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Content Portal Design: can we learn something from librarians?

Librarians have experience in making content available that goes back thousands of years, back to the ancient Egypt and even Mesopotamia. What they practise is a science taught today in universities. Is there something we can learn from them still in the digital age?

The other side of the coin is that many libraries have also been over time on the front line in implementing new technologies, from offering microfilmed, then digital content – and on to implementing search-based web designs.

Like libraries, customer self-service portals of manufacturers and engineering companies usually have large amounts of content. Also, both types of services are usually designed with a search application as their backbone, like in the projects that we do for our customers here at Documill. Can we get some clues for a design from them?

Librarians draw from thousands of years of experience

So I took a look at a few services of public libraries. One was Digital NZ, which I mentioned in an earlier post. It brings together in an impressive manner all kinds of digital content in New Zealand, from a great variety of sources: libraries, museums, government departments, publicly funded organizations, the private sector, and community groups. The service boasts a clean, attractive user interface, an advanced search functionality, and there’s even the option for users to collect material into sets that can be shared with one’s buddies.

Figure 1. Digital NZ provides a clean interface for accessing content.

A similar service was Finland’s centralized HelMet. It is a search and news portal that brings together the collections of the 30-plus libraries in the Helsinki region.

The service of Norway’s national library, Nasjonalbiblioteket, is similar, too, except that the library’s collection is so large that it more or less alone offers enough to chew for one search engine.

Finally, Trove, the online service of The National Library of Australia, offered a service quite like Nasjonalbiblioteket’s.

Figure 2. Norway’s Nasjonalbiblioteket’s service shows separate lists of different material types in the results listings (see the navigation on the left).

Advanced search – for advanced searchers only

What all the above services had together was that they placed an advanced search functionality quite at the center stage. And from a normal user’s (like myself) point of view, that does not usually add value: we rarely use advanced search, and don’t even necessarily know, how to use it. My impression is that it is there rather for the super users, scholars, information professionals.

So I went on testing the services making my simple searches: in the New Zealand library, I typed in the name of the pop group Crowded House to learn about it; In the Norwegian one, the electro-pop duo Röyksopp; in the Finnish one, writer Sofi Oksanen; and in the Australian one, the name of that controversial Australian national hero, Ned Kelly.

In other words, I made just no-frills searches without any additional information on timelines, material types, authors, publishers or other finer details.

And the winner is: Australia

In each service, I got the information I wanted to get. However, in one service it was clearly easier. That service was Trove , the online service of The National Library of Australia.

Figure 3. Australia’s Trove has a clean, nice, no-frills front page.

Trove was the best in the bunch simply because:

  • Trove delivers the search results very quickly
  • no elaborate wordplay in the advanced search fields is needed to make use of (at least some of its many) filters. When one just enters a simple search term in the main search field and presses “Enter”, many lists of relevant material are quickly shown, with books, pictures, journals, digitized newspaper articles and digital media separated to sections of their own. This makes items of interest easy to spot, while a great number of hits can be shown.
  • when accessing digital print material like digitized newspapers, the keywords one has used in the search are shown nicely highlighted. This makes relevant sections easy to find.

Figure 4. Trove lists the search results by material type – a great help for the user.

All services mentioned above delivered what was asked. It was just that the designers of Trove had walked an extra mile, even two.

Trove offered a well-organized list of results. For digital text content, even file previews were available. Maybe it even had a more advanced search engine? Indeed, today’s search technology should understand, what the users is looking for based on what is known about them: location, gender, profession, previous searches made… And with each search a user makes, it learns more, so it can present the most relevant hits first.

When it comes to digital text content, gone are the days of predefined search criteria, created by the designers of the service, for users to choose from in the advanced search fields.

And on top of that, today’s best search applications, like Documill Discovery, can also show previews of digital content right away in the search result, with the search words used by the user highlighted.

Indeed, this is where Trove – arguably – could do even better: it showed the keywords only when one clicked to take a closer look at a piece of digital text content.

But not that I would like to complain too much: all these institutions (and so many of their counterparts) are doing great job in bringing all that content to us. I certainly had a good time and learned interesting stuff, when using each of them.

By | September 14th, 2016|
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