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Magazines > Computers in Libraries > May 2013

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Vol. 33 No. 4 — May 2013
Revelations From the Literature:
How Web-Scale Discovery Has Already Changed Us
by Hillary A.H. Richardson

While discovery tools do attract more students with their simplistic, Google-like interfaces, it is—and will continue to be—important to teach students the advantages of using library discovery tools over internet searching.
For nearly a decade now, librarians have discussed and deliberated ways, for the sake of convenience, to integrate internet like searching into their own catalogs to mimic what academic library patrons have been using outside the library. The simple interface, the convenience of use, and the immediate flood of results from conducting an internet search are much more appealing to contemporary students than searching many library databases, catalog listings, and electronic resources, all of which are in different places with different characteristics. But the big question is, by striving to mimic internet searching, are librarians forsaking the integrity of the wealth of information resources they provide for what Thomas Mann famously referred to as the “principle of least effort” to which discovery services lend themselves? Or have these new discovery tools simply allowed librarians to evolve their services to meet a new set of information seekers’ needs?

Differing opinions on incorporating a system that mirrors internet search engines have monopolized the modern conversation about information-seeking behavior. Sharon Q. Yang and Kurt Wagner have proposed that the convenient interfaces of these search engines, such as Google and Amazon, pose the threat of replacing library interfaces altogether. However, they posit this alternative: “By making search interfaces more competitive, feature-rich, social and similar to interfaces found on popular web sites, we are now able to see that we indeed can offer our users the ability to search, discover, and find in setting comparable to commercial sites.”

Conversely, Jody Condit Fagan argues that web-scale discovery services for libraries do not compete with internet search engines; rather, they transform the services: “Yes, Vitamin Water is on the same aisle as Coke and Pepsi. It is not a competitive product. … Discovery tools have learned some important lessons from the web search industry, but I believe they have a different mission, a different purpose.” In other words, a library discovery tool is not an equivalent to “Googling” something, but it is an evolved function that proposes better results for academic library patrons. Anna Carlin and Rebecca Donlan add that an important facet of a discovery service is to mirror the internet search engines’ “discoverability,” which is “where a search engine like Google shines: it seems to be able to find just what you didn’t know you were looking for.” As Carlin, Donlan, and many others suggest, discovery tools serve as a stepping stone for richer, more in-depth content.  

Proliferation of Discovery Tools
Articles Published by Year
Word Clouds
Frequency of Discovery Tools

Five Years of Web-Scale Discovery and Counting

No matter the argument, discovery tools and web-scale discovery services (WSDS) in fact do attempt to provide users with a similar one-stop shop version of a library catalog, allowing users to conduct single keyword searches over the virtual entirety of a library’s accessible resources. Marshall Breeding explains that using the term “web-scale” to describe these services denotes “the discovery platforms that aim to manage access through a single index to all library content to the same extent that search engines address content on the web.” This is what many have referred to as the holy grail of library technology, and within the past 5 years, this technology has become more of a realistic and reliable service—though not without some concessions—and it has already changed the way librarians deliver their services and instruction, precisely because web-scale discovery is not synonymous to Google.

Between the advent of WSDS with WorldCat Local in 2007 and the number of discovery services present today, the number of library websites that offer commercial or open source discovery services is more than 5,500, and that number is rapidly growing. With the exponential growth of these services, library professionals must examine the extent to which these services affect both the ways in which patrons use them and the ways in which librarians implement and teach them. Research about discovery services, published just within the past 5 years, already gives us an idea of various efforts to evolve library services to accommodate the use of web-scale discovery.

A Change in Vocabulary

Because web-scale discovery services are still evolving and are tightly related to other services, such as next-generation catalogs and federated searching, the vocabulary for these services is not fully established, nor is it entirely consistent within the field of library science. The first shift WSDS have caused, therefore, is a change in vocabulary.

