musings on web-scale discovery systems

photo by Pascal

My library is often on the forefront of innovation, having the advantage of a healthy budget and staff size, yet small enough to be nimble. Frequently, when my colleagues return from conferences and give their reports, they’ll conclude with something along the lines of “we’re already doing most of the things they talked about.” At a recent conference report session, that was repeated again, with one exception: we have not implemented a web-scale discovery system.

I’m of two minds about web-scale discovery systems. In theory, they’re pretty awesome, allowing users to discover all of the content available to them from the library, regardless of the source or format. But in reality, they’re hamstrung by exclusive deals and coding limitations. The initial buzz was that they caused a dramatic increase in the use of library resources, but a few years in, and I’m hearing conflicting reports and grumblings.

We held off on buying a web-scale discovery system for two main reasons: one, we didn’t have the funding secured, and two, most of the reference librarians felt indifferent to outright dislike towards the systems out there at the time. We’re now in the process of reviewing and evaluating the current systems available, after many discussions about which problems we are hoping they will solve.

In the end, they really aren’t “Google for Libraries.” We think that our users want a single search box, but do they really? I heard an anecdote about how the library had spent a lot of time teaching users where to find their web-scale discovery system, making sure it was visible on the main library page, etc. After a professor assigned the same students to find a known article (gave them the full citation) using the web-scale discovery system (called it by name), the most frequent question the library got was, “How do I google the <name of web-scale discovery system>?”

I wonder if the ROI really is significant enough to implement and promote a web-scale discovery system? These systems are not cheap, and they take a bit of labor to maintain them. And, frankly, if the battle over exclusive content continues to be waged, it won’t be easy to pick the best one for our collection/users and know that it will stay that way for more than six months or a year.

Does your library have a web-scale discovery system? Is it everything you thought it would be? Would you pick the same one if you had to choose again?

3 thoughts on “musings on web-scale discovery systems”

  1. Our students do have some trouble finding the resources they’re looking for, but I don’t think a web-scale discovery tool is the answer. While doing some website usability testing, I was able to see that students do not interact with our website the way we expect them to. Things that seem obvious to me as a librarian are not obvious to an undergrad. No matter what kind of instruction and outreach we do, or how we label it, I don’t think the purpose behind a search box on our home page is going to be entirely clear. Google is the go-to tool for most of our undergrads, and I think it’s a little silly to try to one-up Google with expensive, limited systems.

  2. We’ve fairly recently implemented EBSCO Discovery (which we’ve branded OneSearch@IU, the name we’d used for our old federated search – we thought that might make it seem familiar to students). So far it’s nowhere near perfect, but a discovery service does seem like a good investment for us; it’s proved to be a great “first resort” especially for undergrads who aren’t quite sure if they want a book or an article or what. (It also helps when they think they want “a book” but the scope of their inquiry pretty clearly demands journal articles – they do the search and no books come up.)  I refer students to it at the reference desk (and via chat) fairly often. Nowhere near perfect, of course, but it seems to be serving us reasonably well.

  3. We’ll be bringing up one by spring semester I believe. I haven’t been as involved on that end of library operations since I left what is now called the Metadata & Preservation Dept.  I am looking forward to it in some ways because I work the IM ‘desk’ 4 hours a week and help users navigate our resources. So I’ll be interested to see how users interact with the search box. We’ve been doing usability on a soon-to-be released revamped home page. I understand that has been eye-opening: 
    – The bottom half of the page is overlooked, almost invisible, to patrons

    – Patrons do not immediately correlate an alphabet chain (0 A B C D …) with an alphabetical listing of titles, etc

    – Patrons do not recognize the distinction between catalog, databases, and digital collections

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