Confused in the stacks

Yesterday, while waiting for a flight in the Denver airport, I picked up a Barron’s article, but didn’t get a chance to finish it. This morning, I figured I’d quickly access it through the UCSB Library and finish reading it. I want to share my convoluted journey of information access and suggest solutions.


The article, “Glad Men,” appeared in Barron’s Magazine. My first problem was that I didn’t know the actual title of the publication, so for searching, I tried “Barron’s,” with and without the apostrophe, and “Barron’s Magazine.” I think there’s more to the title, but going to their website for a quick check didn’t help…the image of the magazine cover is small enough to not be able to read the masthead and clicking on the picture of the cover just links to text, text that you need a subscription to read.

So, first I tried our “Electronic Journals” catalog, then Melvyl, then Pegasus. I did this loop a few times, trying different publication titles. Then, I went into our “Electronic Indexes & Databases” catalog to access Proquest, where I spent about five minutes with no luck. As a last resort, I signed onto an online chat with a librarian, who did the same loop with no luck — my hope was that with her extensive knowledge of library cataloguing, that she would wave a magic wand and then explain to me what I missed. After five minutes, no luck. I was starting to think that the article wasn’t worth the time to retrieve it, but now it was more of a quest.

Frustrated that the librarian couldn’t help me, I switched tactics and searched on the article title, starting in Melvyl and moving to Pegasus. This search brought me to that magic page in the library search where you can enter all of the information you know about the article and it searches for you. Why can’t this page be our start page? It found the article in one of the Dow Jones…something…databases and after a few more clicks, I had my article.

Granted, the entire process took about 25 minutes, which is still exponentially faster than pre-Internet, but why was it so convoluted? Part of the problem, of course, rests with me, the user. I could have started with the article title instead of trying to track down the publication. A larger problem, however, is that none of the library catalogs talk to each other. This isn’t just a UCSB problem, this lack of communication seems pervasive […those of you with more experience in library databases please weigh in]. Each time I changed my search term, I had to re-visit the individual catalogs that may hold my data. More concerning, is that the librarian who tried to help me seemed limited by the basic search attempts that they teach us in those excessively boring library skills workshops.

So, in the end, why did I find it when the librarian couldn’t? I think because I spend more time confused in the stacks than she does. Throughout my academic career, I’ve spent a lot of time trying and re-trying searches, checking different databases, and basically experiencing many failed attempts before finally locating my information target. I’ve always felt as though I’m missing some crucial training or logical understanding of the library information access system, but the truth is, it really doesn’t make sense. Why, for example, do I need to conduct separate searches for books than newspapers, and another one for journal articles? What if I’m not sure if Barron’s, though titled as a magazine, is actually categorized as a newspaper?

I realize that part of the problem with privately held content is that many different groups own it, which is why access is limited to whatever database has permissions/subscription, but there needs to be a better way. We know that filtering the massive amounts of information available is our next grand technological challenge, so how are the libraries addressing it? Although I’m accustomed to the lightning-fast search results Google delivers, in the case of library research, I wouldn’t mind if the results took more time [say, 5 minutes], if they streamlined my search. What if, on the main page of the library website, we could enter all of the information we knew about a given article and bots could hit all of the possible catalogs to which the library subscribed? I don’t know if this would violate subscription permissions or if it’s technically possible given the different databases involved, but it would certainly improve access to research.

Reflecting on my process this morning, I couldn’t help wondering, if I’m having trouble finding information, and my research focus is literacy and online information processing, how do our undergraduates fare, who have much less experience? I wonder how many students abandon their searches in frustration after unsuccessfully grappling with the library’s convoluted search system? Is it possible to streamline our library’s search system, combining all databases under a single search umbrella?

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