Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Discovery Services (aka Stuck In The Middle with You...)

... no, I wasn't really experiencing an earworm from an old Stealers Wheel song from the days of my youth. Well, I guess I am now, and so are you if you followed the link. Oops. What I am really referring to is a situation that is all too common in the library world (like the software world) that we happen to be experiencing now. Here's the deal.

We subscribe to a lot of databases here at Lake Land - not hundreds, but enough to be going on with. And those databases come from a variety of providers - EBSCO, ProQuest, Gale/Cengage, Oxford University Press, Ovid, and Elsevier, to name a few. There are both positives and negatives to having resources from a variety of vendors; on the plus side, you often get a broader set of resources and perspectives on a given subject with resources coming from multiple vendors. As a library, we want to provide that kind of variety to our patrons so they can select from information resources that are relevant to their research - or to provide alternate perspectives to their own ideas and things that they have read elsewhere. Another positive is that we are not reliant on just one vendor for our products; if one vendor becomes unreasonable in pricing a product, or if we see the quality / usefulness of a database dropping off, we can make a change without risking our relationship with the vendor that is providing the rest of our resources. Though honestly, this seems completely bass-ackwards to me, the vendor should be working to keep our business. But I digress...

So, we have this mixture of databases and vendors. But one of the down sides of this is that we also have many different product interfaces that patrons have to deal with. And even though librarians tend to have a love-hate relationship with Google, we are bright enough to know that most people LOVE Google. a truth at the heart of librarianship is a quote from Roy Tennant in his column Avoiding Unintended Consequences that paraphrases Herb White's feeling that "only librarians like to search. People like to find". The column was written over a decade ago, and White's sentiments are older than that. But it is a truth that is pretty universally acknowledged (with apologies to Miss Austen) these days to most of us who work in libraries. And a source of frustration, because until a few years ago, the only option for many of us was to make people have to navigate through the other databases and their different interfaces to find different materials. The first improvement in products to address this problem did something that we call federated searching. The user typed in a search that would have to go out and get results from each service/vendor/database in turn. It was slow, awkward, and not very satisfying, but it was a step in the right direction. But people still continued to ask for a Google-like experience from database searching, and librarians had to just say "maybe someday...".

Then it happened. The next generation of searching came out [typically called a discovery service or layer], with a radically different approach. It looked a bit like Google, it worked a lot more like Google, and though it was very expensive, it brought the desired outcome so much closer to libraries and our patrons. When the price came down far enough, we finally took the plunge, convinced that the expense would be worth the increased functionality. I have no regrets about doing it, even though it has cost money that could have purchased content, and despite the fact that we have had to put a tremendous amount of time into tweaking it to do what we want it to do [BIG shout out to Sarah Hill, our Information Services Librarian, for all of the work that she has been doing improving what we get from the service]. So we are ahead of the game, right? And we can search all of our resources with one search box, right?

Well, not exactly. You see, once content producers saw that there was money to be made in these services, they either bought the companies that were developing them or developed their own in-house. And being business competitors, they set their systems up so that they didn't play well together. In our case, the other two major content aggregator services have had strategies that interfered with how well the new product works. In one case, the company that has its own similar product has until very recently had a policy of not sharing data with the company tha makes our service, so that its unique materials would not be "discoverable" by the product that we use. Another vendor [not naming names, but they just came out of bankruptcy reorganization] does not have its own discovery service - but it does not make some (most?) of its most current content available to be "discoverable". Yu might find the 2008 version of a publication of theirs, but the 2013 update will only be found if you search THEIR database directly. On the other hand, some vendors play very, very nicely with the service that we have. So searching the discovery tool will get you a lot of results that you can parse out to suit your needs. But to get all of our available content, you have to go back to searching individual services as well. 10 steps forward, and 5 steps back.

So we as librarians are still frustrated by our inability to provide a true "single search" option. It's better than it was a decade ago, and that is no exaggeration. But we, like our users, are still trapped in the business no-man's-land between the vendors, who put their interests (and profits) ahead of the needs of the people they serve - their customers (libraries) and OUR customers - namely, you. Maybe one day - hopefully very, very soon - we will see the vendors agree that they CAN work together even while competing and actually keep the best interest of ALL of their customers in mind when making strategic business decisions.

PS (Maybe actually a prescript):
There is a really good discussion of discovery tools in a Chronicle of Higher Education article here that covers a lot of the ground very well. I must have missed this before...

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