Contextual Inquiry at the Monterey Public Library

I did my inquiry at the Monterey Public Library.  I picked the location for making my observations carefully: I sat at a desk upstairs where I could easily observe the upstairs of the library.  It was also relatively trivial to observe the downstairs, all I had to do was stand up and look down.  Here are my observations from yesterday:


  1. There are two people who appear to be watching movies
  2. Two, maybe three, people who look like they are homeless
  3. One person taking a nap
  4. Three people in the other area with tables and chairs who all appear to be studying
  5. One Hispanic person who walked by
  6. A guy with a baseball cap who stood near me
  7. A woman with black & grey hair walked towards me.  She was reading, then she walked off towards a table area near me.


  1. Librarian talking at normal volume with patrons checking out books
  2. Three people who are browsing the internet on public access computers  (Out of five computers total)
  3. One person reviewing the new releases shelf
  4. One person who accidentally set of the circulation alarm
  5. Two people browsing the Teen Zone
  6. Two (or three) people chatting about DVDs
  7. One dad pushing a baby in a stroller
  8. One baby crying, possibly the same one.
  9. New sign near the Youth Area that says “READ” in block letters (The letter appear to be colored by children)
  10. Man and woman walking into the Youth Area.  Woman appears to be wearing a hijab
  11. Mother & daughter checking out books from the librarian at the Single Service Desk
  12. Grey haired woman walking out of the Teen Zone
  13. Reference Librarian, Karen, walking towards the staff area with a black woman who is a new librarian
  14. Black woman patron who is waiting at the reference desk – no one was at the desk, although a librarian returned to assist her shortly.

At first I wondered why there were so “many” people stopping near me.  I realized why this was occurring when I ended up leaving my seat and walking downstairs.  There is a table there with a “Free Books” section where the library gives away books.  I think it’s been there all along, I had just forgotten about it.


Reserving a book: Monterey Public Library

The following is an outline for one way to reserve a book at the Monterey Public Library.

1)      Go to the Monterey Library homepage at

2)      Click on My Account and login to your library account.

3)      Perform a search for the topic or book that you want to reserve.

4)      When you find the book, click on the book’s Detail Page.

5)      In the upper right box, click Place Hold.

6)      The next page asks you to confirm the hold and define the book’s Pickup Location.

7)      Click Place Hold.

This particular process is already fairly optimized, provided that you know what book you want to reserve, there’s not much work that could be done to improve it.  The only thing that could be done to remove a step would be to allow patrons to choose a default pickup location and then skip step 6, the confirm hold page.  But I feel that this change would likely end up causing more problems than it solves because the confirm page is useful as a way to allow users to cancel easily if they accidentally hit Place Hold on a book they didn’t mean to confirm.

By far the weakest step in this process is step 3.  If you know exactly what book you’re looking for, this is easy, all you have to do is type in the book’s title in the search box and follow steps 4 – 7 listed above.  But if you don’t, you can easily run into problems.  Library search engines are great at targeted searches where you know exactly what you want.  However, they do not work very well for serendipity searching, which is a common way of finding books by browsing in libraries, unless you’re careful with how you use them.  Say you want to find a book on a science fiction topic but don’t care about the author or have a title in mind.  If you search the Monterey Library catalog for science fiction without changing the search options drop down, you receive books that are encyclopedias of science fiction, and collections of science fiction stories, without actually showing much in the way of science fiction books.   If I did not have my degree in Library and Information Science, I would not even think to use the Subject search option, which is what users need to do to find actual science fiction books using this interface.

Library User Peronas

Public Library:

  • Barbara Ackworth, an elementary school teacher.  This is based off my observations from a reference transaction I observed while shadowing last year, but the name is made up.
  • Seth Harwood, a novel writer.  This one is based off my own personal experience since I am writing a novel at the moment.

Academic Library

  • Jack Sparrow, faculty member of the English Department.
  • Scott Smith, an undergraduate student majoring in Criminal Justice.

Elementary school teacher

Novel writer

Faculty member – English department

Undergraduate student – Criminal Justice major

Service Safari: Pharmaca and the Monterey Public Library

My Service Safari is about two recent visits to public places.  One retail store, Pharmaca, and the other my local library, the Monterey Public Library.

I went to my local Pharmaca recently to pickup a prescription.  The visit went fairly well: although it wasn’t as quick as the pharmacy technician estimated it would be, it was still pretty good considering that the prescription had just been faxed over earlier that day.  I was told that my prescription would be available in 10 minutes, it ended up being available in 15 minutes.  Not a bad wait.