Expressions such as federated search ing, metasearching, next-generation catalogs, and millennial catalogs are no longer exactly the mots justes in the realm of WSDS. Athena Hoeppner defines WSDS as a “preharvested central index coupled with a richly featured discovery layer that provides a single search across a library’s local, open access, and subscription collections.” A preharvested index can then be defined, says Hoeppner, as “metadata and full content systematically and periodically accumulated and processed in advance of searches; data is gathered from multiple sources and processed into a central index.”

Jason Vaughan has a similar definition. Where content is indexed in a centralized, preharvested database, there is a “single search box providing a Google-like search experience,” and the return of results is quick and seamless. Vaughan adds, however, “These services are agnostic to underlying systems, whether hosted by the library or hosted remotely by content providers … and allow a library greater latitude to customize the services and make the service its own.”

A Change in Professional Practice

But this movement is more than just a change in vocabulary. The greater impact of WSDS on library infrastructures is their influence on best practice guidelines throughout several library departments. By looking at keywords, themes, and subject headings of 53 articles published about discovery services, it is clear that these new services have already made the greatest impact on integrated systems, collection use, and instruction and reference.

Because of the still-evolving nature of web-scale discovery, several of these articles serve as an introduction to the idea of WSDS, describing different products to give librarians some context when deciding which service is appropriate for implementing within their own libraries. However, several analytical studies that examine the impact of WSDS on a collection or on user behavior demonstrate the need for changes in decision making. In an exemplary look at how WSDS affected library collections, Doug Way studied the impact of Serials Solutions’ Summon discovery tool on his library by examining usage statistics from various databases and full-text downloads. He determined that the implementation of the new service brought a dramatic increase in full-text downloads and an overall increase in exposure to the library’s collections, but it likely caused a decrease in the use of specialized subject databases.

A study by Ana Guthrie and Rhonda McCoy, also conducted to examine the impact of implementing a discovery tool, reveals changes to the nature of the reference librarian. The results concluded that though students will use the discovery search bar, they still require close assistance and instruction; librarians at these universities reported the still-rampant use of Google searches. To confront this, they argue that “libraries must adjust research expectations,” otherwise, “students [will] care more about locating relevant data sources and less about processes.” In other words, without some fundamental, bibliographic knowledge on how discovery tools gather information, students could possibly be using a tool that gives them information they may not even know how to use.

In a comprehensive survey of the discovery tool literature, Beth Thomsett-Scott and Patricia Reese discuss the breadth of impact and the relationship of WSDS with information literacy. The research they cover provides mixed reviews of optimism and frustration, and it shows that even for such a new topic, the number of studies about WSDS is on the rise. Most notably, they discussed the need for strategy and constant evaluation when teaching patrons how to use discovery tools. In many instances, library instruction using discovery tools allowed librarians to explain better ways to limit search options and provided them with more time to discuss critical thinking skills, such as evaluating these resources.

The Change as Documented by the Literature

While WSDS affect instruction and service, they also clearly affect the research that librarians are conducting. In looking at the number of articles published, it is clear that WSDS are swiftly gaining ground as forerunners in the conversation about libraries and technology. A total of 53 scholarly articles about WSDS—published between 2007 and the fall of 2012—were found within three comprehensive LIS databases. The number of articles published per year appears to be growing exponentially. In 2011, 15 new articles were published; in 2012, there were 32.

The published articles span a total of 19 journals, with approximately one-third of the articles (34%) having appeared in College & Undergraduate Libraries, which published a special issue in 2012 dedicated to the research on WSDS and which demonstrates the prominence of WSDS in academic libraries. Additionally, Library Technology Reports published an entire issue in 2011 dedicated to explaining and reviewing different web-scale discovery services and tools for a total of eight articles. The number and variety of journals involved also reflects the growing relevance of WSDS in several areas of library service. While it is clear that WSDS have a fixed seat in the world of library technology, it has also come to the attention of serials librarians, cataloging librarians, and reference and instruction librarians.

To determine what the focus of this research has been, a content analysis was performed. A total of 153 subject terms were collected from the articles in the corpus examined for my study. All subject headings that were present four times or more were examined, which produced a set of 22 headings. The results provided a general idea of the content within each article, and important headings, such as “ONLINE Information Services,” “DATABASE Industry,” and “Information-Seeking Behavior,” give some insight to the dis cussion of WSDS in the field. However, overall, the results are somewhat misleading.

