Two ways forward
Unless we are planning to set our sights lower and encourage students to use ‘good enough’ resources instead of reviewed writing, we are going to have to find a way to overcome a convenience factor that begins and ends with Google. I see two paths forward here.
First, we can simplify our tools without abandoning the features that make them better than Google. Actually, many of our best database providers have come a long way toward making search intuitive, yet sophisticated, allowing easy faceting that narrows and focuses results. Library homepages could be better set up to draw students to these tools. Here, I don’t think discovery tools are doing the job well. They carry the same trap as Google: Users conveniently enter search terms in a box and then struggle to decipher the results that are virtually incomprehensible to them because they have to distinguish a book citation from an article or a report.
This leads to the second step—helping users find convenience in our proprietary academic search tools. Logins are a barrier. Is there a way to simplify them? Once into our array of databases, we need ways to guide users to the right database easily, using subject discipline guides and ranking to push the best databases for each subject.
Then we need to teach users the structure of databases. Many of our academic tools default to a simple keyword search or an advanced search with several boxes to enable Boolean searching. Other than identifying what search terms to use, users actually do their best work on results pages where options to narrow results (to scholarly articles, full text only, or subject headings) can reduce many citations to the few that are bang on topic. If we can teach the process so that it becomes intuitive to users, the feel of these databases can become familiar and convenient.
Beating the Convenience Factor
Using Google or even Google Scholar for academic work is not convenient. Google-style tools are inviting because they are familiar. But they were never made for academic searches involving complex ideas that are best teased out with metadata. So how do we get this message across?
One excellent way is to do the very kind of demonstration my colleague and I have been carrying out in our sessions during the past year. We make it a contest in which I announce that I’m going to win even before we start and then gloat over the superiority of my academic database. Students love it.
The other way is to put academic databases into the best placement possible within our library webpages, promoting those that provide the easiest search process with the least loss in sophistication. For those of us who have discovery tools, make the option to search individual subject databases at least as prominent as is the omnibus “search everything” box.
I don’t believe my infolit philosophy is dead yet: Dumbing down the research process in the interest of convenience is almost always a poor choice, especially when we have the option of educating researchers to excel. Convenience may rule, but we have an edge if the most familiar public tools are actually the least convenient. What is required, however, is a commitment to enable student understanding of the academic information environment as both valuable and easier to navigate than you might think, if you know what you’re doing. Then, as educators, we educate, creating sophisticated users of the right tools, the most convenient ones for the task.