Friday, February 12, 2010

OPAC Thinking

The academic institution that I am slightly affiliated with is in a bit of a kerfuffle about which search interface to use for the Online Public Access Catalog (OPAC). There are departmental politics involved as well as the more understandable questions of user comfort, training issues, and convenience. This is also not the first time these kinds of questions have come up. There have been three separate and distinct default search interfaces for this particular OPAC over the past couple of years.

What most strikes me about the conversation, though, is not that there is some spirited discussion about what interface makes the most sense to use, but rather that we do such a bad job of looking at the search experience from anyone else's perspective. I'm not pointing any fingers here and I am just as guilty of it as everybody else, but we tend to assume that everyone uses the OPAC the same way that we do. I find it hard to believe that most users search like those of us who are discussing the interface, especially when the main contributors to the discussion are librarians who have large amounts of familiarity with the tools and know how to get the results we need.

In order to try and temper my own biases I did a few quick searches of the library literature to see if I could find any studies on how library patrons use the OPAC and there is very little out there. I expected dozens of studies and only found one or two and those were generally done at a much more specific or limited level than what I really wanted. The kind of information we need when making search interface decisions is things like what are users generally looking for? Are they coming in with an item in mind? Are they looking for anything on a particular subject? Are they only interested in stuff they can get their hands on today? Are they starting their search in the OPAC, or are they resorting to it after giving up on the web?

Several of those questions illuminate my own search biases so let me put those biases out there for the record right now. I use the OPAC in one primary way. I have an item I have already identified a need for and I want to know if I can get it from a particular library. In the past, as a student, I would also often use it to find items that I could get my hands on today. If I had a paper due soon (most likely tomorrow), or a project I needed to start working on I would do a few searches to see what, if anything, I could find on a topic that was in the library right now. Most of the research I do now is not for papers due tomorrow or things that require immediate answers. For most of it, sooner is better but a little longer with the best answer is best of all. This means that I simply never use a library catalog for primary subject searches. I know that no library carries every possible item and I know that there are databases of items that are far more comprehensive than almost every individual library catalog. I also know that through purchase or interlibrary loan almost every book in the country and world is accessible. So why would I limit myself to one library's catalog? Why wouldn't I start with Amazon or Worldcat or even just one of the biggest single library catalogs like the Library of Congress'? I find it a little incomprehensible that not everyone thinks in this same way. I'm sure other people have different search strategies, but I find it difficult to imagine what they are and that makes it hard to discuss things like interfaces.

Everyone has this problem. It's the same reason that everyone thinks God has the same morals as they do. Almost anytime someone tells you that people "search this way" what they are really saying is "I search this way." Sometimes they may have enough information to say "I search this way and I've seen other people do it too," but that's rarer and a little misleading. People remember the things they want to remember so if you help ten people search the catalog and eight of them have problems with things that don't bother you and two of them have the same problem you did, you're going to remember those two people, not the eight. Another problem with drawing conclusions from personal experience is that the squeaky wheel gets the oil and there is ALWAYS a squeaky wheel. 99% of the population you're serving can be completely happy with, or at least indifferent to, a change you make in the search interface and therefore never express that opinion. All it takes is one or two people, though, who hate the new look or some other aspect of the new interface and they will have a good shot at derailing any change. This is especially true if those one or two people have the same complaints as some of the librarians in charge of making the decision. And there will always be at least one or two people who hate any change. You could develop a chemical that changes the smell of sewage to the smell of roses and somebody would be unhappy about it.

So what's my point? I guess my most important point is to do some user research, whenever possible. Try not to do it with just regular library users, volunteers, and librarians. See if you can get a few friends, neighbors, or random people off the street to try out your interface (or any other web software you're implementing) and tell you what they think. My other point is to try to differentiate between one or two people with minor complaints and the 99% of people who aren't saying anything.

Also, once you've decided to make a change, watch those user trends. If everyone said they loved the new interface, but usage dropped 50% once you put it in place it is probably time to try again. Just because a decision was made that doesn't mean it can't be unmade or changed to be more effective.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

No Security Is Good Security

I was reading in my morning paper today about a woman who took 10 hours to get through airport security on a flight from Toronto to LA. I'm sure this is not the norm, but it is a great example of how ridiculous airport security is. The huge delays after attempted terrorist attacks do a great job of showing how good the TSA is at attempting to shut the barn door after the horses have already fled.

Let me propose a simple solution that would make airport security much more convenient for everyone. That solution is to get rid of it completely. That may sound crazy, but it would be unlikely to increase the number of successful attacks and it would make life so much simpler for everyone that they might be willing to accept the possible increased risk. Let me also state, for the record, that if my "no security" plan takes off I would be more than happy to be the first one to die in any possible terrorist attack. Too bad terrorists don't generally seek out volunteers.

