There’s been a few comments that seemed to say that patrons need only ask a reference librarian if they don’t know how to do research. I’ll save most of my responses to that for a future post. I do want to address the problem that some patrons do not know what services are available to them. Some may even presume that the library doesn’t offer them. I have had multiple amazed callers when I tell them they can do this or that. "I can request books from other libraries? For free!!!" or "You mean I can access these resources from home?" Some of these may seem common sense, but for those who aren’t used to having such services it may not be. This is especially true for academic libraries that may have patrons from smaller towns where the library couldn’t offer such things. I still remember when my old library got it’s first computer. Online catalog? Forget it. I’m in my early twenties, so I’m sure patrons older than me might even have more extreme experiences.
So how do you help these users find out about these resources and help curb frustration? One way is contingency design. This is the process of planning for when things go wrong. A great resource for this is Defensive Design for the Web by the great usability folks over at 37 signals. I also recommend looking at their 37Better Projects and Weblog. Take for example my library’s catalog. A keyword search that returns no results will automatically be reran as a word search. This may sound confusing (at least to me) because a keyword search is actually a phrase search. This is a topic for another discussion/rant.
Why not go a step further and put a small blurb at the top of the results page that’s dependent on the number of results, etc. Perhaps a "Having trouble finding what you want? Free live help is only a click away." linking to your online reference help or contact information for your reference desk. Or perhaps a "Too many results? Try limiting your search." with a link to the refine search page. I personally didn’t notice the refine search button on my search page as it blended into the navigation. I usually ended up just adding more words and trial and error. This is also an ideal place for things such as interlibrary loan and similar services. My catalog has a link to InMich, which I’m sure many people ignore, not knowing what it is. It might be more productive to put a more human text of "You can request books we don’t have through InMich" or something similar. Yes, this does take up a bit more room compared to a simple button, but if worked into the layout correctly, it may add more benefits than drawbacks. The "Did you mean…" feature of Google adds some clutter, but for a typo prone person such as myself, it’s a lifesaver. There have been times that I would have never noticed my error if it hadn’t been for that feature.
Another question I get a lot is if my library holds books for patrons. As far as I know (I learn more each day) we do not, but we do offer a recall service for checked out books. Many patrons do not know of this service. This might be helped with a simple link if the status of the book is checked out going to a page explaining the service. The words "Checked Out" could even be what links to it.
All of this information can be found somewhere on the library website, of course. But where the help is needed is where the problem is most likely to occur. By giving the patrons the help when they need it, it’s much more likely that they will be able to recover on their own or if not, find the help they need.