Tag Archives: discovery tools

Convenience and its Discontents: Teaching Web-Scale Discovery in the Context of Google

ACRLog welcomes a guest post from Pete Coco, formerly of Grand Valley State University, now Humanities Liaison at Wheaton College in Norton, MA.

With the continued improvements being made to web-scale discovery tools like Proquest’s Summon and EBSCO’s Discovery Service, access to library resources is reaching a singularity of sorts: frictionless searching. Providing a unified interface through which patrons can access nearly all of your library’s collection has an obvious appeal on all sides. Users get the googley familiarity and convenience of a singular, wide-ranging search box and, according to a recent case study done at Grand Valley State University, the reduced friction patrons face when using library resources correlates to an increase — potentially dramatic — in the frequency with which they access them. While these tools will continue to be tweaked and refined, it’s difficult to imagine an easier process for getting students to scholarly sources.

That’s the good news, and the story you’re likely getting from your sales rep. And while none of it is untrue, in my role as a teaching librarian I’ve seen more undergraduate students struggle to get what they need from web-scale discovery than I’ve seen benefit from its obvious conveniences. These students often know intuitively how to get to results from Summon’s search box; often they figure out on their own how to get to the item itself if it is available in full-text. In the library’s statistics, these might be counted fairly as successful searches. But when I ask the student whether the article at hand is what they wanted, I get one response far more frequently than all others: “Not… exactly.”

Web-scale discovery is doing about as much for these students as we could reasonably expect, and, in doing so, offers teaching librarians a challenge and an opportunity. Both are at root about our thinking, and they stem from the same fact: these tools offer an unprecedented convenience. For all the familiarity it allows students, our decision to make library tools more similar to commercial web search can reinforce the idea — primarily amongst students, but also, potentially, amongst administrators making personnel and workload decisions — that information literacy instruction isn’t necessary because students know how to get what they want from Google. If the new tool is like Google, then why does it require instruction?

There’s a lot to unpack in that question. First and foremost, what web-scale discovery borrows from Google does not make it Google. Searching Summon for scholarly articles will never be like searching Google — not because Summon cannot approximate Google’s user experience, but because scholarly communications will never be like the things students use Google to find.

Consider the freshman student looking for a pizza parlor that will deliver to his dorm. He comes to his commercial web search with a knowledge base and a self-defined need: pizza literacy, let’s call it. Having eaten and enjoyed pizza countless times in the past, he knows what it is and the range of forms it can take. Over time, he’s developed a preference for sausage, but tonight he wants pepperoni. Perhaps in this instance, he’s working under unique constraints — he saw a coupon somewhere, and is hoping to find it online. Whatever his specific pizza need, could there be any doubt that this student has the literal and conceptual vocabulary to effectively communicate that need to Google? In a way that will undoubtedly yield him with an informed pizza-choice?

Of course not. But consider the same student, his belly now full, turning to the research paper for his freshman composition course. Unlike his soul-deep craving for pepperoni, his need for “2-3 peer-reviewed articles” has been externally defined. If she is like too many of her peers, the professor assigning this requirement hasn’t done so in detail nor explained her pedagogical purpose for including it. She has given our hero but one bread crumb: go to the library website. Assuming his library’s discovery tool is featured prominently, it can potentially spare him the UI nightmare that would otherwise be the process of selecting a database to search. That’s quite a mercy, but it really only helps him with the first of many steps.

To find the scholarly articles that will meet the paper requirement, the student will need navigate a host of alien concepts, vocabularies and controversies that will, at least at first, drive his experience with peer-reviewed scholarship. And while some degree of anxiety is probably useful to his learning experience, there can be little doubt that the process would be easier and of more lasting value to the student who has support—human support—as he goes through it.

Put another way: good learning is best facilitated by good pedagogy. The tool is not the pedagogy and it’s hard to imagine how it ever could be. Because of all the concepts and conventions implicit to scholarship, the scholarly resource that is not improved for students by expert intervention is and always will be a chimera. The future of teaching librarianship as a profession will only demand more vigilance on this point.

But for all these caveats, with the right framing discovery can be an excellent pedagogical tool. Because it relieves so many searches of the burden of that first question — which database should I search? — we can use our time with students to construct, together, answers to questions we all find more compelling. What is peer review? Why does it matter? Why would a professor use it as a standard for student research? Each can be elegantly demonstrated with discovery, and best of all, students can demonstrate it for themselves and each other while my guidance focuses on the concepts and conventions underneath all the clicking.