I am a fairly regular shopper at Pharmaca.  The store is clean, the employees are pleasant, and the inventory is arranged in a way that makes things fairly easy to find.  One nice thing about shopping there is that it’s not just the Pharmacist who has specialized knowledge there.  The people who ring up orders aren’t just cashiers, they’re Estheticians, Naturopathic Doctors, etc.

Ultimately, the only downside to this particular visit to Pharmaca was the extra 5 minute wait over what I was told the wait time would be.  Since it was a brand new prescription, that’s still not a bad wait time, 15 minutes seems to be a fairly standard amount of time for prescription drugs to be prepared.

The second Service Safari is a recent Reference Transaction I had with the Monterey Public Library.  I was trying to look up an address in Palo Alto, but I wasn’t sure what county it was in, and the phone books are organized by County, not City, so I needed to know this in order to look up said address.

So I asked the librarian on the desk if she could look up what county Palo Alto is in.  She did, and explained that it’s in Santa Clara, which is what I had suspected, but I wasn’t sure.  The wait was short, the answer was accurate, and the interactions were pleasant, so I was happy with how it went.

All in all, the reference transaction went fairly smoothly, I was happy with the answer she gave me.  It enabled me to look up the information I was looking for in the library’s Santa Clara phone book.  This is one useful aspect of libraries beyond just the typical books, they (or at least the two libraries I’ve been to in California) typically have phone books for all the counties in the state.  It’s handy when you need to look something up in another part of the state, for example: one common example of that is if you’re thinking of moving and want to look places up in the new city that you will be living in.

Content Inventory

WordPress refuses to let me upload my Content Inventory spreadsheet, so I put it in my Amazon Cloud Drive account.

I’m going to summarize my findings rather than going into detail about the issues for all fifteen pages because the issues are pretty similar on most of them.  In essence, the content is good on most, if not all of the pages, but it’s definitely not as user friendly / web ready as it could be.

The History of the Monterey Library is a prime example of that.  The page is clearly written in essay format, and while it is interesting information, the format of it where it stretches across the entire screen makes it tricky to read.  Even without changing the content of the text, this could be made far easier to read by turning it into a two or three column layout instead of having it in one giant column.  Having it in that style so that it’s in newspaper format would be a big improvement, there’s just too much horizontal tracking on the screen for it to be easy to read in this setup.

Another broad critique of all these pages, a bit more minor, but the title of almost all the pages starts with “City of Monterey | Library |”  before getting to the actual title of the page itself.  I tend to browse the web with a lot of tabs open, typically 20+, and the only library page where I can actually read the page title is the Volunteer page which didn’t have the “City of Monterey | Library |” in front of it.  Especially since the library puts its logo in my browser window, I really think having this on the top of every single page is unnecessary and more of a hindrance than helpful.

There were a lot of pages that had the previously mentioned problem of columns that are too wide.  It was frustrating to observe because in many of them, such as the Volunteer page, there are what look to me like natural places to end the column, but instead, the text just runs across the page.  For example, with this page, there are two ways to format the text that would look cleaner than it does now.  One would have the column end with the left edge of the pictures.  This would be an improvement over how it’s laid out now, but likely still too long.  A better approach would be to have the end of the text at the bottom line up with the unordered list content.  Then it would be a nice, neat column, instead of the way it is now where it’s just an awkward block of text.

And then there was the About Us page, which was just awkward to read.  The reason that it was awkward to read is that it may say About Us, but given the actual content of the page, it should say Mission Statement in the title because that’s actually more what the content of the page is about.  It’s clean and easy to read, but when I finished reading it…I didn’t really feel like I learned anything about the Monterey Public Library.  The mission statement is nice and all, but it’s really the kind of thing that I would imagine almost any public library would do.  If I was a patron going to a library’s About Us page, what I’d really want to know is this: what kind of books am I going to find there?  Are there events, and if so, what kind?  How late is it open?  What am I going to learn in this library that I wouldn’t in another library down the street or in another city?

Sadly, none of these questions are answered.  Well, that’s not technically true, the hours question is answered, but only incidentally, it’s in the footer, so you could find that answer on any page of the library website.

