One Search Box to Rule Them All

This guest post by Amy Fry, Electronic Resources Coordinator at Bowling Green State University’s Jerome Library, is a timely reflection on Midwinter and on current events that have us all wondering how to strike a balance between convenient access and dependence on a few powerful vendors.
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Discovery services, as you can imagine, were a big topic at ALA Midwinter this year. EBSCO discussed their new product at both the LITA Electronic Resources Management Interest Group on Friday night and at their own Academic Lunch on Saturday; Cal State Web Services Librarian David Walker discussed them at the LITA Top Tech Trends forum on Sunday, and my own ALA committee, the RUSA MARS Local Systems & Services Committee, hosted a discussion forum about them on Sunday afternoon.

These services were born in response to librarians’ exasperation with isolated content and disappointment with federated search technology, as well as the continued realization that our students want the library to work like Google. But according to Senator Joe Lieberman, libraries are not alone: the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Government Affairs not only recognizes a similar problem in intelligence databases, but is saying the same thing: Why doesn’t it work like Google?

Wednesday, January 20, 2010, on NPR’s Morning Edition, Lieberman told Renee Montagne what librarians have been telling each other about students for years. “I’m concerned that they [employees of the National Counterterrorism Center, in this case] don’t have the easy ability to draw linkages between the various databases.” He continued: “when we go into Google…Google immediately searches an enormous number of databases. It’s not clear to me that, at the National Counter Terrorism Center today, if you put in the name ‘Umar Farouk’ or even Nigerian it will automatically cross-search all the intelligence and law enforcement databases it has. I want to find out whether that exists, and I’m afraid that it doesn’t.”

Montagne couched this as a “computers” problem. “Is that computers?” she asked. “Is that, literally, you cannot go in there and put ‘Abdul Farouk, Nigerian, Yemen’ and…bring everything together?” Of course, saying it’s a problem of computers, or even one of search, simplifies it greatly. It’s a problem of not only bringing together, but accurately searching, de-duping and ranking results from databases designed on different platforms using different descriptive standards (from bare-bones MARC to full-text and everything in between) to fulfill very different information needs (think MEDLINE versus Web of Science versus MLA). It’s also a problem of getting information providers to agree to work together, especially when doing so potentially violates their core business, which is to provide value-added, premium information at a price. EBSCO’s Sam Brooks described the problem well when discussing vendor efforts to get indexing services to agree to let products like EBSCO Discovery Service and Summon (Serials Solutions) search their full files, not just the top layer of metadata. His description (which ended with, of course, his telling us how using EBSCO solves this problem) brought home the complexity of this endeavor and how far, with so many information providers working at cross purposes for profit, we probably still truly are from that one Google-like search box, despite all vendor claims.

So far, I haven’t heard anything negative from libraries about discovery services, and user testing at the University of Minnesota, the University of Chicago, and Dartmouth College (as described by our panelists, Cody Hanson, Frances McNamara and Barbara DeFelice) was, also, largely positive (while pointing towards directions for refinement). David Walker cautioned that the true measure of these products remains to be taken, but I am cautiously optimistic and very excited – as long as libraries and vendors (like our law enforcement agencies) can keep our shared goals in view.

In this respect the even more recent fallout between EBSCO and Gale over mainstream magazines is disheartening: with each telling such different stories I fear that we will never learn the whole truth. Will “one search box to rule them all” become “one vendor to rule them all”? It seems contrary to the spirit of cooperation that the library community has fostered since books were unchained centuries ago, but the true measure of this possibility, like that of discovery services, remains to be taken.

Amy Fry

About Barbara Fister

I'm an academic librarian at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minnesota. Like all librarians at our small, liberal arts institution I am involved in reference, collection development, and shared management of the library. My area of specialization is instruction, with research interests also in media literacy, popular literacy, publishing, and assessment.

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