How user-friendly is your library? Part one

This first post in a series about user-friendly school libraries gets you thinking about how to make it easy for young library users to find what they need.

Boys browsing through booksClearly labelled shelves with room for display encourage students to browse. All rights reserved.

"I can't find what I need"

“I don’t know where it is.” “Where are the books about…?”

If you’ve heard comments like these in your library, you’re right to worry.

How often do we step back and take a critical look at how we organise and manage the school library’s resources?

When was the last time you put yourself in your user’s shoes, or asked a student how they find what they’re looking for?

We want the school library space and collections to look welcoming and be inviting. And we want library users to be able to find what they’re after without running into problems.

First and foremost, school library spaces and collections are for young people to use. What they can do there, and how they feel about using the library are both important. Each of these affects how young people see themselves as readers and researchers.

Keep the fundamentals simple and clear

Think about how and why you organise materials in a particular way, and if it makes sense to users.

  • Is it obvious what belongs with what, and why?
  • Are the terms, signs, labels, or icons you use a good match with how your students think about subjects or types of materials?

Explain how your library works

Some schools explicitly teach ‘library skills’ such as the Dewey Decimal System. If you think this sort of instruction would be useful for your students, there are many resources available online to help.

Here are some key things to share when showing students and teachers how your library works:

  • All libraries use a system for describing and organising materials. Often, different places use different systems.
  • Describe in enough detail the systems you use in your library so that people can search the catalogue, and navigate their way around the library space.
  • There are clear connections between your catalogue, your way-finding signage, and the physical items on the shelf. All these things are consistently described.
  • You are there to help if needed.

Make search and discovery easy

For people who aren’t regular library users, their first port of call for finding things is usually to ask library staff for help. This is great because one of the things you can do is show them how to use the catalogue. It’s also a chance for you to have a conversation with them, and make a direct and positive impact on the student’s learning.

Students who are reluctant to ask for help might also be unsure how to access and search the catalogue. You can make it easier and more obvious by:

  • having prominent signs or posters that direct people to the catalogue search computers in your library
  • displaying the web address for your Online Public Access Catalogue (OPAC) if it’s available on any device
  • displaying instructions and examples alongside the search computers or on the search screens themselves.

Whether your library is big or small, and regardless of which system you use to describe and organise materials, it might not be obvious to students where to find what they’re after. Think about how the physical aspects of your library make for a positive user experience. Here are some things to consider:

  • Do you have easily visible and clearly worded signage that helps users find their way to parts of your collection, right down to shelf level?
  • Are your catalogue terms (such as genres, item types, and locations) the same as the signage and labelling you’ve used throughout the library?
  • Are the fonts, images or icons used in signs and labels a good match with the concepts they’re meant to represent?

Library shelving with minimal labellingMinimal signage and walls of spines do nothing to inspire or engage readers. PublicDomainPictures. CC0 1.0

Improving access to your non-fiction collection

Most New Zealand school libraries catalogue non-fiction using shortened Dewey Decimal Classification (DDC) numbers, and subject headings derived from the US Library of Congress. The cataloguing standard Resource Description and Access (RDA) enables librarians to record lots of information about the works in their collections. Your integrated library system (ILS) stores all this data plus information specific to your library, such as item location.

In recent years, many librarians who work with children and young adults have been looking for simpler methods of describing and organising their collections. Two alternative methods — used by some libraries and booksellers here and overseas — are Metis and BISAC.

Metis: Library classification for children

BISAC Frequently Asked Questions

Even still, students may struggle to understand catalogue records, or they might avoid or overlook catalogue search altogether. Instead, they rely on trying to find where things are in the physical space.

3 things to consider to improve access

Here are 3 things to consider to make your non-fiction books and digital resources easier to find and access:

  1. Label your books clearly
    • Are the classification and other labels on your books so long, or so numerous, that they’re confusing? Do users need to check a separate key to understand them?
    • Do the labels obscure useful title or author information on the spine or book cover?
    • Aim for the minimum amount of labelling required for users to be able to find a particular book. A clear spine with author and title fully visible, or face-out shelving, could be more helpful than lots of labelling.
  2. Create engaging displays
    • Do you have room within your non-fiction shelves to offer further help for readers?
    • You could include shelf-talkers, bookmarks or display stands with QR codes that link to related websites, and suggestions for browsing related areas in your collection.
    • Use empty shelf space to display and highlight great books that might be overlooked.
  3. Make access to digital resources easy
    • Do links to websites and digital resources open directly from the catalogue?
    • Do your users know the login credentials required to access subscription content that your library provides, such as EPIC databases or eBooks you've purchased?

Journey mapping for school library design

An interesting shelf display with books facing outward and a dioramaA student-made diorama and books displayed face out creates loads of shelf appeal.

Making the catalogue more user-friendly

Here are things to consider:

  • Do you use familiar everyday words and phrases in the keywords and descriptions you add to your catalogue records?
  • Do you add names or codes for the assessment standards that are taught in your school to relevant catalogue records?
  • Does your catalogue provide a visual search so young children — or perhaps students with learning support needs — can click or tap an icon or image rather than typing? Can you customise the visual search to add more options, such as current inquiry topics?
  • Do your catalogue search results help direct people to the right place in your library?
  • Does your online catalogue let you create a layout or map of the library? Can you display a library map or floor plan next to the catalogue search computer?

Cataloguing your library collection

By Miriam Tuohy

Miriam is the Senior Specialist (School Library Development) for Services to Schools.

Post a Comment

(will not be published) * indicates required field

Be the first to comment.