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Magazines > Information Today > July/August 2010

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Information Today

Vol. 27 No. 7 — Jul/Aug 2010

The Undiscovered Discovery
by Barbara Quint

If you’re a journalist covering the information industry (and a consumer advocate for the interests of those buying that industry’s products and services), you have a sense of responsibility that inevitably leads to a permanent furrow in your brow etched by worry over adequacy. Have I done all the tire kicking I need to do, and have I competently interviewed those who have done the tire kicking? Did the people I interviewed know what they were talking about or what I was asking in the interview? Angst, angst, angst.

The issues get even more difficult when dealing with enterprise-only products. Anyone can saunter onto an open website and conduct whatever tests or experiments they want. Any journalist in the field can get a freebie password to a commercial service that is sold to individuals (aka credit-card customers). But how do you test a service that operates only on campus or companywide? And when it comes to comparing and evaluating competitive enterprise services from different vendors, the problems increase. The greatest is the difficulty of finding anyone in the field who has already done the evaluation within the enterprise. The prices for enterprise services are so high, and the overlap in functionality often so broad, that it becomes unlikely that anyone will buy more than one service. And if you don’t use them, how can you compare them?

Focusing on Discovery Services

This brings us to the flavor-of-the-month product these days: discovery services. The top three discovery services are Summon from ProQuest/Serials Solutions, EBSCO Discovery Service, and Ex Libris’ Primo. These three services attempt to homogenize all the databases licensed by libraries into a multifeatured, well-integrated finding tool with an interface that end users/patrons will find easy and familiar. (How many O’s are there in Google?) Of course, the discovery services in a perfect world reach beyond licensed library collections to find—and fetch—all the content that librarians and their patrons find of value, regardless of any specific limitations tied to individual library holdings. After all, they must have a central merged collection that reaches a broader array of sources than those for any single library’s licenses.

Many sources that discovery services reach come through arrangements with publishers or full-text database aggregators, but I don’t know what limitations these sources may impose on restricting access to existing clients. However, in a conversation with an executive of a venerable A&I service, I heard a tale of woe for the grand goal of universal access. My interviewee told me that when ProQuest Summon was first rolled out, the service wanted all the references available from ProQuest. But the company and other A&I services wouldn’t buy into that, according to my source. It figured that if it gave away its citations, there would be nothing to sell. So when Summon returned to the negotiating table, company spokespeople agreed to filter the service to the content for which library clients had subscriptions. My source also had remarks about how often the discovery services (and they were available through several) dropped in to harvest data (monthly, in one case) and how they ignored some data elements unique to specific collections.

OK, directory service executives. I can’t get all the content you cover, and getting an accurate and complete list of that content is another issue often raised on library listservs. In some cases, I can only get the content I’ve already licensed from its creator. And if I pay extra for your discovery service, the content I get will not have all the features from the original source, which is sort of “discovery lite.”

At this point, the vibrations from my consumer advocacy instincts are registering on CalTech’s Richter scale seismometers. But I still think these services are a good idea, probably an essential one. Someone has to find a way to make library-licensed material more amenable to a Google world.

But is there a better way to make this happen and for discovery services to do a better job? I think so. One of the key features of these new services is customization for librarians buying into the service. This is a perfect opportunity for using an array of collaborative services. Create well-structured, well-archived social networking options for all your subscribers. If some negative comments arise, don’t panic and shut down interactions. Obviously, if the comments are profane or personal attacks, drop them. But otherwise, have your staff respond gratefully. Here’s an opportunity to educate your users and, better yet, to educate your own staff. They may need to re-examine and perhaps re-work a feature so it behaves more intuitively. Input from users is valuable and essential to improving your product, and it’s free.

What about opening the service to app creation? In particular, I imagine that some library customers would like to find ways to route users with special needs to the database features on the underlying systems that can meet those needs. Discovery services may be “lite,” but the libraries paying full dollar for the underlying services don’t want their investments to be “lite-n,” especially in these tough times. Building those bridges might also help maintain a strong working relationship with content providers.

Now one problem remains. If we want knowledge workers to use these quality sources, we have to ensure that they can reach them wherever they go. I am not referring to mobile computing; I am referring to the time these users graduate from a university or change employers. This should not mean losing access to the content that librarians have spent extensive time and resources trying to teach patrons to use and to rely upon. The Summon service was right with its original pitch to the A&I services. The A&I services were realistic in their refusals, but that still leaves us with the problem and the challenge. If information professionals (vendor or library) can’t solve the problem, then we might as well leave it all to Google.

By the way, Google recently introduced faceted searching features, similar to those on discovery services, to encourage more advanced searching by its webwide world of users.

Barbara Quint is editor of Searcher magazine. Her email address is Send your comments about this article to
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