Electronic pathfinders in academic libraries by Candice Dahl

Dahl, C. (2001). Electronic Pathfinders in Academic Libraries: An Analysis of Their Content and Form. College & Research Libraries, 62(3), 227-237.

I’m reproducing the author supplied abstract to facilitate the discussion.

    Forty-five electronic pathfinders were selected from nine Canadian university libraries to assess their degree of conformity to suggested guidelines in the existing literature about pathfinders. The content and the format of the chosen pathfinders were assessed in terms of consistency and scope. Also considered were overall readability and whether they were effectively constructed to be used as starting points for further research. The analysis revealed that the guidelines were not uniformly followed, leaving some pathfinders more complex and less useful than others. Further, it demonstrated that specific guidelines must be created for electronic pathfinders because they pose particular problems that are not addressed in the current literature about pathfinders in general.

I find this article very clearly written and presented. The author sets out the objectives and metrics simply and clearly. She is going to evaluate 45 electronic pathfinders (from 9 Canadian universities) using 4 criteria:

  1. Format should be consistent
  2. Scope should be manageable
  3. Content should be readable to users
  4. Content should equip users to go beyond the resources listed and conduct their own research

Dahl discussed why the criteria / guidelines were set as such from the review of the pathfinder literature. She also created a simple rating system of 1 to 3 for each criteria that is used to rate the pathfinders.

Her findings are not surprising. As with so many things online, consensus about how to build pathfinders have been absent. Individual library researchers have researched and written about various features of what they consider good pathfinders, but there hasn’t been a healthy discussion amongst these researchers. There has been some efforts to put up guidelines but if they aren’t standards, nobody would care too much.

Dahl also made an interesting observation on page 231 about the conflicting nature of 2 of the criteria: consistency versus readability. Intuitively, I know there should be a balance between the 2 but in practice, balance is difficult to achieve.

Which brings me to my final point.

Who should decide or judge what is a good pathfinder? Does following the guidelines to a T meant that a pathfinder is good? There is an assumption that the guidelines are what makes the pathfinders useful to the readers. That a consistent format is better to a user than a non-consistent format. That users need annotations. That link out to “library instruction” is not as good as in-text instruction.

Is that really true?

Dahl, in her conclusion, touched on the most important area of research in pathfinders. What do students/users want from pathfinders? How do they use pathfinders?

I don’t think the answer to the most effective pathfinders is easy to find because even our users are not the same. Their information needs are varied and their motivations different. We probably need to put in more work at collecting user feedback and satisfaction with our pathfinders. And if any comparison between library institutions should be made, it should be a comparison of user feedback to our pathfinders and not its content or form per se.