The highest-ranked heading was “Federated Searching,” which many articles discussed in their literature reviews to introduce the beginnings of WSDS, but none of the articles truly focused on the subject of federated searching. Furthermore, only one article contained the subject heading “Discovery Tools,” even though all 53 articles discussed web-scale discovery and some variant of its application. This is a testament to the still-evolving vocabulary surrounding web-scale discovery.

Each heading was pasted into the word cloud generator Wordle in order to produce a visual content analysis. Based on the image produced, this analysis clearly illustrated the earlier supposition that the subject headings alone did not produce an accurate picture of the content of each article.

Based on the word cloud alone, ambiguous words such as “library,” “searching,” and “information” have the most precedence, and they do not distinguish this set of articles about WSDS from any other articles in the field of library science. In fact, the word “discovery” is virtually invisible here, as it only appeared in the subject headings twice. And as the ranking of the subject headings demonstrated, this word cloud’s prominence of “federated” is misleading.

To provide a better visualization and a more accurate depiction of the content of these articles, the author-supplied keywords were analyzed. Though not every article supplied these keywords, the majority of articles (28, or 52.8%) provided enough keywords (154) to generate a better reflection of the articles’ content. All of the keywords were entered into a new word cloud, and the result provided a more specific representation of this group of articles. Not only is the largest word the most central to the topic of each article, but now, words such as “Summon,” “instruction,” “implementation,” and “web-scale” have greater precedence. This clearly mirrors the discussion of the new technologies and their impacts on library services and systems.

Of the 31 articles that discussed a specific discovery product, Serials Solutions’ Summon was mentioned most often, with prominence in 12 articles and appearing in two articles that discussed Summon in tandem with another product.

How the Change Affects Libraries

By looking at the purpose of each article, this analysis demonstrated how WSDS affect library infrastructures. Out of conference proceedings, usability studies, library research studies, implementation studies, and critiques, most of the articles published fall under the category of critique (28, or 52.8%), in which the authors evaluate WSDS (in general or by specific product) based on professional opinion and make suggestions for other librarians looking to evaluate and adopt a discovery serv ice.

The research, implementation, and usability studies indicate that while this is a relatively emerging topic in the field, several libraries are already sharing their methods for gathering information about WSDS, integrating them with their existing systems, and maintaining the systems involved. This may serve as a troubleshooting guide for librarians adopting WSDS for the first time.

Although “information literacy” was not a prominent keyword or subject heading, out of the 53 articles listed, 21 of them (39.6%) contained the phrase “information literacy.” This volume of content represents a serious acknowledgment to the effects of WSDS on information literacy and emphasizes the need for librarians to teach the use of a discovery tool. Because WSDS implementations are not exactly Google search bars, librarians are determining that explaining the difference to students is quite necessary and that there is a very present need in libraries to adjust their instruction to include the discovery tool.

Even though WSDS are still in the early stages of development (and according to Vaughan’s 2011 report on various discovery services, “Each service is evolving extremely rapidly, with enhancement cycles measured in months, if not weeks”), it is apparent that this library innovation is and will continue to be an incredibly impactful one. This is most evident by the number of departments involved with the implementation, maintenance, instruction, and study of different discovery services. Indeed, although the majority of published articles on WSDS, according to Ginny M. Boyer and Megan Besaw, “focuses on discussion of the various products, implementations, and experiences post-implementation,” these experiences involve a mélange of employees. WSDS affect every facet of library services, from electronic resource committees, which evaluate and choose different services, to the IT department, which deals with installation and troubleshooting of the software, to cataloging, which integrates the discovery tool to index library holdings records, to public services, which connect the patrons to using the services effectively.

