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Church History Library: First Month Report Card

By: Ardis E. Parshall - July 22, 2009

The Church History Library has been open to the public for a month now. Here is my evaluation of how the library is working from the standpoint of a researcher. This is written in ignorance of how the past month would be evaluated by administrators, staff, or the curious public – it reflects only my judgment as a patron.

Appearance: A

The building is as impressive as ever: The landscaping, the approach to the doors, the soaring ceilings and natural light and window views are beautiful. I haven’t yet started taking for granted the first exciting view of the reading room from the lobby. Everything about that view says “Our history is important, and we are engaged in serious business here.”


Staff Availability: B

Short-handed as they are, what with a hiring freeze and extended library hours, the library staff are trying heroically to have a professional staff member on the front desk at all times, and a second member floating in the patron area whenever possible. The publicly available staff, however, is virtually all from the library side of the enterprise, with virtually no representation from the archives side. With the staff’s constant busy-ness, and without access to anyone who is an historian as well as a librarian, there is no longer any opportunity for professional consultation about sources.

Technology: Incomplete

There have been snags on the road to making the library as paperless as planned, and there’s a sharp learning curve – at least for someone of my age – for operating the new copy machines and microfilm readers. Both staff and missionaries are able and willing to coach struggling patrons. We all need more time to adjust to everything from faulty programming to faulty users. And do we really need the toilets to flush automatically? Especially when they too often don’t? (The unmarked manual flush button needs to be prominently labeled. Srsly.)

Security: B

I used to gripe about the nuisance of needing a new badge every day. Now that doesn’t seem like such a bad idea. Perhaps in an effort to be welcoming, the library no longer puts visitors through even the mildest of security checks. There is a security officer in the lobby, and I suppose there are cameras and probably other technology around, but the library is so wide open now that it no longer feels safe to turn your back on your belongings. This also makes for interesting company: During the first week, I shared a table with a gentleman who talked to himself about how as a child he could read auras and tell which police officers were possessed by multiple evil spirits, until a policeman picked him up by his ankles and banged his head against the ground. Last Monday another man, as filthy in body and clothing as I have ever seen, came in, not to read but to wander around pulling faces at readers. Not cool.

General Arrangements: B

The grouping of tables and computers and book stacks and so on is very pleasing; nothing feels crowded or out of place (except when patrons don’t push their chairs in because of the carpet resistance; more about that ahead). One of the most helpful, yet probably overlooked, innovations is that the signs on the ends of the book rows display not only the call numbers shelved there but also a general indication (“Lesson Manuals – BYU Speeches of the Year – Local Histories”) of the shelf contents. All periodicals have been grouped together alphabetically, regardless of whether they are church or secular, current or out of publication.

I find the chairs in the reading room as comfortable as when I first test-drove them. They do turn out, however, to be unexpectedly difficult to scoot in and out, because of the carpet (it’s real cut-pile carpet, not the plastic industrial stuff you usually find in public places). A better choice would have been armless chairs which would let users slide in and out from the side rather than fighting against the carpet.

These chairs, too, are a real nuisance at the microfilm readers. You may not be aware of how much you move while using microfilm – leaning over to advance the film, scooting in to get a clearer look at a difficult image, twisting toward your computer to take notes – and patrons really need the convenience of rolling chairs, the kind used by staff at the reference desk. The crowded conditions at the microfilm readers have been relieved a little (now only five machines stand where six were originally jammed in), but the ledge on which the equipment sits is too narrow, there is still too little space for necessary reference materials and notebooks, computer plug-ins are hard to find, and the chairs are too low for reading/typing comfort for people who are shorter than I am. (Those opinions are shared by the four other library patrons with whom I’ve talked about the microfilm readers.)

Catalog: F

No one at the library will be surprised by this grade; everyone is aware of the technical glitch that for a week now has prevented the catalog from displaying any entries for published books! But the failure goes far beyond that. Someone – and I have to think it was a clueless IT consultant, because I can’t believe any librarian would willingly jettison generations of professional librarianship for this nightmare – decided that the catalog would no longer be a listing of materials held by the library. Instead, they have dumped records from indexes and press clippings and the Journal History and reference files and the Overland Travel database and internet records and Baal only knows what other sources into the same pot, making the catalog a swampy, mongrelized mess that hampers every search, burying catalog records under a tide of unwanted miscellanea, much of it for material that isn’t even necessarily available at the library in any form. The same IT consultant apparently decided that users no longer needed such standard search limiters as “author” or “subject” or “exact phrase” – a search for “joseph smith,” for instance, brings up every record where “joseph” or “smith” appears anywhere in the record (even, perhaps, when “smith” exists in concealed donor information, because sometimes “smith” does not appear anywhere in records returned by the search). There are ways to broaden a search from hundreds of records to tens of thousands of records, but no easy way to narrow a search. I could not, for example, find the Encyclopedia of Mormonism by excluding 60 or more indexed newspaper articles or journal reviews, most with the title “Encyclopedia of Mormonism.” I finally gave up, and jogged up and down the book stacks until I spotted it on the shelf – a last resort that is not available, of course, if the material you need is in the closed stacks.

Staff members say this useless bastardization of a catalog is only “interim,” but cannot say whether “interim” means two weeks or ten years. Nor do they know whether a librarian will design the new catalog, or whether they will abdicate that responsibility to some technical geek.

Research Atmosphere: D

Part of this problem is beyond the power of the staff to cure: Right now, a stream of looky-loos is coming to see the library after all the publicity of its opening. The crowds and constant motion and talking of these people, together with the voices of the missionaries who try to herd them through, is something that will lessen with time. This disruption is understandable.