Rather than giving in to the temptation to compare discovery to Google as a means of marketing it to students, we should go out of our way to contrast the two. What is the difference between the commercial internet search and the library tool? What is the purpose each exists to serve? How does the commercial internet search engine decide what to show you? How does discovery? You might be surprised how sophisticated students can be when they’re given a space suited to sophistication. Discovery can help to create that space in your information literacy sessions.

Even in freshman courses, I’ve found that I’m able to dive right in to activities that lead to genuine and rewarding discussion. In one, for example, I have students choose a search term — usually the name of a superhero — and ask them to search it in both Google and in Summon (with the box checked for “scholarly” results only). To the average student my sessions, the distinction between thedarkknight.warnerbros.com and Batman and Robin in the Nude, or Class and Its Exceptions is instructive on its face. Discovery makes juxtaposition like this one quick, fluid, and highly demonstrable. My students don’t need to read more than the title and abstract of the latter to have a sense of the distinction at hand.

Discovery is also a great tool for “citation chasing.” Projecting a full citation in front of the classroom, I’ll preface the activity with a brief discussion of the citation itself. What is this text Pete is projecting on the board? Why does it exist? What are its component parts, and what do they tell us about the object it describes? Then I poll the students: how many of you think you could find the full-text of the article this citation describes using the library website? Depending on the class, anywhere from none to a half of the students raise their hands. Without discovery, I wouldn’t be able to say what I say to them next: The truth is you all can. So please: do. Within three minutes, the entire class has the full-text article on their own screens.

Discovery is not the tool for every task. Controlled vocabularies don’t federate well, and the student asking very specific questions of the literature is better off going straight to the disciplinary index. Known item searches proceeding from partial information are a recurrent challenge. We must be careful with the way we describe the scale of discovery to students. In our attempts to market discovery as convenient and easy, we may in fact be selling them on a product that doesn’t exist. In the absence of a clear purpose, convenience is not convenient.

But really, has convenience ever really been our only goal as educators? The commercial web has no doubt rattled the profession, and we must respond decisively to the vast changes it has brought to the information landscape. But when we start to speak primarily in terms of convenience, the risk is that we turn away from the terms of learning and pedagogy. It’s a choice you can make without even meaning to make it. The librarian who is able to choose between user education and user convenience, certainly, has the easier job. But will it be a job worth doing? Will his users get what they need from him? The hard thing, really, is find ways to give our users both with the fewest trade-offs. This is the tension at the heart of information literacy instruction. Romantics, we want to have it all. And so we should.

New and Improved – or Not?

One of the lovely surprises awaiting those who have been away from the reference desk for a while is the numerous spanking new database interfaces that have sprouted up. There seem to be more than usual this year, and while some are improvements, others, frankly, need a good spanking. One that has us particularly flummoxed is the new JSTOR interface that defaults to searching material your library doesn’t have and offers new layers of confusion. (“Is this article available at my library in another database?” “Sorry, we can’t tell you that, but we can provide a handy link through our publisher sales service to purchase articles.”)

As an aside, do publishers seriously expect people to purchase articles for $12, $25, or $35 a pop? Really? They have not met my patrons. But I digress.

I was coasting along in blissful ignorance until I got this guest post from our occasional correspondent from Bowling Green State University, Amy Fry. I have a feeling JSTOR will be getting a lot of feedback on their “improvements.” Here are some thoughts to start the conversation.


What Were They Thinking?
Amy Fry
Electronic Resources Coordinator
Bowling Green State University

Today is the first day of the new semester at BGSU, and also the first school day of the new JSTOR interface.

What were they thinking?

JSTOR began life as a journal archive, but librarians have long treated it as an all-full-text, all-scholarly database for journal literature. While its search interface lagged, with limited options to weed out unwanted items or zero in on the most relevant results, its content was stellar, and librarians felt confident promoting it to students as a reliable place to find full-text scholarly sources. As a result, JSTOR has a strong brand not only with librarians, but with faculty and students at all kinds of institutions. Those days appear to be over, at least for now.

Last year, JSTOR embarked on a “current scholarship” endeavor, which allows libraries to use JSTOR as a portal for current subscriptions to some titles. The interface upgrade that went into effect this weekend was meant to support that program. But now that the upgraded interface is live, I can see what this means for JSTOR libraries.

JSTOR has added several confusing layers to its formerly reliable content archive that are guaranteed to confound the most experienced JSTOR user. The search screen contains two limiters – “include only content I can access” and “include links to external content.” The first is unchecked by default and the second is checked by default. This guarantees the broadest journal searching in the archive, but it also means that, after doing a search, users at many institutions will see three kinds of results – ones that are full text, ones that give citation and “access options,” and ones indicating there may be full text on an “external site.”