It is also clear that with new information-retrieving technology, patrons’ ability to seek and locate information will be affected, and WSDS will continue to play a major part in restructuring library instruction and information literacy programs. After all, web-scale discovery services are “tools” at the core, and if we are not teaching our patrons how to use these tools, they would be like construction workers who try to use the claw of a hammer to hit a nail. Nancy Fawley and Nikki Krysak suggest that discovery tools be taught as a “starting point” and lead to more direct, more specific services, such as subject guides and interlibrary loan. The simplicity of discovery tools’ interfaces also proves a challenge in IL instruction. Shaundra Walker and Iyanna L. Sims note that discovery services can potentially become a barrier between students and information literacy.

Because the interface of discovery tools seeks to imitate the Google search bar, students may see the convenience, but they may not see where their search results come from or know the source of their indexing. Karen Kaufmann, et al., also note that instruction librarians would have to meet the information literacy needs of students by directing them to the search filters and explaining that discovery tools would provide a very broad results list without them. And what about the higher order standards of information literacy, such as evaluating sources and using them responsibly? Though little has contributed to this question, it is not outside the scope of WSDS to aid in these endeavors. While discovery tools do attract more students with their simplistic, Google-like interfaces, it is—and will continue to be—important to teach students the advantages of using library discovery tools over internet searching.


Boyer, G.M., and Besaw, M. (2012). “A Study of Librarians’ Perceptions and Use of the Summon Discovery Tool.” Journal of Electronic Resources in Medical Libraries, 9(3), pp. 173–183. DOI:10.1080/15424065.2012.707056.

Breeding, M. (2010). “The State of the Art in Library Discovery.” Computers in Libraries, 30(1), pp. 31–34.

Carlin, A., and Donlan, R. (2007). “A Sheep in Wolf’s Clothing: Discovery Tools and the OPAC.” The Reference Librarian, 48(2), pp. 67–71.

Fagan, J.C. (2012). “Top 10 Discovery Tool Myths.” Journal of Web Librarianship, 6(1), pp. 1–4.

Fawley, N., and Krysak, N. (2012). “Information Literacy Opportunities Within the Discovery Tool Environment.” College & Undergraduate Libraries, 19(2–4), pp. 207–214.

Guthrie, A., and McCoy, R. (2012). “A Glimpse at Discovery Tools Within the HBCU Library Landscape.” College & Undergraduate Libraries, 19(2–4), pp. 297–311.

Hoeppner, A. (2012). “The Ins and Outs of Evaluating Web-Scale Discovery Services.” Computers in Libraries, 32(3), pp. 6–10, 38–40.

Kaufmann, K., Larsen, J., and DeSalvo, P. (2012). “Discovering the Discovery Tool: The Introduction and Impact on Research and Instruction at Seminole State College of Florida.” College & Undergraduate Libraries, 19(2–4), pp. 278–296.

Library Technology Guides. (n.d.). Retrieved from

Thomsett-Scott, B., and Reese, P.E. (2012). “Academic Libraries and Discovery Tools: A Survey of the Literature.” College & Undergraduate Libraries, 19(2–4), pp. 123–143. DOI: 10.1080/10691316.2012.697009.

Vaughan, J. (2011). Chapter 1: “Web Scale Discovery” What Is Web Scale Discovery? Why Web Scale Discovery? Library Technology Reports: Expert Guides to Library Systems and Services, 47(1), pp. 5–11.

Walker, S., and Sims, I.L. (2012). College & Undergraduate Libraries, 19(2–4), pp. 312–326.

Way, D. (2010). “The Impact of Web-Scale Discovery on the Use of a Library Collection.” Serials Review, 36(4), pp. 214–220.

Yang, S.Q., and Wagner, K. (2010). “Evaluating and Comparing Discovery Tools: How Close Are We Towards Next Generation Catalog?” Library Hi Tech, 28(4), pp. 690–709.

Hillary A.H. Richardson ( is an electronic resources library associate at Mississippi State University. She holds a master’s degree in English from the University of Mississippi and will obtain the M.L.I.S. from the University of Southern Mississippi in August 2013. Hillary’s research interests focus on how educational technologies and information literacy work together.
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