The Oxford Bodeian Library‘s collection is one of the main tangible things that makes Oxford a world-class research institution. The troves of primary sources, obscure titles, and first editions make it a mecca for historical and literary research.
This is a promise which I don’t think the Oxford Libraries live up to in practice, because the University has not invested enough in updating the tools people use to find what they’re looking for. The ability to quickly and efficiently find information in Oxford’s catalogs is hampered by outdated and poorly designed interfaces, and incomplete records. The experience is not worthy of the excellent collection and international reputation the Libraries have.
We live in a world of speedy full-text search of almost the entirety of the Web, accessible instantly from any computer and many mobile phones. As a result, libraries have a tough act to follow to make finding printed materials as quick and cognitively intuitive. The databases libraries maintained about their collections seemed monstrous in a time before Google, but they are now very limiting: title, author, some keywords, and a bewildering string of letters and numbers aren’t much data for smart search to chew on. Web search engines also exploit links between different pages to form their results, but collections databases are relatively flat. Full text search might be coming, but there’s truckloads of books to scan between now and then.
So no, I don’t expect the library website to be as good as Google, but I don’t think that complete and humane are unreasonable expectations.
By complete, I mean that I expect all records from all collections in the Oxford University Library Services to be accessible by web-based search. As it stands, for example, Oriel College Library’s catalog is only available via telnet. Unless you were a nerd before 1995, (or use the libraries at Oxford) you might never have even heard of telnet. Telnet is a text-only interface designed in 1969 as one of the very first internet standards. It’s slow, clunky, unintuitive, and there’s no way to save anything you’re doing and come back to it.
I could go on for pages about what makes websites humane, but the redesigned SOLO (Search Oxford Libraries Online) interface is a big leap forward from the previous system. Standard web-browser behaviors, like using the forward and back buttons or saving results as bookmarks don’t break it. It has advanced search features like boolean operators and the ability to search particular libraries. Unfortunately, if the material is not on the shelf (which it isn’t always clear about) it simply plunks you back into the old, ugly, inhumane system to request it from the stacks.
As a scientist, I don’t often research using books. I’m much more likely to look up journal articles, which unless they are old or obscure, are very likely to be online. Every once in a while, though, I’ll want a paper which isn’t online, and it’s good to know that the library has my back (old and obscure is Oxford’s specialty). I’ve noticed that when using search tools by Ex Libris, a little button appears beneath many results that says “Find It Oxford.” Ex Libris know what stuff Oxford has in its catalog and clicking it takes me to an Oxford page. Unfortunately, this is in the old, ugly interface, and it dead-ends: giving me information about the holding but not allowing me to do anything with the information, like request it from the stacks. If I want to do any of that, it’s back to top level interface (but at least this time, title in hand).
So, things are looking up, but Oxford’s Library access is still sub-par. Its number one priority, at this point, should be getting all books and all the libraries available to be searched via SOLO. The first thing researchers care about is completeness. They can’t trust a tool that they know won’t give them all the results. Then, it should cut the last vestige of the old system away and build a humane system for stack requests.
The icing on the cake, for me, would be seeing the full text of every title they have whose copyrights have expired accessible via the internet. They’re partnering with Google, starting in 2005 for book scanning, but, as far as I can tell, library users have yet to see any of the benefits. The Oxford website claims this will take three years, but my opinion of “official” Oxford timelines sinks the longer I am here.