Leon Paternoster

Libraries should invest millions in search engines

Libraries are under threat, and not just from ideological governments.

Borrower numbers for physical books have been declining for years. That’s because going to a library to find and pick up a book seems a more and more anachronistic way to spend your spare time.

I make no comment on the rights and wrongs of this, but it is unarguably a lot easier to buy a book from Amazon and have it sent to your Kindle in seconds than it is to walk into town and collect a physical book.

The reason so many library users are in their 60s isn’t just because they don’t get modern technology. It’s also because they’re one of the few groups that has the time or the inclination to pop into the town centre just to pick up a book.

Regardless of the politics, this social shift is a threat to the current library model.

One obvious consequence is that libraries need to move online. And they have done this – in a somewhat cackhanded way.

Compare the experience of buying a book from Amazon with borrowing an ebook. It may seem an unfair comparison, but that’s the competition.

Let’s say I want The Great Gatsby. I go to Amazon and start typing Great Gatsby:

An amazon search for The Great Gatsby

Amazon search anticipates what I'm looking for and offers me several choices

Amazon has done a huge amount of work here for me. Just by typing great it’s:

  • recognised that Great Gatsby is the most likely meaning as it’s a recently released blockbuster film
  • given me a choice of formats (Kindle, book, film, music)
  • offered alternative, relevant meanings from other media

I don’t even need a search results page.

This is a stupendous bit of search engineering that handles topical relevancy, text matching, alternative suggestions and media format instantly from one search box.

I can have the book on my Kindle within seconds and three clicks for 79p.

Try the same search on your average UK library site. Let’s try a big one: Manchester (note that you could choose any library for this experiment).

Now, Manchester’s site looks great, but we have to click through to our search box. If you’ve done any research on library website user tasks you’ll know that finding and reserving books is by far the most popular task. Unnecessary friction (remember, I didn’t even need search results on Amazon to make decisions).

Anyway. Take a look at a search for The Great Gatsby via the separate OPAC (a different website – yet more friction):

A search on the Manchester library website

This search does no work for me

In this case the search engine is doing zero work for me. In fact, I have to read something in order to use it properly, tell it where I’m looking and what format I’m interested in. And under no circumstances must I use more than four words.

It does find me the books, but I’m still a long way from getting them on to my ereader (it won’t be a Kindle, but that is Amazon’s fault).

I’ll have to go to a third website (friction, friction, friction), download a file, run that through Adobe Digital Editions and finally transfer the book from my PC to the ereader.

In three weeks I won’t be able to read it any more.

Compare this with the frictionless, easy Amazon experience. Which are people going to choose?

Libraries have advantages

Although this might make you feel gloomy libraries have three big advantages over Amazon:

  1. You can borrow ebooks for free. No matter how difficult the publishing and library worlds make this for you (did you know a library can actually run out of ebooks?) For older titles like The Great Gatsby, this isn’t going to make a huge difference, but for more modern titles it’s important.
  2. Amazon is a faceless, tax–avoiding, corporate giant, whereas libraries are run by people who love reading and are passionate about where they work.
  3. Your library is real and local. Your users can visit you and put a face to you. They’ll never see an Amazon employee.

Libraries do have an advantage over companies like Amazon. But they’re facing stiff competition from an industry that understands the importance of making the search experience as frictionless and convenient as possible.

Libraries need to start investing serious money in search and catalogue user experience. They could start by asking more from their catalogue providers.