These last are the “current issues,” and have appeared in JSTOR search results (for titles in libraries’ subscribed JSTOR modules) since last year. Clicking on one of these in the results list shows its citation, abstract and references. Since we have enabled openURL on JSTOR, it also shows our openURL button (which will allow users to link to full text or interlibrary loan). Next to our openURL button, however, there is a box that says “you may not have access,” and to “select the ‘article on external site’ link to go to a site with the article’s full text.” Nowhere on this page do I see an “article on external site” link, but at least the openURL button is there.

The real problem is with the other articles – the ones that only offer “citations and access options.” These are articles from the modules of JSTOR to which my institution does not subscribe. Formerly, articles from non-subscribed JSTOR modules did not even appear in my institution’s JSTOR search results. This was certainly preferable to how these are handled now: now when users click on them, they see the first page of the pdf and have the option to show the citation information, but at the top of the screen is a yellow box containing the text, “You do not have access to this item. Login or check our access options.” Clicking on “login” takes users to the MyJSTOR login screen which asks for your MyJSTOR username and password or gives users the option to choose their institution from a list of Athens/Shibboleth libraries. Clicking on “access options” informs the user he or she must be a member of a participating institution, links to a list of participating institutions, then gives the user the option to purchase individual articles or subscriptions. Worse, newer articles display a price and direct link to purchase the article right next to the first page of the pdf.

Nowhere on this screen do users have the option to use openURL to link to full text or interlibrary loan. In effect, JSTOR has pre-empted library subscriptions to current content for links to purchase articles directly from publishers. For example, if I found an article from The Reading Teacher in JSTOR, I will see the option to purchase it, but be offered no other way to access the full text. If the openURL button for my library appeared there, I would know that my library has access to this article in half a dozen other databases and I would never have the need to purchase it.

Academic librarians at institutions like mine – non-Athens/Shibboleth, non-full-JSTOR-archive subscribers, can expect to get a ton of questions now from students. Expecting JSTOR to be (at least mostly) full text as it has always been, these students will log in upon accessing the database (if they are off campus). When they find one of these “access options” articles in JSTOR, they will try logging in again, then, when that doesn’t work, they will look for our institution in the list of Athens/Shibboleth institutions. Then, if it’s an article they really want, they will call or IM the library and explain that JSTOR is asking them for a login, which will be a troubleshooting struggle as this usually only happens when students try to access JSTOR from Google or Google Scholar. In the worst-case scenario, they will waste their money on content we already purchase elsewhere. In an even worse worst-case scenario, they will abandon JSTOR as another confusing and misleading library website and turn to other sources. Students are not terribly likely to purchase individual articles – they are more likely to move on and try to find something that is full text, even if it is less relevant. This may turn out to be a boon to EBSCO, but it’s going to frustrating as hell for libraries, and could turn sour for JSTOR.

JSTOR apologists will no doubt point out that individual users can change their limiter options on the initial search screen and search only content that will give them full-text results in JSTOR. But they will only do this if they understand what “include only content I can access” and “include links to external content” mean and, despite the explanatory text linked to the latter, I am not even entirely sure what these mean. Is “content I can access” just my institution’s JSTOR modules, or does it include “current issues” links for titles in my institution’s JSTOR modules, and, if so, are all of these indeed titles I have full-text access to through my institution’s current subscriptions? Good question. Do the “links to external content” mean just current issues and, if so, are they current issues for just titles in my library’s JSTOR modules, or for those in all JSTOR modules? I have made notes to ask JSTOR these questions when they get back to me about why the heck my openURL button doesn’t appear in results with the other “access options” for articles outside our JSTOR modules, but most users don’t even realize JSTOR has modules, and likely will not be able to understand what these two limiters mean, even after they’ve done a search.

So, what is JSTOR thinking? It seems like they are trying to move the archive towards being an expanded content platform in order to become an expanded platform for discovery, but have skipped some vital steps along the way. Let’s not forget, JSTOR has no administrative module, it has certainly not fully implemented openURL (as this platform upgrade shows), and though it does offer COUNTER Journal reports, it still offers no COUNTER-compliant statistics for sessions and searches.


I think Amy has nailed it by describing this as a fundamental shift from journal archive to “discovery platform.” I don’t know how your users will respond, but I predict mine will be confused and unhappy – at least until they get the hang of manually selecting “content I can access” every time they search. (There is no option for libraries to set that as a default.) Much as I respect JSTOR, I’m not looking forward to the questions we’ll be getting.

What do you think?

Illustration courtesy of autumn_bliss.