Thursday, November 9th, 2006

The LC’s new search

Check the Library of Congress’ new search, designated “beta.”

It’s got some great features:

  • “Federated” searching of different “buckets” of content, including the online catalog, prints and photographs, and the LC website.
  • A refreshingly clean, simple and attractive interface that works just as you expect—it’s Google-y!
  • Rather than wait for everything to come back from the different systems, the search results Ajax in. It’s slick, and a good way to avoid making the system hostage to whatever sub-service is sluggish that day.

Some drawbacks:

  • Eventually results dump you into the original systems. Obviously, they weren’t trying to reengineer everything. Maybe, if the elegant new search becomes popular, it will prompt action to improve the online catalog itself.
  • It presents only a few catalog results by default, and they aren’t relevancy-ranked. (I don’t think they’ve done anything to the search per se, but just “pulled it in” to the new UI.*) So, search for “cookery” (the LCSH term for “cooking”) and you get four hits, all in what I take to be Burmese, apparently because of character-set sorting issues. Just image if Google returned results like that!
  • “Word junk.” You don’t need to say “Note: These results are sorted in alphabetical order,” you can just say “These results are sorted in alphabtical order,” “Results in alphabetical order” or even “sorted alphabetically.”*** A little message below a heading and above a piece of content is by definition a note! Do street signs say “Street sign: Main Street”? Ditto messages like “Select Sources to Search” over a list of sources above a search box. Say “Select Sources,” “Search” or go cold-turkey. And, while we’re on the topic, someone should cut the capital-letter budget. Capital letters have a grammatical role in sentences. Treating them as all-purpose markers of authority and importance misunderstands orthography as design. In design, “header-ness” is communicated by size, positioning and other visual factors. In any case, Studies, Have Shown that Reading Slows Down When Information is put in Unnecessary Capital Letters. So, how are you doing?****
  • Brobdingnagian ULRs. 143 characters for an all-sources search on “cookery”? On the plus side, the URLs appear permanent, rather than the LC’s usual “expiring” URLs.

My criticism may be more verbose than my praise, but it doesn’t outweigh it. The LC’s new search is commendable effort to wrangle simplicity and elegance from systems not on speaking terms with either.

*From the error results, I’m wondering if they’re using Z39.50 to access their own catalog?
**Character-set sorting issues?
***LibraryThing would say “sort: title | author | date | scrumptuousness,” making a message double as a UI element; the new search has no alternate sorting, however.
****Pardon the rant. This is a real bête noire of mine.

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