked the limiters on the left, but universally hated the book covers on the right.
  • They repeated a general theme that if we (librarians) are going to go through the trouble of designing something new, then make sure it looks modern like Amazon or iTunes.
  • Looking at the results page, several students mentioned a feeling of “too much white space” “needs to be tightened up” “needs some polish” One even said “the coding looks off, it is too wide, too stretched out.”
  • Two students really liked the Ask Us Now button. Said it was very noticeable.
  • Three students pointed out that they liked seeing the availability of the item on the results screen—also liked knowing if it was on reserve. “very helpful”
  • One student felt that the results of his keyword where less accurate compared with the other catalogs. (The history of fabric.)
  •  “It looks like they are trying to be like Villanova, but failed.”
  • “very Microsoft”
  • Two students pointed out that they liked how if there wasn’t a book cover available it was just blank, it didn’t just say “no cover”. One student specifically said “see, it can be done, they got that right”
  • “It would be nice if they gave me a list of call numbers (she called them bar codes) so that I could browse around different areas in the library.” The topic she was interested in blended T’s and H’s (technology and business) she was very insistent on wanting to be able to browse for books, rather than look for a specific title.
  •  “show me a picture of it on the shelf”
  • “they have a great selection of books”
  • “the preview in Google books is too hidden, they should make that more obvious. I’d be more likely to look at a book if I knew I could glance at it first.” Again, this theme of tangibility or tactile qualities: show me the cover, let me scroll through it online first, let me see if it’s what I want or need. It is kind of like listening to 30 second song previews or watching movie trailers. I can see a theme/question emerging, is it our job to just show them what we own, or to make the content appear more enticing? If Book A has cool cover art, positive reviews, a good rating, and a 30 page preview, then am I more willing/likely to use it than Book B, which might be more appropriate in terms of content, but it lacks the notable features that lure me in? This is the significance of the user experience—I perceive book A to be better because of my emotional instincts toward the way it was presented. (I’d like to study this more.)

Vergo Beta

  • “Why is there only one book that was recently added?” He wanted to see several and be able to browse by subject.
  • Students were fairly divided on the initial search screen. Two really liked it, two “hated it” – and one didn’t care
  • One student spent more than five minutes clicking around with the limiters before entering any keywords. He seemed lost. I asked what he was looking for and he said “just poking around” All of the next-gen catalogs had sidebar limiters, but students generally seemed to prefer the aesthetics of UVA’s the most overall. However, several of them seemed confused or hesitant about see these options prior to performing a search.
  • The one student again remarked that he wanted to be able to enter misspelled words and have the system correct them.
  • “There is a tab for music, how about one for movies?”
  • They seemed to be divided about the presentation of the record. “It feels like a high school library” “Something is missing.” “Where are the tabs and the features like the other catalogs?” Others said “it looks smooth” “just the right amount of info”
  • “I don’t like seeing all the old books first.”
  • One student did a search for Steve Jobs and limited it by the most recent (date received) — the top findings were archival documents. The second one was “The select letters of Major Jack Downing” 1834. The whole first page was filled with similar items. The student was very dismissive “look how broken this is” He had wanted to see the most recent books about Steve Jobs and instead got things totally off target.
  • “This needs auto-fill”
  •  “I would like to see trailers for the DVDs, like Netflix. In fact, it would be cool to see how many movies the library has that are in my Netflix Queue so I could borrow them.”
  • “I wish it told me how many times a book was checked out. I’d like a list of the most popular books in my subject based upon the number of people who read them”
  • “I want to see more than ten books per page. Give me an option to choose how many books I want to see.” I asked him what his ideal number might be and he said 20 to 30, or maybe 50.

(U of Chicago)

  • General feeling of too much text up front. “Put the search in the middle” Overall, a feeling that it looks too-hard-to-use and confusing. I think it is safe to say that compared with others this one appeared less intuitive.
  • The one student raved about the suggested spelling feature. “This is what they all need!”
  • There were mixed feelings about the call numbers box showing up before the results. “This should be on the side” Others were confused by why it was there or what it was to be used for.
  • Four of five loved the concept map feature. One said it was lame. As they clicked through it, some got lost or found it “strange” but it definitely brought the “wow-cool” factor.
  • The interface was perceived to be “old” “clunky” “minimalist” and even “an early-web-edition” Even though it offers many of the modern features, like tags, it didn’t seem to come across as contemporary as the other catalogs.
  • “I like how I can report an item that is not on shelf.”
  • Issues again with covers on the right, instead of left.
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