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Subject Searching: I Have an Answer

Sara, I mean Librarian-in-Black, responded to my entry about subject searching. She asked, “Is it better to give them the option, as it is an option? Or to remove it, as it confuses most (if not all) patrons? I don’t have an answer. I wish I did.”

I have the answer. Remove it. Hide it. Take the bullets out of the gun, put the gun on one shelf and the bullets on another, so you can only get to the weapon if you need it. It’s specialized knowledge.

Once upon a time at MPOW, we had subject searching on the main page. Our search logs made it clear that misunderstanding subject searching had tragic results in LII. I directed the removal of the subject search option on the main page (even despite one or two folks who implied by doing so I would Let The Terrorists Win). Failed subject searches dropped by more than half.

Actually, we removed ALL scoped searches from the main page, and what I didn’t realize is that searching would overall improve.

Users were assuming that by “subject” we were speaking their language, not some arcane lingo specific to describing books. “What’s the subject” means something different to a librarian.

Users were also assuming that if a search didn’t work, scoping it would improve things. That was a reasonable assumption. If you offer a tool, it has to help, right? So if a search doesn’t work, press another button. That’s smart behavior. Unfortunately, it didn’t help them across the gulf of execution; it made things worse.

Subject searching is still in MPOW, in Advanced Search, where it belongs. We have a lot of search issues at LII, by the way, that are very much not a problem with the users themselves. If my broader readership is interested (that would be what, five of you?), I’ll write more about them.

Users aren’t stupid. Users are on the hunt for clues from their environment. If you put subject searching on the main catalog page, a user has every reason you expect he or she can use it to find things. You’ve tested it, right, and you know that… right?

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