The serene-looking duck, or, a story of e-resources management in libraries

This is a story about a library user who is frustrated by change.

It’s a true story that, I hope, sheds some light on one of the basic elements of e-resources management in libraries for those who may not know what it is or who don’t work in this area. Quite a significant amount of our work is ongoing maintenance of links, fixing problems with access that crop up, trying the best we can to make the user experience as smooth as possible.

Some background: recently my library introduced a major change to its primary search interface, as well as to a separate interface that allows users to search for and browse the journals in our collection (both in print and online). Both of these changes involve integration with our public website. Although the look of our website is unchanged, the integrations we have with two key external services changed. We did this to improve and expand the capabilities available to our users. But I was prepared for some criticism or questions about these changes, and indeed, started receiving them soon after they were implemented.

One user in particular whom I had helped with a different problem some months ago sent me an email expressing frustration with the new system. I immediately wrote back to apologize and ask whether I could get more specifics about problems so that I could figure out a way to help fix them. We had two rounds of emails about this without the user providing detail, and I felt a little worried about the whole thing.

Then finally I got a specific example of the problem from the user, and the lightbulb went off. It turns out that the problem was not related to the underlying website integration changes we’d made but was something else entirely: a bug in our website software that was unintentionally introduced during a recent, routine website software upgrade. It was a coincidence that this happened at around the same time as other changes. Once the problem was identified, we were able to quickly fix it.

I responded back to the user and explained what happened, that the problem was fixed, and expressed thanks for alerting us to the problem. The response was quite positive and the user mentioned not wanting to complain but that it was frustrating to cope with so many changes. I totally get that.

In the end, it’s all good. Many of the changes that our users encounter are ones we in libraries have some control over, but many of the changes are external to us and completely out of our control. User expectations that everything will just work are quite high, and they can be readily frustrated if things don’t work as expected. I think this is very understandable.

The main point of telling this story is to combat a simplistic notion that because “everything is now online” that means there isn’t a lot of work involved in making it all work as smoothly as possible. (And by the way, everything is not online.)  I often describe this as akin to a duck gliding smoothly across the surface of a pond. The duck looks serene and the setting, peaceful. But there’s a lot of strenuous paddling going on beneath the surface.

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