In Defense of Discovery Tools

About two months ago I made a twitter poll to try and get an idea about how Librarians currently feel about discovery tools:

I’ve been lucky to work on the back-end of two libraries’ adoption of discovery tools at this point and its been fascinating to see the joy, the loathing, or the grudging acceptance about Discovery Tools that comes from both librarian and patron alike.

I don’t want to do a complete rehash of the pro and con arguments for or against Discovery Tools. If you want to dive into this Rabbit Hole I recommend François Renaville’s “Discovery Tools, a Bibliography”, or any of Aaron Tay’s blog posts on the topic. There are a few thoughts I’d like to share though.

One weirdest challenges as a new librarian is exactly how confusing it is for patrons to access library material. I mean, I knew teaching patrons how to access library materials was a large part of the job, but I wasn’t expecting to respond to their “Oh! So I can do this and get access?” with “Yes…well..sometimes, but…” responses so often. These struggles are well documented in Barbra’s Fister’s piece “The Illogical Complexity of the Walled-Garden Library“. Fister’s library doesn’t have a Discovery Tool – “a technology we aren’t sold on” – and she also links to pretty devastating critique of Discovery Tools from Dale Askey – whose library also does not have a Discovery Tool. (There are even some Libraries out there without Library search boxes on their Homepages at all – e.g. Utrecht University)

Discovery Tools can help with this access problem. They allow a user to copy and paste the title of the article and find the full-text….well…sometimes, but…there are lots of reasons why discovery tools can’t find the full-text of an item: Because an article is too new to be indexed or the link-resolver can’t link to the article level, or because discovery tools are bad at indexing hybrid or green open access versions of the article, or because the article only exists in print format in a journal in the library’s catalog, or maybe there is a spelling difference in a symbol or formula in the title that the discovery tool doesn’t recognize, or maybe it is a conference proceeding and can’t be indexed in the discovery tool knowledge base….etc. The reasons why a Discovery Tool can’t find a certain item just go on and on.

Now what about Google (and Google Scholar)? As Askey mentions in his piece “Google won the discovery wars years ago” and Tay also shows how Google Scholar does discovery tasks a lot better than library discovery tools can. Google is better at finding newer items, open access items, grey literature, anticipating user search mistakes, relevancy ranking, and just an over-all better search experience. So game over? Google provides the better discovery experience? What explains the support for Discovery Tools from Librarians in my above Twitter Poll then?

I think is a big reason why we should still hang on to Discovery Tools: Libraries have significantly more control over Discovery Tools than Google. While we don’t have any real control over the relevancy ranking of our Discovery Tool (which needs to change!), we do have control over what content gets activated, and that makes a big difference.

There isn’t a direct content overlap between Google and Discovery Tools, there will always be material that can be findable in Discovery Tools but not in Google, be this material from our catalogue or journals that Discovery Tools index better than Google can. Users need to be encouraged to search both, one is not enough. The fact that our catalogue records appear in our Discovery Tool and not Google Scholar is a huge plus in favour of Discovery Tools.  There are loads of hidden reports and grey literature that are almost impossible to find online, but if a library catalogs it and gives it some metadata, users can find it quite easily through Discovery Tools.

Risk of getting off topic here, but Lisa Hinchliffe asked a very important question on twitter a few days ago:

With so much open online content out there, discovery of relevant content is getting harder and harder. The catalogue is how libraries are solving the problem of users finding hidden, but relevant, electronic content. As Lorcan Dempsey has said “There is a renaissance of interest in the catalog and catalog data“.

It’s interesting though as eBooks and Journal subscriptions move from a ownership to licence model in libraries that it does seem like a smaller amount of this content is getting placed in the library catalogue. For example, at my library we don’t have the people power to catalog all our electronic material. It’s easier for us just to activate it in our link resolver, so it can be found in our Discovery Tool and A-Z List. Also the temporary nature of our subscriptions to some electronic content makes this easier to justify, its a shorter process to activate and un-activate it in our link resolver than to add and remove it from catalogue. We will do the above for hidden electronic content though and add it to the catalogue if it can’t be activated in the link resolver.

Back to the big benefit of Discovery Tools – Since they are library controlled we can make sure there is a higher quality of content in there than compared to Google Scholar. We can add hidden material to our catalog so that it can be discovered, make sure questionable journals aren’t activated, and promote our special collections.

While we don’t have as much control as we could over the relevancy ranking in our Discovery Tools, but we do have more control over them than Google. The problems with Google search algorithm are well documented and while Google Scholar algorithm isn’t as worrisome as Google’s, their history of disposing of successful but unprofitable ventures, makes it pretty clear to me that we need to build our own tools and can’t rely on it sticking around.

I think there is still a lot that needs to be done Discovery Tools. As I already mentioned, I think Discovery Tool vendors should give librarians more control over the search ranking. One size doesn’t fit all. Allow librarians to adapt discovery tools for their users.

We should also look at expanding the ability of Discovery Tools to promote unique library content. Be it LibGuides, hidden content, or databases. Bento searches are great for this. e.g. check out this beautiful one from University of Toronto Library.

I think promoting a “basket of search tools” is the best way to help users find content. Discovery Tools are just another one of these tools.


About Ryan Regier

Doing Library Stuff. Follow me on twitter at: @ryregier
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