Finally, the cell phone history of the library pages.  I suspect I know why this happened, but these pages include text for the following languages: English, German, Spanish, French, Chinese, and Japanese.  This is great, but if I were a regular patron looking at these pages coming from the rest of the library website, I’d be wondering, why are these pages all of a sudden offered in multiple languages?  The rest of the website isn’t, it’s all just English.

One last issue worth mentioning isn’t technically tied to any specific page because it’s part of the site header.  There’s a search function in the top right of the library website, but there’s kind of a big problem with it: it’s too subtle.  The only indication that there’s search is an hourglass symbol, there’s no text box unless you click on it.  It does say “Click to search” if you mouse over, but it’s not a part of the screen that I’m inclined to mouse over much because the only thing next to it is the site map and I don’t need the site map personally.  I suspect this search button has been there for years and I only just now noticed it while doing this exercise.  Given that I’m a fairly technically savvy person, if even I am not noticing it, I imagine it’s probably not getting used very much.

Rewriting pages – Monterey Public Library

The first page I’m going to rewrite is a blog post by the Monterey Public Library about a new library in San Diego.  I’ll admit that I’m not wild about this post for a couple reasons: one, what does it have to do with Monterey, aside from being a library?  Two, I think the picture could be a lot better.  I looked at that picture and immediately thought, well, I want to see the whole library, not just the front entrance.  But this assignment is about written content, not images, so that’s all I’m going to say there.

I’m going to rewrite the content so the same thing is said in an easier to read format.  The following is my rewrite:

The weekend before last, I made a visit to San Diego, and including on my itinerary a visit to the spectacular new Central Library.  It’s been years since I visited San Diego, and I didn’t really have a great impression of the place when I was last there, some 40 years ago.

However, the whole city seems to have had a major overhaul. It is, in a word, beautiful.  One of the most impressive stops on my whirlwind tour was the new Central Library  – an edifice that has almost become mythic in the library world, because it has been 30 years in the making.  It is stunning.  It is enormous.

It should be the envy of every public library that is trying to cope with

  • the changing roles of libraries
  • the increased demands for new technologies
  • room to accommodate a growing range of library activities.

See what San Diego has to say about its amazing new library.  Or just Google San Diego Central Library and poke around their official web site.

I changed very little of the actual text of what this librarian said.  I only changed the actual text of three sentences, including the link.  The rest of the changes involved breaking up the text into smaller, and thus inherently more manageable chunks of text.  I reworded the first sentence in the second paragraph since I broke it off into a new paragraph and it’s awkward to start a paragraph with but in my opinion.

Ultimately, I made several changes here: breaking the text into smaller chunks for better readability, rewording a few sentences, and rewording the link.  I feel that rewording the link is an absolutely key change as the previous link was totally dependent on what was said previously to be understandable.  The new sentence that I put there in its place is better for two reasons: better SEO, if libraries are interested in how search engines pay attention to this link; and probably more importantly, better scanability.  With the original sentence, “Read more and be astonished”, if you ignored the whole text and went straight to that link, you’d be wondering what exactly you should be astonished about.  This sentence, on the other hand, stands well completely on it’s own, you could get rid of the rest of the article and that sentence would still make sense.  Maybe not as much sense, but it is not a dependent sentence like the one in the original link.

The second page I will be rewriting is the Internet Policy page.  The following is my rewrite:

Internet Policy

Complete Internet Access and Use policy
Explanation of the rules for kids

In order to use Monterey Public Library’s Internet service, you must follow the rules established by the Library Board of Trustees. If you do not follow these rules, you will not be permitted to use the Internet and you may be required to leave the Library.

Does the library monitor or censor content?

Monterey Public Library does not monitor, control, sponsor or endorse the material you find on the Internet. The Library does not edit or restrict Internet information. Only you and your family have the right and responsibility to define what material or information is consistent with your personal and family beliefs.

If you are a child’s parent or guardian, only you have the right and responsibility to restrict that child’s use of Library resources, including the Internet. You are encouraged to supervise and to participate actively in your children’s Internet use.

Will the library train me in using the internet?

Library staff will help you use the Internet and locate the information you need. Because of other customer service responsibilities, staff members cannot provide Internet training, or help you set up, configure, or troubleshoot your wireless hardware or software.

What level of privacy will I have accessing the internet at library computers?

The Library cannot guarantee your privacy when using the Internet. Respect the privacy of other Internet users, and do not attempt to show displayed material to passersby. Library staff must take appropriate actions to resolve problems which arise during use of the Library’s Internet service and to enforce Library policies and rules.  To this end, Library staff members may need to observe Internet use, question Internet users, and restrict conduct by Internet users which violates this policy.

