Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Catalogs are for Kids

Most of us would agree, I hope, that libraries strive to be as user-friendly as possible. In light of this important mission, why do we make it so difficult for kids to find resources?

As Kelley has pointed on multiple occasions on this blog, the way we organize books on shelves doesn't usually make sense to kids. It might be time to ditch Dewey in the children's department, like Darien Library in Connecticut did last year, to create better shelves. You probably already know that most people look for books by age and subject matter, rather than call number or even the author's last name. (See James Patterson's ReadKiddoRead for another interesting organizational structure.)

Speaking of searching, the organization of our OPACs is even more confusing than our shelves! Most library catalogs are very kid UN-friendly, and ACLA is no exception. Just look at what happens when you start a from the (very cool) CLP Kids' Home page. A default keyword search for "Winnie the Pooh" leads you to a chaotic mess of 650 results. A librarian who is trained to use the system might be able to untangle these results, but this is extremely difficult for kids (and most grown ups) to navigate.

What can we do? I see two possible answers. First, we can teach kids (and their adults) how to more accurately search the library catalog. Second, we can help design a new catalog. Several companies are making efforts to design kid friendly interfaces, taking into account children's information behavior studies, which includes research confirming that kids like to choose books based on the cover. Here is a neat example by The Library Corporation followed by another called Kid's Catalog Web.

Some designers have even worked with kids to design a search interface for kids, like the International Children's Digital Library. Below you can see a search for books with "Blue Covers."  You can also search by other nontraditional facets like "True Books" (or what adults call "Nonfiction") and for books with "Imaginary Creature Characters." It's definitely worth visiting the site.

Why does this matter? At the very least, I think it's encouraging to know that there are people working to make our OPACs a kid-friendlier place. There are probably ways for those of us working on the "front lines" to help. It's good to remember that the way libraries organize materials is not intuitive. Then we can empathize with kids, educate them how to navigate our systems for their information needs, and advocate for better design. Any other ideas out there?


fogtmk said...

Wow, I'm sure you didn't intend this, but your post was quite a punch in the stomach.

I'm the manager of children's services at CLP - Squirrel Hill and my staff and I work hard to make books accessible to kids. We have some very heated discussions in our children's services meetings that include all the children's specialists at CLP about access issues as well.

I am looking forward to exploring some of your suggestions further and I appreciate you bringing some new technologies to our attention and I'd like to invite you to stop by CLP - Squirrel Hill and see how we have tackled some of our access issues.

Six years ago, I worked as a bookseller for Walden Books and I can go on for hours about how complicated it is for bookstores to catorgize books in a way that kids and parents can find. I think that there are some things that libraries can do better (better, bigger, clearer signage, please!), but overall I would not say that we are NOT doing a horrible job.

It's hard to judge tone from a blog post, so perhaps you didn't mean to sound rude. But I wanted to let you know that your post seemed unfair and at points rude to those of us who continually work to make sure that kids have access to library materials.

rebekah said...

First of all, thanks for your comment! I never know if anyone actually reads these posts, so it was really exciting to receive your feedback. I think this blog has great potential as a conversation space, and I'm glad to have the opportunity to dialogue with you.

At the same time, I feel completely AWFUL for the rude and unfair accusations you felt from my words. I hoped that this post would be controversial, but I certainly didn't want it to be MEAN. I'm so sorry!

You are right that my post paints an unfair picture. I wrote it from the biased perspective of an outsider to library categorization, since I barely know what I'm talking about as a new LIS student. The deep thought and hard work that actually goes into making decisions while categorizing books at libraries deserves great respect, more than it usually gets, as you know.

Also, I did not balance my post like I could have by affirming the many great things that librarians in our county are doing to make books more accessible to kids. For example, I thought about mentioning children's room at CLP Main, which has organized their books in some unique new ways. Part of that decision was based on length constraints, since I wanted to focus on the catalog idea without writing an essay.

I'd just listened to a lecture in one of my classes about children's information behavior and wanted to share what I learned. I'm sorry that my tone was more critical than collegial, and I agree that I could have approached it better. I do think that these search interfaces designed for children are fascinating, and I'm excited to see how they continue to develop.

So even though it stings back, thank you for taking the time to respond. I really appreciate your words, and I know I will learn from this experience. In the future, I hope to approach controversy with more grace.

If your invitation still stands, I would LOVE to come visit you at Squirrel Hill sometime. I've never been there, but I've heard great things, and would enjoy seeing what you're doing there!

Edward Chadez said...

I am the programmer who wrote "Kid's Catalog" (the web version) for CARL Corporation back in the late 1990's. CARL Corp was acquired by The Library Corporation sometime in the early 21st century. Both Kid's Catalog and the web application with the puppy inside the stargate are products of TLC.

The original Kid's Catalog ran on Macintosh computers and was designed by librarians from the Denver Public Library. The programmer (me) and two librarians redesigned the application to run inside a web browser. For both the original Mac and web products, the idea was a top-down hierarchical approach to searching subjects, i.e., broad subjects like "Animals" that kids could "drill" down to more specific subjects, like "mice", kinda like an inverted tree.

For more "advanced" users we included a search screen where kids could type in "mice".

I am no longer with CARL/TLC and so unfortunately I don't have with me the metrics to show how many users (kids) used the tree approach vs. just going to the search page.

I regret that I never wrote an "grown" up version of Kid's Catalog, since I think the subject-tree approach to searching is a great paradigm.