Think about the last three or four terrorist attacks on airlines in the US. We have the horribly effective attack on 9/11 in which the passengers did not realize the intent of the terrorists to crash the plane. Then we have the shoe bomber who was stopped from setting off his bomb by flight attendants and other passengers. Most recently we have this guy in Detroit who tried to use explosives that he hid in his underwear and a syringe. It's a little unclear what happened there, but it sounds like either passengers or flight attendants saw something start to smoke and stopped the man from going any further with his explosive. To some extent this just speaks to the incompetence of the last couple of terrorist attempts, but it also shows that regular people are willing to step up and stop somebody who might be a terrorist if they appear to be doing something suspicious. Nobody is going to be able to hijack a plane using box cutters for at least the next couple of decades.

My other point is that even with high security terrorists will always be able to find new ways to try something. Until we have a device that easily detects all known explosive materials and weapons, we are going to keep getting attempted attacks. Probably even with such a device there would be ways found to try and take over or blow up a plane. Why terrorists seem intent on blowing up planes, I have no idea. They would do about the same amount of damage by blowing up a bus and it would be a lot easier to accomplish.

So basically, we are giving up many hours of the lives of millions of airline passengers every year in order to stop what would essentially be a bad bus crash. This is crazy. We really need to stop this madness.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Chiropractic cures for Asthma?

Chiropractic cures for Asthma? Yes, that is as stupid as it sounds, but some Chiropractors seems to believe it.

Below is my reposting of the article that Simon Singh wrote regarding this crap. I'm a day late, but it's being reposted around the internet to protest the fact that the British Chiropratic Association sued Singh for libel for writing it. I'll repeat the explanation and the article below.

On 29th July a number of magazines and websites are going to be publishing Simon Singh’s Guardian article on chiropractic from April 2008, with the part the BCA sued him for removed.

They are reprinting it, following the lead of Wilson da Silva at COSMOS magazine, because they think the public should have access to the evidence and the arguments in it that were lost when the Guardian withdrew the article after the British Chiropractic Association sued for libel.

We want as many people as possible around the world to print it or put it live on the internet at the same time to make an interesting story and prove that threatening libel or bringing a libel case against a science writer won’t necessarily shut down the debate.

You might be surprised to know that the founder of chiropractic therapy, Daniel David Palmer, wrote that “99% of all diseases are caused by displaced vertebrae”. In the 1860s, Palmer began to develop his theory that the spine was involved in almost every illness because the spinal cord connects the brain to the rest of the body. Therefore any misalignment could cause a problem in distant parts of the body.

In fact, Palmer’s first chiropractic intervention supposedly cured a man who had been profoundly deaf for 17 years. His second treatment was equally strange, because he claimed that he treated a patient with heart trouble by correcting a displaced vertebra.

You might think that modern chiropractors restrict themselves to treating back problems, but in fact some still possess quite wacky ideas. The fundamentalists argue that they can cure anything, including helping treat children with colic, sleeping and feeding problems, frequent ear infections, asthma and prolonged crying – even though there is not a jot of evidence.

I can confidently label these assertions as utter nonsense because I have co-authored a book about alternative medicine with the world’s first professor of complementary medicine, Edzard Ernst. He learned chiropractic techniques himself and used them as a doctor. This is when he began to see the need for some critical evaluation. Among other projects, he examined the evidence from 70 trials exploring the benefits of chiropractic therapy in conditions unrelated to the back. He found no evidence to suggest that chiropractors could treat any such conditions.

But what about chiropractic in the context of treating back problems? Manipulating the spine can cure some problems, but results are mixed. To be fair, conventional approaches, such as physiotherapy, also struggle to treat back problems with any consistency. Nevertheless, conventional therapy is still preferable because of the serious dangers associated with chiropractic.

In 2001, a systematic review of five studies revealed that roughly half of all chiropractic patients experience temporary adverse effects, such as pain, numbness, stiffness, dizziness and headaches. These are relatively minor effects, but the frequency is very high, and this has to be weighed against the limited benefit offered by chiropractors.

More worryingly, the hallmark technique of the chiropractor, known as high-velocity, low-amplitude thrust, carries much more significant risks. This involves pushing joints beyond their natural range of motion by applying a short, sharp force. Although this is a safe procedure for most patients, others can suffer dislocations and fractures.

Worse still, manipulation of the neck can damage the vertebral arteries, which supply blood to the brain. So-called vertebral dissection can ultimately cut off the blood supply, which in turn can lead to a stroke and even death. Because there is usually a delay between the vertebral dissection and the blockage of blood to the brain, the link between chiropractic and strokes went unnoticed for many years. Recently, however, it has been possible to identify cases where spinal manipulation has certainly been the cause of vertebral dissection.

