Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Discovery Tools

Even in the age of Google the catalog is still the heart of every library. Building a collection is one thing, requiring its own set of skills. However once the cataloging is done there remains the crucial task of providing access to everything.  Users still need to actually find what we have so carefully described and organized.  Without such a database, and the standards which accompany it, a library becomes nothing but a closet full of stuff.  In the age of information if no one can find what you have it might as well not exist.

Enter the discovery tool.  To connect the catalog database to the outside world there are products such SirsiDynix Enterprise, WorldCat Local, and various other vendor supplied solutions.  Most of the time these come packaged with the same system used to managed the catalog itself as one component of an Integrated Library System.  Thus the task of providing public access to our collections is simplified since once an item is successfully described it will be indexed and searchable in short order.

Yet there are complications.  Not all vendor supplied solutions are user friendly.  Older products co-exist with newer products because the latter are too expensive or too complicated.  Development times can be slow as anyone who has followed the progress of SirsiDynix's BLUECloud suite can attest.  So the products we use to direct patrons to our collections vary in their actual usefulness. 

Meanwhile most libraries also subscribe to competing products such as Ebsco Discovery Service (often branded with a name unique to the institution).   These discovery layers drawn on multiple sources including the vendor's databases as well as one's own catalog if the correct information is uploaded.  For one (astronomical) price, the library patrons have a single interface with which to conduct a federated search.  There couldn't possibly be anything else to say.

Except the lines become blurrier still when one returns to the aforementioned library vendors.  The latest generation of Online Public Access Catalogs are essentially discovery layers themselves.  One can, for example, connect Ebsco Discovery service to an instance of Sirsi's Enterprise.  Innovative Interfaces offers a proxy server (WAM) to connect to one's subscription databases.  And of course OCLC's own WorldCat Discovery draws on all of the holdings information you already give them. 

So there a lot of choices.  Both users and libraries benefit from the competition.  However there is always the risk of presenting too many options.  Often libraries will give users a choice of searching EDS, the catalog, and a journals indexing service such as Serials Solutions or Ebsco Publication Finder.  They each have their merits, but do we really need multiple user interfaces?  Often they present subsets of the same information so can't we all just use Blacklight?

Perhaps.  I have no direct experience with Blacklight, but it requires both knowledge of Ruby on Rails and Apache Solr.  The geek within me salivates at the thought of getting my hands on such technology.  However reality quickly intrudes.  Libraries, especially public libraries, often don't have the technical infrastructure necessary to run Blacklight.  Then there is the issue of people.  Even in academia it can be hard to recruit and retain staff with the necessary expertise to set up and run such machinery.  Above all budgets are perpetually flat or declining for all but the wealthiest institutions.  So for most organizations, the only options are vendor supplied solutions often hosted in the cloud.

Of course there is always Google.  Except not really.    The standard interface, including Google Scholar, works well enough for basic information gathering.  However search engines offer massive quantity over quality.  There are no subject headings, call numbers, or abstracts.  All one gets is a little blurb and a title which, while sufficient for the average bear is not nearly feature rich enough for a doctoral student or experienced researcher needing to find all the literature on a particular topic.  Let us also not forget search engines use proprietary algorithms to decide what they think is relevant to your search.   Say what you will about the Dewey Decimal system, but it's an open, eminently usable standard which has been helping people locate information for 125 years.

Then again, Google Scholar does offer integration with library systems.  So one can add one more item to the discovery tools bag.  Once again I have little direct experience with Google Scholar beyond searching and reading posts on the EZProxy listserv.  If anyone has worked with it, feel free to leave a comment below.  However given Google's core business I am skeptical of the platform's future, especially as the company's efforts (e.g. Google Now) and current technology trends seem to be moving away from keyword searching alone.

None of the above is a uniquely librarian problem.  Cultural heritage institutions as well need to provide access to, and awareness of their holdings.  However due to the unique nature of such materials the standards to describe them are different - and a lot newer.  For example encoded archival description was created in the late 1990s.  By contrast MARC is nearly fifty years old and so widely adopted as to make its replacement difficult.

Ultimately the issue of collection discovery and access is a multifaceted one.  Description standards are only one small piece of the puzzle.   A bigger problem is the lack of technical expertise and funding faced by many institutions.  Without money and good IT staff most of us don't have the leverage to negotiate the best deals with the best vendors.  So while there is hope for the future much trouble remains in the present.