Journals, articles, and databases: Guiding users through the e-resource maze

My library recently launched a new user-friendly journals page.  This page (which I did not create – credit goes to my talented colleagues!) is a great improvement over the previous design.  It has started me thinking about some of the challenges libraries face when providing e-resource access points.

Academic library web sites usually have pages labeled “Journals” “Articles” or “Databases” that link to journal “A-Z” lists, databases by subject and/or title, and various kinds of article or database search boxes.

I’ve watched many students attempt to use such links unsuccessfully. They approach them with a specific need (e.g. an article citation) and are stymied by confusing silos, unfamiliar jargon, and a lack of help features.  And libraries are frustrated too: we are restricted by vendor systems (link resolvers, publisher sites, etc.) from customizing or controlling the user experience.  Take these three scenarios:

  • Accessing articles from citations:  researchers come to library websites with an article citation in hand and expect to paste their citation into an “Articles” search box and link directly to full-text.  This often fails in our search systems.
  • Browsing all issues of a journal title: This is not easy to do from link resolver e-journal lists.  Users have to navigate multiple database options, are confronted with confusing or downright unintelligible coverage statements, and may end up on unfamiliar publisher sites.
  • Finding a scholarly article by topic:  Many novice researchers do not know what a “database” is.  They need guidance in how to find and use appropriate discipline specific databases.

Here are some ways libraries are helping users through the “article/journal/database” maze:

Help features at point-of-need

Since we can’t avoid sending users into vendor silos, the least we can do is make our library tools as usable as possible by adding help text right where users need it most.  Here are a some good examples:

New York University Journals page

New York University’s journals page

Clarify the difference between print and e-journal search

Users are understandably confused by differences between print and e-journals. If we have to have silos, we should at least explain that to our users up front. Here are a couple of libraries that do just that:

UT Austin's Journal search box

UT Austin’s Journal search box

Provide help pages that clearly explain how to find articles, journals, and databases

Ithaca College's "How to read an article citation" diagram

Ithaca College’s “How to read an article citation” diagram

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