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Thursday, October 20, 2005

The People's Network is a suite of online services - Enquire, Discover and Read. It's managed by the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council. It's designed to be a single, national website for public libraries with 24/7 answering services. Thanks to Peter Scott for the heads up.

I've taken a brief look at it, and I'd like to be enthusiastic, really I would. I think the concept is great, and should be encouraged. It's great to see a system like this in operation, even if it should have been here 3 years ago. So I fully applaud the effort. However, the substance of the thing is another matter entirely. There are 3 main elements to the page - Enquire, Discover, Read. The home page is very simple (which is good), but it uses lots of primary colours, which gives it a slight childlike quality to it.

The Enquire service looks easy enough, with very clear instructions. I didn't try it out (librarians are busy people, and I didn't want to bother them for the sake of it), but I'm happy to assume that it works well. It has both a real time and an email facility.

The Discover service (a personal guide through the web's hidden treasures) was awful. It doesn't provide any indication on how to search at all. The 'detailed' or advanced search function is very limited; any/all words, subject/title search. The 'Who?' function is very strange - creator/author, rights holder or publisher. Who exactly is the 'rights holder' and what am I supposed to be searching for? I have no clue. There's a filter search, which allows you to filter by source, and it's only at this point that you realise that you're searching a very small dataset. And what a strange dataset it is as well - Dorset Coast Digital Archive, Fitzwilliam Museum, Devon Etched - I'm sure these are all good solid resources, but very niche. Consequently the results are not really the best, to be honest. It needs to be made much clearer right at the outset.

There is a personalisation option, which works easily, once you register. You can personalise by adding content from a number of resources - I chose BBC UK News, and had 3 headlines (I didn't see any way to change this) and the 24 hour Museum. This is an RSS feed, with 17 items. If I was new to the internet (and this site does seem to have a focus on this) I'd be wondering what an RSS feed was. I could add in some 'quick links' to places like Time Team and the English Heritage, which is fine, but that's what bookmarks are for - nothing exciting there. I didn't see any way of saving search histories, I couldn't see any way of adding my own links, or my own RSS feeds, and it doesn't look like I can share these with anyone else either.

Of course, the site is new, and so is it unfair to criticise like this? Yes, I think that it is fair to criticise. There are plenty of other sites out there that have been doing this stuff for quite some time now, and it's not particularly new or difficult. One could argue that they want to start slowly, see what takes off and then move up a gear, and I can see the point of that. However, not to provide basic stuff like this (and I think by now it has become basic) is not going to impress, and leads to user expectation being dashed. I'm very disappointed that this section is, quite frankly very poor indeed. Nothing noteworthy, interesting or particularly exciting, other than the fact that it's new.

So, lets move on.. The last section is 'Read'. Here I have problems with the terminology used - for example 'Read is a great way to start to get into books and reading online and helps bring readers together, either to meet up face to face or on the web.' It could be argued that uses non technical, non threatening language. However, it also looks patronising, dumbed down and meant for children. The content is limited (again) to links to other sides, without a great deal of meaningful home grown content. The whole style seems to take the approach that people don't like reading and have to be encouraged to do so; 'Reading links ... help turn everyone onto books and reading.' Well actually, a lot of are already 'turned on' to reading books and those who are not will probably be out playing football or visiting nightclubs and won't be visiting this site anyway!

I really don't want to come across as crabby and overly critical of the site, but I can't hide my disappointment - this could have been a really good site, but as it stands it's pretty mediocre. Hopefully it will improve in time, and when it does, I shall be more than happy to laud it to the skies.

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There are further, similar comments over at from Paul Miller, and I agree with everything that he says there.
'Heads up'? Sorry, Phil, but as an old farty please excuse me while I throw up into this bucket. Arggggshhhssppaa*****hrrfffff!!!!fffkkkttt. That's better. What's wrong with 'told me about it'? Or just thanks to... When people use phrases like this I always think of US marines planning their next sortie into downtown Baghdad. 'Thanks for the heads up, sergeant, we're good to go? Locked and loaded? Move out men.'

OK, I may have over-reacted slightly here. But 'heads up'?? Soon you'll be talking about 'face time' and all will be lost.
Well yes, I can see where you're coming from regarding 'heads up'. To be fair, I do quite often say 'thanks to' or 'hat tip' (which you probably don't like either!) I think the phrase is now rather more widely used by people other than the US military, and it adds a bit of variety. I'll try not to use it too often though!
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