Monday, May 21, 2007

Thoughts on librarianship from the dentist's chair

So, I had this thought while in the dentist chair today (I was in that chair for almost three hours, so there was plenty of time to think) - ended up talking to the dentist about it. It was a little odd. Dentists and librarians face similar challenges, at least in an academic library.

Both academic librarians and dentists are seen by some as the last resort. Like I put off going to the dentist until I couldn't anymore, students put off seeing the librarian, like what they have to do is going to be as painful as a root canal or having a crown replaced with the attendant decay below the old crown.

People avoid the dentist. Then they go when it's absolutely necessary and expect miracles - they expect just what Uncle JimBob got when he had fantastic results, quite possibly because he didn't wait five years between visits. At the same time (again, much like my dental visit today), the problem may be much more involved once he or she is actually into the work. And it may be much less involved, but that's not typical.

We were also talking about how he feels that dentists have made their jobs look too easy - they've hidden the challenges, and people expect perfect results every time. Haven't we done the same thing? We make an interface that looks simple. That enables the basic user to find what they need most of the time and hides the challenges of searching. This is great for the most common denominator - because most people will find what they need. But what happens when someone is not the most common denominator, when their search is more involved and their topic more complex? Because we've made search seem simple, they expect the results for a search on a specific horse disease that affected animals during the Boer War that are as easy as those they might get with a search for scholarly articles about Buffy the Vampire Slayer (which, by the way, are fairly easy to find). It frustrates our users - and leaves us as a last resort.

This post grew out of a visit to the dentist, and I feel there's more to say, but I'm not sure how to say it at the moment. So I'll let this be for now.

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