Is Browsing Too Slow for Today's Users?

Last week, I had the nerve-wracking pleasure and privilege of presenting some of our imaginings on ebrowsing at the Electronic Resources & Libraries (ER&L) conference in Austin, Texas. I was so impressed with the variety of presentations, and I was glad that our talk was featured as part of UX Day, a conference within a conference all devoted to user experience.

I learned a tremendous amount about open access and especially enjoyed a session from the Public Library of Science (PLoS) and the Social Sciences Research Network (SSRN). I had no idea, and perhaps I should have, that open access publishers and indexers are so interested in discoverability and, what’s more, the relationship between certain sources and ideas.  

I also really enjoyed Barbara Fister’s opening keynote, which took a “critical look at the cultural and social forces shaping our work.” She reminded us that when we serve students, we serve every aspect of them. Students are more than library users--they’re critical thinkers in the making. She raised several interesting questions, such as why we spend so much time teaching students information literacy skills, which often point to library databases and peer-reviewed articles, only to cut them off the day we graduate. Basically, we’re telling students that it’s important to evaluate information according to our (academic) criteria, but then they can’t have that kind of information once they graduate. She urged us, as librarians, to be activists and to challenge the consumer model that plagues our culture.

But in addition to the content that people presented, I had some great opportunities to think about the style with which they delivered it. Some of the presenters I saw, especially the leaders of the UX for Good workshop, spoke in quick rapid fire and didn’t give workshop participants a lot of context or direction, though the full story of that workshop is probably an entirely different blog post for another time. Sarah Durrant, who gave the second plenary session on the importance of resilience in libraries, spoke slowly and gently, encouraging reflection. Did a talk about resilience require this kind of reflection? Not necessarily, though it certainly impacted how I received it. Perhaps there’s something to that Marshall McLuhan cliche after all.

So, what does this have to do with browsing? In the informal conversations that I had with people at the conference, some were interested in browsing as a concept but not necessarily convinced that it was possible in today’s hussle-and-bustle insta-world. One of the ideas that I raised in my talk, for instance, was that physical browsing takes time and works best when students are open to new ideas and possibilities, when they are engaged in some way or other with a problem. But do people have time and leisure for this kind of openness and engagement?

Judging by the  variety of voices and presentation styles, I believe they are. Some of us are still open to reflection, still able to speak slowly. And some of our students are, too. Several of the students I helped this week still crave a tactile approach. Even though there aren’t enough books to browse, several of them still print out their articles in order to flip the pages and take notes on the article itself. Some of them prefer writing rather than typing; sometimes I do, too.

What we’re seeking is a rich, ebrowsing environment that will allow us both speed and stillness, both quick responses and the ability to take our time as we wander.