A Great New Resource…sigh

I’m here to blow off some steam.

What is it about university-based search engines that makes them — without exception — so frustratingly clumsy?

The latest entry from Carnegie-Mellon University — the Universal Digital Library aka The Million Book Project — should have us all jumping for joy.  Then Million Book Project does exactly what it says — makes a million-plus volumes available for immediate online access. 

Wow!  This is a phenomenal accomplishment.  Amazing.  Undreamed of a mere two decades ago.  The entire world now has instant access to a large research library, covering just about any topic under the sun, and in multiple languages too.

But just try using the danged thing, and you might find your enthusiasm quickly fading.

First off, the images aren’t web-compatible, nor are they based on a common add-in like Adobe PDF.  You need to download not one, but two, separate viewers in order to see the books themselves. 

The viewer downloads don’t happen automatically, when you try to view a book.  Instead, your viewing attempt will simply fail, with no explanation of why.  You need to find the instructions squirreled away in the FAQs, and go through the (unusually cumbersome…including a requirement to register) process for obtaining the software.

Then, if you know exactly what book you’re looking for, you can do a quick Title or Author search.   My search for “Oliver Twist” pulled up 18 copies of, essentially, the same book.  (While this may be useful for scholars wanting to compare editions, one wonders whether it was the best use of limited resources?)

Ready to read Oliver Twist?  Perhaps the book you click on will open, perhaps not.  the volumes housed on the library’s China server, in particular, seem to go through 45 minutes worth of firewalls before deciding whether to grant acces or not.

But if you’re lucky enough to get an image, you can begin reading…one page at a time!  Click to open the page.  Wait. Adjust the viewer format.  Read the page.  Click.  Wait.  Adjust the viewer format again. Read the next page.  Click. Wait.  Adjust the…

There’s no way to access a chapter at a time or, heaven forbid, download the entire book.

Want to search within Oliver Twist for a particular passage you recall from your school days?  Sorry.  No in-the-book searching is available!

I don’t mean to diminish the exceptional accomplishment of the Universal Digital Library…it really is a momentous achievement.  But it just doesn’t flow the way one has come to expect tools on the internet to flow.  For some reason, university-based systems just don’t seem able to manage the flow. 

I’ve written before about the Making of America, and other digital content online at the University of Michigan.  MoA is one of my favorite historic research tools, but it’s so damned slow and cumbersome — right down to its unwieldy URLs — that it seems to be deliberately designed to hide itself from the research community, and to frustrate its users once they happen to find it.

The Internet Archive, which grew up at UC Berkeley, is another university-launched frustration.  Without a doubt, this is one of the internet’s great resources, but still, it’s so hard to manuever around and search that it can make you crazy.  They toyed with full-text search capabilities a few years ago, but it never worked well, and has long since disappeared from view (I can’t even find it in the archive of the Archive!).

Like internet-savvy researchers everywhere, I’ve grown familiar with the fast, easy-access capabilities of in-the-book search engines like Amazon and Google Books, or commercial services like Questia.  Perhaps I’m being unreasonable, but I expect to see these in any online collection, whether of library books, or web pages.  Why can’t universities seem to manage this?

Of course, the Universal Digital Library, MoA, and the Internet Archive all operate on a shoestring, and don’t have the resources of Google or Amazon…or even tiny Questia…to add a lot of capabilities like a user-friendly design and full-text searching.

But somehow, the non-profit Wikipedia manages to do it!

I will now return you to the 20% whimsy portion of your program.

2 Responses to “A Great New Resource…sigh

  1. eiffel says:

    Slashdot recently discussed the Carnegie-Mellon initiative, and user HemmingSay wrote:

    I had to laugh when i got the following result for the first book that came to mind: “Please provide a valid query (Word greater than length 3)” the book was “the old man and the sea”.

    It takes a lot of disk space to index all words, including those shorter than four characters, but it’s worth it.

    We currently have the same limitation with the search at Uclue, which is equally lame for the same reasons. When Google started up, they also failed to index small common words, but props to them for overcoming that limitation. In time we’ll overcome it at Uclue too.

    There’s an old English saying “Don’t spoil the ship for a halfpenny worth of tar”, and I hope Carnegie-Mellon realizes that a ten percent increase in expenditure will yield a thousandfold improvement in the usability of the resource.

  2. Lawrence Fogelberg says:

    Hi Paf,

    Some libraries at universities at least know about the problem. My niece is working to improve the website of the Cornell Law School library. I’ll leave it to you to decide how success or how far along she’s gotten.

    Perhaps one problem is that the people involved and those using the site regularly have learned the system’s quirks – may even like the idea that they have mastered the system and feel that it’s okay, perhaps like you get around some government sites.

    Hmm, we never did really decide why Woot took off.

    Cheers, Larry/Myo