Is the library’s wireless internet secure?

The wireless network is not encrypted. Other wireless users may intercept any information you send or receive using the wireless network, and web-based security controls may not be sufficient protection. Therefore, the Library recommends that you do not enter credit card numbers, passwords, or other personally identifiable information.

Other wireless users may also be able to view or change files on your computer. The Library recommends that you install and use anti-virus software, firewall software, and current security patches or upgrades on your computer.

Are there any guarantees on the quality of the internet access from the library?

The Library makes no representation or guarantee that any part of the Internet service, including the wireless service, will be uninterrupted, error-free, virus-free, timely, or secure, nor that any Internet content is accurate, reliable or safe in any manner for download or any other purpose.

You use the Library’s Internet service, wireless network, and electronic information resources entirely at your own risk. Monterey Public Library and the City of Monterey shall not be liable for any damage that may occur to any computer, peripheral equipment, or storage media, loss of data, loss of confidential information, unauthorized access to or alteration of data transmissions, and/or any other direct, indirect, special, incidental, consequential or exemplary damages resulting from or arising out of use of the Library’s Internet service, wireless network, and/or electronic information resources, or inability to use these services, or any other matter relating to these services.

What use is the library’s internet setup for?

The Library’s Internet workstations are primarily for research, educational and informational use. Time limits are in place to ensure that all customers have the opportunity to use the Internet. Specific ports and protocols such as FTP, file share, and insecure e-mail protocols (SMTP, POP, IMAP) may be disabled on the wireless network in order to limit bandwidth and prevent abuse.

What is the library’s legal policy on internet use?

You agree to indemnify and hold Monterey Public Library and the City of Monterey harmless for any claim or demand, that may be made by any third party due to or arising out of your conduct in connection with any use of the Library’s Internet service, wireless network, and electronic information resources, your provision of content, your violation of this Policy, or any other violation of rights of another person or party.

Any use of the Internet which violates Federal, California, or local laws is prohibited on both Library and customer computers. Examples of illegal activities include but are not limited to fraud–which includes disguising or falsifying sources of electronic mail and other electronic communications with the intent of misleading, defrauding or harassing others–displaying or distributing child pornography or other obscene materials, libeling and slandering other persons, and sending “spam” e-mail including identical or nearly identical messages sent to a large number of recipients who have not granted deliberate and explicit permission for the message(s) to be sent.

You must follow Library rules while using the Internet (ask to see Policy No. 515, Disruptive Behavior in the Library). You must be quiet, courteous toward others and respectful of Library equipment.

You may not modify Library or other customers’ hardware or software, change configurations, attempt to access non-public files or accounts, or attempt to intercept, monitor, disrupt, or impede other users’ wireless communications. You may not use personal software, download software, or bookmark sites on Library workstations. Use the Suggestion Box if you wish to suggest sites for the Library’s Web pages.

You may not violate software license agreements or infringe on copyrighted material. United States Copyright Law (Title 17, U.S. Code) prohibits the unauthorized reproduction or distribution of copyrighted materials, except as permitted by the principle of “fair use.” You may not copy or distribute many electronic materials without the permission of the copyright holder. You are responsible for any consequences of copyright infringement.

The City of Monterey and the Monterey Public Library are committed to providing an environment free from sexual harassment. Please help by refraining from the display of material which may be interpreted as part of an intimidating, hostile, or offensive work environment. Do not attempt to show displayed material to passersby.

I actually thought the content here was fine.  The paragraphs were a reasonable length and the topic is potentially useful.  The part that I didn’t like about this page is that it’s a really long block of text.  This isn’t conducive to scanning or skimming, which is how most people read the internet.  In order to fix this, I created several headings for different paragraphs in this document.  This simple change enables skimming / scanning in this document.  If I were to make this change on the web page, I’d turn each of the titles into relative links so that it’d be easy to hop from one part of the page to the next, but for the purposes of the assignment, I figured bold would be sufficient.

Now for the third page, I’m going to do something a little different.  I am picking on the Monterey Public Library with this blog post, but I should say that I really like their website for the most part.  It took me a while to find three pages to critique.  What I’m going to do differently for this third page is address only one part of the page instead of the entire page.  It’s a large part, however, so it should be sufficient.  For the third part, I will be rewriting the Policies and Procedures part of the Meeting Rooms page at the Monterey Library.

