How important is usability for data librarianship?

A comment on discussions during the DLF forum 2015.

Does usability matter for providing access to library collections as data? As a librarian the answer may seem obvious. Of course, usability matters, without proper usability testing and design best practices we will limit the accessibility of our collection, potentially screening out some of our user community.

I agree that access is a key goal for any library project. But I want to push back on the default assumption that data should not be released without proper usability or even documentation. Too much time spent refining the usability of a tool may be a barrier to making data availability. Moreover, for an expert user the polished interface may be counterproductive.

Usability takes time and resources. In their article “More product, less process” Greene and Meissner (2005) critiqued the archival processes which prevented archivists from opening more parts of their collections to users. Too much focus on the processing of an archive slows down the availability of those archives.

I think data libarians are susceptible to the same conservatism that affects archivists. The hard part is wondering what should we do about it?

Here are some questions we should ask:

  • What is the minimal documentation or description needed to make the data useful?
  • Who is really going to access or reuse this data?

As a rough sketch I think the answer to these questions may direct us toward a small community of potential users, who don’t need a lot of way finding, and just want to access the data as soon as possible. For these users, a simple README file may be enough. What we, as librarians, really need is a way to plan for multiple releases and refinements of data over time. We need to cyclically return to our collections and reassess user needs, refining the product as we go, instead of waiting for a moment, which may never come, when we achieve a perfect, or even adequate, description.

Greene, M., & Meissner, D. (2005). More Product, Less Process: Revamping Traditional Archival Processing. The American Archivist, 68(2), 208–263.