But inexplicably, hundreds of parents bring flocks of children with them – children who are bored, and who run and run and run and run and run, and cry, and run, and talk, and run, and giggle, and run, and climb on the shelves, and run, and bounce against the table I’m trying to work at, and run, and fight with each other, and run, and ask daddy “Can we go now?” With the exception of Monday when a staff member insisted on muting the catalog computer where a child was playing internet games, there has been no attempt to ask parents to take crying infants out to the lobby, or to corral their running broods. There is no effort to curtail cell phone use, either incoming or outgoing calls – and people, it does no good to take your phone over by the windows!You still make us all listen to every word of your dinner plans and which of you is going to pick up the dry cleaning.

Although the stretches where a decent respect for research are increasing in length and frequency (last week this would have been graded flat-out as F, while yesterday was actually a very good day), there have still been two days recently where I gave up and went home early because there was no way to concentrate in the playground atmosphere of the reading room.

Children under 8 are excluded from the Conference Center. There is no legitimate reason for failing to exclude them from the library.

This report card is harsher than expected, I know, and I’m sorry for that. The library is a beautiful place, but so far it is much more for show than for go. I haven’t been able to catch the ear of anyone willing to listen to patron feedback. There isn’t even a suggestion box. So, I resort to this public forum. Is anybody listening?

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58 Comments

  1. Kent, they’ve intended for quite a while to put the catalog online, since they know it would greatly aid researchers in planning their trips or in knowing what questions to email to librarians. They first wanted to combine what had been separate catalogs for the library (published) and archival (unpublished) materials … which was done recently, and if they hadn’t gone too far, would have made this catalog the one to post online.

    I don’t know when it will make it online, but at this point I suggest that you’re better off waiting for an improved catalog than wanting this one posted.

    kevinf, if you do bring a child, also bring butter. The cafeteria opens at 11:30.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — July 23, 2009 @ 11:49 am

  2. A friend who wrote to me privately gives permission to post this paragraph:

    “A couple of weeks ago I wandered up there on my lunch hour, mostly to stretch my legs and get out of [the office]. I could not find a computer terminal to use because of all the kids playing games on them. I wandered the aisles of books and thought I’d look something up in the Journal History. Couldn’t find it. When I asked at the desk, a sweet missionary told me it was in the reserved reading room. I commented that was new and she said it had ALWAYS been in the reserved reading room and that I needed to fill out a paper to use it. Told her never mind. After a minute of wandering, I found it on the back wall. When I noticed the new copy machines I asked the young male missionary if the old cards worked in these machines (I still had some money on my old card) he seemed confused. When I showed him my card he, with all certainty, said that card was only used at the FHL. I mentioned that I had used it in March at the Church Library and he told me “you must be confused because we have never used those cards. They are for the Family History Library only.” OOOkkaaaaayy. Then I was looking for something else and must have looked confused (not hard these days) and another sweet missionary materialized out of nowhere and said she had to actually escort me to whatever it was I was looking for. When I told her I was browsing, she said I had to look up whatever I wanted on the computer and then she would “take” me to it. I thought to tell her I was looking for peace and sanity, but thought better of it. Not exactly a good start for me, but then I haven’t had time to do any real work there yet.”

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — July 23, 2009 @ 1:54 pm

  3. Enjoyed the review, Ardis. I see no one has stepped up to the plate to defend the catalog, which is the most disappointing feature of the new building to me. I have had no problems operating the men’s toilets, however.

    I find the staff (well, about half of the staff) very helpful, and most of the other half are at least friendly.

    I wish they had better microfilm readers for the not-safe-to-photocopy material. Those old, dim readers always put me right to sleep.

    Comment by Gentile in Zion — July 23, 2009 @ 11:08 pm

  4. GiZ (you know I’m going to have to call you “an old GiZzer” from now on, don’t you?) —

    Gossip says that the library/archives pros, who had not toured the new building until all the furniture and equipment was in place, were shocked to see that only six new microfilm readers had been set up. They knew from experience that that wasn’t enough, and knew they had asked for more (a request that the outside “experts” overrode because the Huntington — whose collections are vastly different from ours — only needed six), so they retained some of the old machines to tide us over until more of the new ones could be ordered and shipped.

    Your wish is likely to be granted before many of the others.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — July 24, 2009 @ 6:56 am

  5. And — duh — I hadn’t realized until I read what I just typed that the reason the microfilm corner is so crowded, with no space for laptops or even yellow pads for notetaking, is probably because it was planned for only six machines rather than nine.

    They’re still on the hook for not listening to the experience of the librarians/archivists who knew how many machines have long been in simultaneous use, but maybe it gives the consultants an excuse for not allowing enough space for each individual user.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — July 24, 2009 @ 7:02 am

  6. .Queuno, for every failed IT project, there are unrealistic or poorly defined business requirements plus complementary incorrect IT assumptions and rushed implementations, all magnified by the lack of an adequate budget. I suspect all of these are in play in the current state of the CHL catalog.

    Absolutely. At any rate, I’ll bet that the new CHL catalog *may* have been designed by some BYU grad student. My spies in Provo tell me that many of the science and engineering students are picking up capstone projects from various Church IT projects.

    Comment by queuno — July 24, 2009 @ 4:03 pm

  7. queuno, I love the way your comments always come in pairs, and also the way you’ve brought us back full circle, Seinfeld show-like, to the beginning: “Oh, yeah, blame IT!”

    Well, I don’t want to disappoint…

    Comment by queuno — July 24, 2009 @ 4:04 pm

  8. It is incredibly hard to type on a laptop while using the old readers.

    One of my favorite little things at the new library was getting a “Church History Library” flash drive for $7.50 in a pinch. Both useful and a souvenir.

    Comment by GiZ — July 24, 2009 @ 11:55 pm