Laurie Mathiason was a 20-year-old Canadian waitress who visited a chiropractor 21 times between 1997 and 1998 to relieve her low-back pain. On her penultimate visit she complained of stiffness in her neck. That evening she began dropping plates at the restaurant, so she returned to the chiropractor. As the chiropractor manipulated her neck, Mathiason began to cry, her eyes started to roll, she foamed at the mouth and her body began to convulse. She was rushed to hospital, slipped into a coma and died three days later. At the inquest, the coroner declared: “Laurie died of a ruptured vertebral artery, which occurred in association with a chiropractic manipulation of the neck.”

This case is not unique. In Canada alone there have been several other women who have died after receiving chiropractic therapy, and Edzard Ernst has identified about 700 cases of serious complications among the medical literature. This should be a major concern for health officials, particularly as under-reporting will mean that the actual number of cases is much higher.

If spinal manipulation were a drug with such serious adverse effects and so little demonstrable benefit, then it would almost certainly have been taken off the market.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Espresso Book Machine dubiousness

I keep seeing libraries and library blogs get excited about the Espresso Book Machine, but you can count me among the unconvinced. Let me preface my comments by saying that I tend to be a bit of a pessimist so it is certainly possible that I am underestimating the public's desire for a machine like this.

I am going to sum up my thoughts by comparing my dream book machine to the product that Blackwell actually seems to be making available.

Would I like to be able to go to any corner store or nearby book store and be sure that I could get a good, cheap copy of any book I wanted? Hell yes! Would I like that book to be accurately printed with any original images and/or charts in it? Once again I would have to say yes. Is this what Blackwell says they can give us us? No. Not even close.

What struck me most about the Gizmodo article that I linked to above was that the cost of a 300 page book is estimated to be $43. This is the first time that I had seen any actual cost estimates. That price seems way too high. Actually, it may be appropriate for textbooks and other reference-type books, but since most of the current titles that are available are out-of-copyright and out of print books I find it hard to imagine that anyone is going to fork over almost $50 for a copy. I am also concerned about images. I'm going to assume that the machine only prints in black and white, although it's possible I'm mistaken there. That will work for a lot of books, but it is going to exclude a lot of illustrated works. What I can maybe see it being useful for is if I'm gift shopping or in desperate need of a book today and there are no local shops with a copy. How often does that happen, though? Most of the time I can go to Amazon and find even an out of print title and get it overnighted, usually for less than $50. Still, it wouldn't hurt a book shop to keep an Espresso Book Machine around, at least not if Blackwell rents them out or licenses them at a reasonable rate. Somehow the $43/book charge makes me doubt that.

What seems extremely unlikely is that these machines will see much use in libraries. What is the main benefit of getting a book from a library? It's free and that's about it. Sure, there are some titles that are only available at libraries and they let you browse a large number of titles before selecting one, but the primary reason for going to a library is to pick up a book without paying for it. A $50 book machine simply doesn't interact well with that advantage.

My final verdict is: might kinda sorta work in bookstores, but not a chance in hell for libraries. We'll see if the market can prove me wrong.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Salaries of UK Librarians

Remember when I said I would write weekly updates to my blog? Yeah, well, that obviously didn't happen. I may try that again or not, but in the mean time I've been meaning to post an updated list of the salaries of UK Librarians:

This data is taken from the Info Center at the Herald-Leader's site. I copied this data out today (4/27/09), but it most certainly reflects the salaries at an earlier date than that. I would make an educated guess that these salaries are from somewhere between 8/08 and 11/08, but I can make no guarantee as to the exact time period. On the bright side (?), UK is still in the middle of a multi-year salary freeze so these numbers are unlikely to have changed much except where employees have left or been added. One last thing I should mention, is that there are probably a few librarians that have been left out of this list. I only pulled the information on employees who had "Libraries" or "Library" in their department name.

Monday, April 6, 2009


Damn! Why have I not heard of WebCite before this?

Everyone who cites websites needs to hear about this tool. Really. I cannot count the number of times that I have seen websites referenced that no longer looked the way they did when they were first cited. This is most obvious when people are pointing out typos or poor Photoshop jobs, but this sort of thing happens all of the time. And look at this, now we have a tool that can take care of that problem. Now, if we could only get people to start using it.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

LibraryThing Widgets

Ooo, I like the new customizable LibraryThing widgets. See sidebar for example. It took me a little while to figure out I had to hot the "Refresh!" button on the customizing page rather than the "Reload" link if I wanted the example on the right to appear the way my customized widget would look before I copied it out, but other than that the whole thing is pretty fun and intuitive to use. Way to go Tim!