Below is my rewrite:

Policies and Procedures

The Monterey Public Library’s meeting rooms may be reserved on a first-come, first-served basis for meetings of community groups and events of an informational, educational or cultural nature sponsored by non-profit organizations.

Who can use the meeting rooms?

Organizations, meetings, and programs must be non-commercial in nature. The Library requires proof of an organization’s non-profit status. Documents such as articles of incorporation, bylaws, or 501(c)(3) verification must accompany the application form.

What is the fee for using the meeting rooms?

If the individual who takes responsibility for the room has a valid Monterey Public Library card, there is no charge. If the meeting room is reserved by someone who does not have a card, fees are $10 per hour for the Community Room (up to $50/day) and $5 per hour for the Solarium Conference Room (up to $25/day).

All meetings and events must be open to the public. With prior approval of the Library Director, your organization may charge a nominal fee to recover the costs of meeting room rental, refreshments, and supplies.

How can we market our events in the library’s meeting rooms?

Any publicity for meetings and events should clearly state your organization’s sponsorship, provide a name and phone number for contacting your organization, and include the following sentence: This program is not sponsored or endorsed by Monterey Public Library or the City of Monterey.

Who is responsible for the safety of the meeting rooms?

Organizations using the meeting rooms are responsible for enforcing fire safety occupancy limits.

At the close of your meeting you must leave the room, including the furniture arrangement, as you found it, and return the Meeting Room Closing form to the Library Help Desk.

How far in advance can we reserve library meeting rooms?

Recurring reservations will be accepted through the current calendar year subject to availability. The Library will begin accepting reservations for the upcoming year in the fall. Organizations are permitted to book each room for two dates in each month at this time.  If an organization wishes to book additional dates, it may request additional dates up to 30 days prior to the additional date desired.  Applications must be resubmitted yearly.

Read the complete Library Board of Trustees Policy 105: Use of Library Meeting Rooms.

This rewrite is very similar to the rewrite I did earlier on the Internet Policy page.  I didn’t change the content at all, just the formatting.  In essence, I updated it to improve scanability.

Finally, on to examples of well written pages.  I am doing an internship at the Naval Postgraduate School and I was going to post an example for the first part of the assignment here, but found good news: I couldn’t find pages that needed their content rewritten.  So I decided to save it for the good example section.

NPS homepage

This is a screenshot of the NPS library home page, without scrolling down at all.  I really like this for several reasons.  Here’s why:

  • Excellent scanability: the bullets, tabs, and quick links sections make it really easy to jump from one section to another and find what you’re looking for without actually curling up with a book and reading it.
  • Instant awareness: within five seconds or so, I can scan this entire page and tell what it’s useful for: finding books and ebooks, etc.
  • The limitations jump out as well: it’s obvious that you can’t find articles in the main search box from the text above it.

That’s great.  There are, however, as always, a few things that could be improved.  They are mostly backend things:

  • As a patron, I’d love an option to search articles straight from that search box without having to go into the articles & databases page.  NPS subscribes to a fair amount of databases, however, so the likely solution here if it implements a change like this would be to only search common databases like ProQuest.
  • It doesn’t search NPS’s institutional archive, Calhoun.  Why not?  What’s the logic for having this separated out instead of being integrated into the regular search?

I’m absolutely positive that there are discovery engines that will let libraries do this searching for books and articles all within one box, I attended a presentation about them at the Internet Librarian conference last year.  So that comment isn’t pointing out something that isn’t feasible, just something that NPS hasn’t made a priority of, in my opinion.  Personally, I think this particular library’s job is to make its resources as easy to use as possible so that the graduate students attending NPS can focus on writing their theses and not as much on the research process.  Of course they will still have questions, but wouldn’t it be nice if they could search five databases from that box in addition to the library holdings?  Or better yet, all the databases the library subscribes to?

Having said all this, I’m critiquing functionality here, not content, but it’s well within the realm of changes the library could make to enhance the library’s usability to graduate students.

Here’s my second example, also on the NPS library site:

Calhoun homepage

This is the Calhoun home page.  I have very little to critique about this homepage: it’s clean, easily scannable, and explains why NPS students and faculty should contribute to it.

My only critique is this: the description only talks to one potential audience of this page: internal NPS faculty / students.  What about the rest of the world?  Why should I, as some other person who doesn’t work there, want to read it?  This wouldn’t be hard to fix, just add a paragraph or to answering this question: “What can I find in Calhoun?”