Many libraries, many users: how research libraries solve UX problems

I used to work at a small college library, but this past summer moved to a position at a large research university.   And while the library collections at my new institution are unsurpassed, our very wealth of resources present some interesting usability challenges:

  • Many libraries: my institution has over 70 libraries, many of them highly specialized. It is challenging to create a single library website that serves as the “front door” for everyone.  
  •  Many users: our users are as diverse as our collections. With doctoral and faculty researchers, affiliated medical professionals, undergraduates, and continuing education students, there is no “typical” student, and no “typical” research need.  

In my search for solutions, I looked at 25 of the largest and best research libraries in the US. Here is what I found testing the following scenarios: 

Problem 1:  An experienced researcher who knows the name of their favorite database and wants to  navigate right to it without browsing through long lists.

Solution:  The University of Notre Dame places a  “Databases” tab right on their search box, and also include an “About Databases” help feature for novice researchers.  Cornell University places their “Database names” tab in a vertical display  – making it easier to see.  They also include good explanatory mouseover text. 

Notre Dame databases detail

Notre Dame homepage detail

Problem 2:   A Freshman needs to find articles and books on the topic “medical marijuana” for an argument paper.  She does not want to wade through tons of obtuse medical articles, and is a sloppy speller (“mariwana”) who expects automatic correction.

Solution:   Notre Dame’s discovery implementation is undergraduate-friendly.  They’ve added an “About OneSearch” link on the default search box to help less experienced researchers understand what they are searching.  The “did you mean” feature guessed “mariwana” right, and they’ve customized faceting to be more user-friendly (e.g. “Related searches on this topic” rather than “subject.”)

Notre Dame search detail

Notre Dame search detail

Problem 3:  A faculty member wants to contact a subject specialist by email.  He does not want to have to fill out a form and wait to hear back from someone.

Solution:   MIT’s homepage has a link under  “Expert help” called “Librarians & subject experts.”  Easy to find, and easy to understand!

MIT library homepage

MIT homepage detail

Problem 4:   An out-of-state researcher who wants to visit a specialized library in their field.  They need to know when the library is open, but do not remember the library’s name.

Solution:   Harvard, with 70+ libraries, has a searchable “hours and locations” page that allows researchers to easily find the library that fits their needs (and I admit I’m biased here!)

Harvard library hours

Harvard hours page detail

Problem 5:   A continuing education student, with no experience using online library tools, has a paper due in 6 hours and needs to know (quickly!) where to start and what to do.

Solution:   Notre Dame came in on top in this area as well  They have a user-friendly tutorial that is easy to find under “Help & Guides – Starting your research.”  And because it is modular, students in a hurry can get right to the help they need.

Notre Dame tutorial

Notre Dame tutorial detail

Problem 6: A PHD student is conducting an an extensive literature search on their dissertation topic. He wants to search across ALL library resources at once, but ONLY in his field of research.

Solution:   None!  This was difficult or impossible at all the sites I visited.  Some sites split search results into articles or books, and those that combined results did not provide discipline faceting – only subject facets, which did not work well.   So this is an area that still needs work!

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