The title of this post is maybe a little misleading.  I have repeatedly said that I will, at some point soon, be explaining just what it is that makes me so angry about the Nazarbayev University library portal; but then I put it off.  And put it off.  And then put it off again.  It’s probably written on one of my hundreds of to-do lists at work, somewhere on my desk under a pile of papers.


The reason I keep putting it off is simple: I actually really like IT, the people responsible for developing and maintaining the portal, and I also appreciate the fact that they have the ability to make my life much easier/less easy, at their discretion.  While I reckon they do not comprise a part of my daily readership (though I do have a suspicious amount of readers in Kazakhstan), it’s still sort of a dangerous thing.  So I’ll try and keep this light on the criticism, and instead delve into some of the cultural issues behind the problems I have with the portal.

First, a brief history:

NU Library is only two years old.  It’s actually technically Nazarbayev University Library and Information Technology Services (NULITS), because we incorporate about 20-50 IT people (I sort of feel bad that I don’t know that number), most of whom I have no idea what they do.  The portal was developed and is maintained by these people (though it was originally designed using proprietary software). 

My issues with the portal are largely to do with its general lack of usability.  For example, I currently have 1,000 e-books to upload to the portal so that people can access them.  In order to upload and maintain each one, I have to convert the PDF file into a “package” (made on house-developed, clunky software that only runs on XP, and so requires a virtual machine) and then upload both package and PDF to the portal individually (and no more than one at a time can be done without crashing the portal/generally angering it).  Each step takes about 5-15 minutes.  On top of this, I have to manually enter each table of contents, which takes at least 30 minutes per book, so that users accessing the item can do more than simply scroll page by page.

So each e-book takes about an hour’s worth of work, if not more.  So for this one group of 1,000 e-books, that’s 1,000 hours of work.   And if I ever need to change or update any information for a catalog record, I have to undertake nearly every step in that process again.

Similar issues are happening with patrons - searches can only be undertaken in certain ways, no information can be saved, etc.  And so the issue here is that the portal is designed in a way that the user must work for the portal, NOT vice versa.  Each process is designed to create more work for the patron/librarian, not less.

And this is fundamentally wrong.

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So what’s the problem?

1. User experience (UX) is not intrinsic.

While it’s common practice to undertake usability studies, test out wireframes, etc. in the U.S., it’s definitely not a common concept here in Kazakhstan.  Here, the mentality for library services is slowly shifting away from “if I can do it, you should be able to do so too, and without my help”, to “If I CAN’T do it quickly and efficiently, probably other people are having trouble too.”  Traditional librarianship here was based on restricting access (for reasons, I think, of theft-prevention, not getting into trouble, sublimation of individual thought…. etc), rather than promoting it.

My big issue with this, though, is that our services are almost completely dependent on the library portal; so if we have a portal that is built to restrict access to things (even by simply adding steps and making it more difficult), we cannot do our jobs of promoting access to information for all.  A good platform is fundamental to our services.

2. Nationalism is still a thing.

I think one of the big issues for why the portal is a bit clunky and underdeveloped is that it’s been worked on only by a small group of people in Kazakhstan.  In a global economy, not tapping online resources (even for something like a FAQ page or user threads) is really going to hurt you.  While it’s great to showcase the talent of your country, it’s more important to use the best resources available to you, at least if your goal is to be internationally competitive.  In the case of Nazarbayev University Library, we need to tap more international resources if we are going to achieve our goal of being one of the top research libraries in Central Asia.  It’s definitely possible, but I think there needs to be a slight culture-shift first.

The NU library portal is powerful, I’ll give it that.  But until it is designed to support access to information, rather than to restrict it, it is a fundamentally flawed system.