Wednesday, 30 June 2010

What does Update say about CILIP?

[Update, 1 July 2010: Elspeth Hyams, Editor of Library and Information Update, has asked that I post this response.  Please do take a look.]

A theme in some quarters of the CILIP Conversation, and certainly of our conversation in Cambridge, has been the perceived inadequacies of the CILIP publications.  I must confess to not being an avid reader of either Gazette or Update, although I do try and flick through each issue to keep up with what's new.  I don't think that the content is necessarily as engaging or relevant as it might be, but I haven't yet managed to form any definite ideas about what I think would be better.  This post is about the medium itself, and what message it conveys.

It's the online versions (CILIP membership required) of the publications that have attracted my attention, and not in a good way. I shan't enter into debate about whether its better to have CILIP publications in hard copy or online, except to say that there certainly should be an online version available.  And given that there is an online version, it really ought to be good.  As one of the main means of communication of CILIP with its members, I really expect the magazines to embody some of the ideas and principals that librarians and information professionals are implementing and promoting in their work.

Do Update and Gazette currently meet this ideal?  To my mind, no.  Last month I took some time to read through Update online, and I found several things which I think could, and should, be done better.  They fall into two broad headings: interface and searching.

  • The Flash interface might look flashy, but I really don't understand what we as readers gain from having animated page turns, and even the sound of the page rustling as it flips over.  This kind of effect is just naff, as far as I'm concerned.  We all know what turning a page looks and sounds like, and the content would work just as well, if not better, without it.
  • The Flash presentation isn't just a bit naff, it's also slow.  Not everyone has a high-speed connection to a high-speed computer.  Making people wait for pages to load will just lead to them not reading the magazine.
  • The interface isn't just naffly presented and slow, it's actually inaccessible to many.  Flash isn't supported well on all operating systems (honk if you use the latest Ubuntu release), won't be installed on all computers (and in a work setting, it might not be possible to have it installed), and readers with motor and/or visual difficulties might not be able to use it at all: there don't seem to be keyboard shortcuts for all the functions, and Flash can't be interpreted by screenreaders.
I'm clearly not the first person to have raised these concerns with CILIP, as they are partly addressed in the online Update FAQ:
3. I access the internet at work where we don’t have Flash and I’m not able to install it. How can I access Update?
Flash is an industry standard software solution. Some organisations require their staff to make a valid case before they will install Flash on networked computers, so this is a good opportunity to do so. Update Digital delivers high-quality information of direct relevance to members’ work activities, and access to it is restricted by log-in.
If it is not possible to have Flash installed on your network computer, it may be possible on a laptop or netbook. Otherwise access may need to be from your home pc or laptop. Longer-term we are investigating whether Update can be provided online via Apple’s iPhone/ iPad or Smartphones.

4. I have a disability (e.g. visual impairment/poor motor control) and find that I cannot use Update Digital. How can I access Update?
You can zoom in and magnify the text by clicking on the page. You can also print all the pages by going to Menu and choosing Print pages. When the thumbnails have loaded, choose Select all to print all the pages. Our software developers are working on speech-activated controls and text-to-speech, but these are not yet available.
I find these answers dismissive and patronising. CILIP ought to be making obvious efforts to make its magazine content available to as many of its members as possible, seeing as they have paid for it, rather than implying that members' complaints are unwarranted. There are other 'industry standard' solutions that could be used for the dissemination of online magazines that have better accessibility options for disabled people, and which are more widely supported.  The suggestion that CILIP have people working on making the current interface accessible via speech-activated controls and with text-to-speech capabilities is confusing.  These are solutions that are already available in other platforms (an HTML version of the magazine, for example) why are CILIP trying to re-invent the wheel? 

Assuming you can gain access to Update in the first place, can you find what you're looking for inside it?  Well, the online-only issues have a clickable contents list, although those issues that appear in print form too, don't (although the weblinks in those versions can be clicked).  But even without a clickable contents list, finding items in an individual issue isn't too onerous.

Electronic publications really have the edge over print when it comes to searching archives: the possibiliy full-text searching ought to make it possible to find whatever you want.  This isn't really the case with Update online.  For starters, two different search boxes appear depending on where you are in the interface.  When you're in the archives page, click the 'search' button in the bottom right, and a small, Google-style search box appears.

But when you're looking at a particular issue, click on the search button now at the top right, and a better search box is brought up, with options to limit searches and witha  help screen explaining different search possibilities including phrase searches and truncation.  Optimistically, and interested in what CILIP had to say about the recent merger of archives bodies, I entered a search for 'Society of archivists' with limits of 'all editions', and requesting the results bedisplayed 'by edition'.  I was hoping that 'by edition' would give chronological sorting, but alas, not.

The results appear to be grouped by edition, but the order of the editions is obscure: some Masters supplements, Jan-Feb 2010, March 2009, September 2009...  It carried on like this on the second page of results, although today the same search returns no results at all.  If there's logic here it's too advanced for me.

So, what does Update say about CILIP?  In the context of high-quality retireval and display options available for many online publications, Update Digital say to me:
"We're not interested in reaching our full audience, and we don't want you to be able to find anything in the archive".
No wonder librarians and information professionals are so infuriated with CILIP!

[Update, 1 July 2010: Elspeth Hyams, Editor of Library and Information Update, has asked that I post this response.  Please do take a look.] 


  1. I'm glad you raised this, I was trying to navigate arounf Update yesterday and thought it was just me being crap, but as Donald Norman says in The Design of Everyday Things, if that's how you feel about using something then it hasn't been designed properly. What is so frustrating is that it gives the inital appearance of being very Web 2.0 but then when you start to try to actually read it it's much more Web 1.5. Well done for sparking the debate!

  2. Thanks. You're right - if it's hard to use, then it's badly designed. That doesn't mean everything should be one-search-box simple, but that complex functions should be easy to find and use.

  3. We were trying to find something in the latest edition of Update Digital in the office this morning; complaining bitterly about the interface, we tried the search. Yielding nothing for academic libraries we tried with a word we could see on the page, no results. I looked to see if anyone was saying anything about it on Twitter and it led me to this blog post. Glad we're not the only ones with frustrations. Annoying it took us so long to remember our usernames and passwords just to get to that! Having access to the archives is very useful but at the moment, with this interface, there is no way I would read it in this format over a print copy.

  4. Generally I agree with you about the limitations of the current interface. Search is particularly poor. An example - it would be great to be able to set up an RSS feed of a search on a topic to be alerted to things you might want to read - not currently possible.

    My main frustration is with the difficulty of sharing the content. I am happy for some sections to be kept as a member benefit but as a member I think there would be more benefit from being able to share with all our network. This applies both for authors wanting to publicise their work and for those wishing to use an article in support of a project.

  5. Oh, I agree about the RSS feed - what a great idea.

    I also agree that being able to share the content outside signed-up members would be good, but I can understand why CILIP have it set up that way. That doesn't mean though that I don't think they should be trying to come up with a modern way of doing things.