Daily Archives: May 26, 2011

Embracing Discovery

This summer my library, like over 60 others, is implementing Summon. Serials Solutions’ discovery layer is meant to provide our users with that “one search solution” we’ve all been waiting for for so long by sucking all our resources (catalog records, local digital collections, and database content) into one central index that searches it all at once and links back to full text wherever it’s available.

So far, it’s kind of working that way – a tedious and detailed testing process is revealing big gaps in the index for us and more failures in linking than I’d like, but we are still very early in our implementation. (Whether these are Summon errors or local implementation errors is hard for me to tell, since there is not a transparent admin module to control the local index we’re building.) A built-in “database recommender” gives users additional options for finding resources based on their Summon search results – a feature I would like a great deal more if it didn’t provide such strange recommendations sometimes, like the humanities and social sciences index FRANCIS for the search “eating disorders.” (That technically works, but there are other places I’d probably try first.)

One very interesting side effect of our implementation is the conversations we’ve been having, both within my library and with other libraries in Ohio, about what we expect from Summon. Many people have expressed the idea that discovery layers will be something librarians promote to novice library users, but that we’ll still be directing users to our catalog for known-item and advanced searching, and to our existing database lists to choose advanced subject-specific resources. While I understand the impulse behind this idea (especially as I experience the limitations of the discovery layer during our testing), I am worried it is unrealistic in the short term and ultimately does our patrons a disservice over time.

On May 9 I spoke at a statewide electronic resources management forum in Ohio about usable database records and lists. Alan Boyd, Associate Director of Libraries at Oberlin College, asked me what I thought the future held for such lists. I said that in five years I expect our reliance on local A-Z lists and the like will be replaced by a more contextual and topic-driven solution, like Summon’s database recommender, within our discovery layers, and that we’ll be abandoning the format-specific information silos we currently maintain. This suggestion, however, was met with vigorous disagreement from some in the audience.

I see the point: discovery layers are very new. They don’t (and probably won’t) include everything we own, the indexing they provide is subject to the whims of the highly competitive publishing and library database industry, and they are not entirely successful yet at synthesizing detailed information in very disparate source formats (MARC, MeSH, Dublin Core, etc.). However, it is as naïve to assume we’ll continue to develop or even maintain the front ends of our ILS systems as it is to assume our users will want to seek out and learn how to use them. In a usability project we did last spring on the BGSU library’s website, we watched users struggle again and again to find known items in our OPAC, use our databases-by-subject lists to choose resources by topic, or navigate our e-journal portal to find the full text of an article from its citation. The reality is that the tools we have now don’t actually work that well without specialized knowledge: most users don’t know you have to search for the journal title and not the article title, or that catalog searches are messed up when you include punctuation, or that sometimes when you search without the subtitle you have more success – and why should they? When I was in library school I read Christine Borgman’s excellent article “Why are Online Catalogs Still Hard to Use?” It was published in 1996. Why are online catalogs still hard to use, even now, in 2011?

I hope we will be able to move beyond them. Perhaps discovery tools, like Summon, will be our vehicles for doing so (dozens of libraries are making that bet this summer, including my own). In the short term we’re going to be balancing the needs and knowledge of our current users with the limitations of our current tools, but we need to be ready to embrace a future in which powerful searching of vast repositories of content replaces navigation for both known items and discovery, and where we both build tools to support this new future of finding and are ready to abandon the old ones that never worked that well anyway.