Libraries, Articles, and User Experience

If you know a librarian, you know someone who’s had this conversation:

Patron: Do you have access to the New York Times website?
Librarian: Not the website, but we do have access to it through several of our subscription databases. Here, you can use this one to do a search….
Patron: (puzzled look)

The puzzled look is the right response, because it’s very strange to insist that this:

is the same as this:

The first, unfortunately the one we pay for by subscription, is a disaggregated pile of articles which you can search in a very sophisticated manner if you know what you’re looking for. I’m using one of several my library has access to the Times through; Proquest is no worse in this way than any other service.

The other is a version of the newspaper designed as a website.

A newspaper has a particular structure and order to it, designed to attract attention to both the information and the advertising. Occasionally a newspaper (cough Economist) makes editorial comments by placing articles near each other on a page or in a section. The breakdown of sections is designed to let readers choose what they want to read, and in which order.

A website has its own logic, but is still arranged so that readers can pick and choose what they want to read and when.

The Proquest interface is a search interface, designed to let researchers comb through every issue of the NY Times from 1851 to 2008 quickly and efficiently. It does let you see the page the article appeared on, so you can see the context once you’ve found the article you need. It is almost impossible to browse this way, though. Search is very valuable.

But it’s not a newspaper. And even in an academic environment, sometimes a newspaper is the right answer.

Some of my colleagues were baffled when I said I subscribed to the Kindle version of The Economist, because we also have that in several forms.

For the sake of clarity of example, here’s the Kindle version of the New York Times:

It looks and works like a newspaper. How it works matters.


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Boston area academic librarian and instructional designer. News junkie. Fan of marine mammals, October.