Book title: Human Aspects of Library Automation

Gower Publishing Co., 1990, ISBN 0-566-05543

Andrew Dillon

This item is not the definitive copy. Please use the following citation when referencing this material: Dillon, A. (1991) A Review of Dyer, H. and Morris, A. - Human Aspects of Library Automation, Ergonomics, 34(1), 114-116.

This book is intended to fill a gap in the literature on the impact of information technology on libraries which the authors claim is dominated by technological rather than user concerns. It seeks to review the relevant ergonomics literature on system design and working environment and thereby provide those involved in the automation of library facilities and services with an understanding of the important human factors issues. In so doing it concentrates heavily on health and safety aspects such as the alleged health hazards of VDUs, lighting and heating, job design and implementing automated systems. Smaller sections cover basic human characteristics pertinent to ergonomics and the software interface. At the back are some useful addresses of human factors groups and societies for those seeking further guidance.The intended readership is presumably concerned librarians embarking on or in the process of introducing or updating their automation facilities though the subject of library automation has long been of interest to many human factors professionals and it is at the latter audience that the present review is primarily aimed.

While recognising the value of new information technology in libraries the authors continually emphasise the importance of the human factor in maintaining an effective service and a satisfied workforce. To this end the section on implementation makes useful reading and the philosophy of user involvement that it emphasises is particularly welcome. Those in charge of technology change in any organisation would benefit from following such practices.

However, despite the soundness of the underlying message the book is, on the whole, disappointing. Large sections of it read like a superficial literature review with little in the way of theoretical cohesion and one gets the impression that neither author is particularly at home with the material. For example, the overview of human characteristics provides a “basic information processing model” of man that consists of an arrow entering and leaving a box marked “central processing unit or brain” (p. 4). I know most models are simplified but this takes “basic” to ridiculous extremes. The list of factors claimed to affect performance include attention (where we get such gems as “inattentive staff can be mildly irritating to both managers and clients”), arousal (“the aim is to achieve a balance with neither too much or too little stimulation”) and memory (where that old chestnut of the magic number seven is invoked to deduce the implication that menus should “never exceed” nine items!).

The authors’ difficulties with cognition are apparent from the fact that they put it aside for the majority of the text which thereafter concentrates on physical ergonomics and reads like a summary of numerous articles grouped according to broad theme. This may have worked if the intention was to give librarians a handle on the major findings of physical ergonomics research but ultimately fails in my view because of the insistence of the authors on making this look like a specialist text. Thus there are numerous technical-looking figures, spurious photographs of desks and cables and enough scholarly references to the scientific literature to put off the non-specialist very quickly.

Unfortunately, when examined closely, such details often lack sufficient substance to be of interest or use to specialist readers.For example, they state that big screens are better than small screens, claiming that “double A4” screens are “easier to read” and “highly recommended”. This is interesting but in the absence of supporting evidence (or even the name of someone who recommends them) is merely conjecture, the dressing up of popular opinion as science and not in keeping with published findings.Yet that authors are quick to drop names and cite “evidence” in many other instances. On the issue of interface design for example, we are told that “Carroll and Rosson (1987) identified that some people have considerable trouble learning to use computers” (p. 169). Oh really? Such statements are commonplace and highlight the irrelevance of much of this text to a specialist readership. As a result, the book falls between two stools as it tries to be both ergonomic reference book and non-specialist awareness raiser, although both require specific and often non-complementary skills to write appropriately.

A further problem I have with this book is that there is little enough here that is specific to libraries. It could have as appropriately been titled Human Aspects of Office Automation (a domain from which most of the cited literature comes), but of course it would have then entered a far more competitive market where some excellent texts already exist, and one might cynically conclude, would have been less likely to be purchased by libraries. The concept of automation mentioned in the title is also slightly misleading as the only facilities that seem to be discussed here are OPACs and Word Processors and there is little coverage given to how the library of the future will serve the information needs of its clients.

At £32.50 this is an unjustifiably expensive text that will be of no direct use to human factors professionals. I cannot imagine too many librarians doing anything more than browsing this on the strengths of its title, which might be enough to ensure that ergonomics are considered but where this consideration takes them is another matter. As a do it yourself manual for the non-specialist it fails (as all such texts must) but if it leads those in charge of automation to seek out expert advice then it will serve some purpose (not least because of the recent -but not mentioned here- EC directive which legally obliges those involved in the commissioning and modifying of software to apply the principles of software ergonomics). On the wider front there is the issue of ergonomics as a discipline being represented in this way. Some of the conclusions are inaccurate at worst or vague and irrelevant at best. It has the “look and feel” of a HCI text without the necessary substance. Reading this I fear, could well give non-specialists a distorted view of contemporary ergonomics.