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(source: The Strategic Direction of Research Library Leaders: Findings from the Latest Ithaka S+R Survey

Library directors are increasingly recognizing that discovery does not and should not always happen in the library. Compared to the 2013 survey results, fewer library directors believe that it is important that the library is seen by its users as the first place that they go to discover content, and fewer believe that the library is always the best place for researchers at their institution to start their research. The share of respondents who agree that it is important that the library guide users to a preferred version of a given source continues to decrease. Christine Wolff, US Library Survey 2016

According to the Ithaka S+R report for 2016, the proportion of library directors who believe that their library should be the first place users look to discover scholarly content is dropping, but the absolute numbers remain high - above 50% in all three degree-areas. This indicates that library directors continue to see resource discovery as an important task for each individual library. In a recent post to the BIBFRAME listserv, Osma Suominen of the National Library of Finland wrote that “we can all agree that discoverability of bibliographic resources is very important, whatever the means”. On the question of whether discoverability or access should take priority, Suominen comes down firmly on the side of discovery: “Even if it means users are crashing into firewalls when they try to access the actual content, at least they get to know that it exists and can then try other ways of getting hold of it”.

To me, “at least they get to know that it exists” is the crux of the problem with library discovery thinking right now. It’s a holdover from the days when finding out if something had been written - either on a particular topic, by a particular author, or, in the case of a known item, when and where it had been published - required the use of Books in Print or printed periodical indexes. “Discovery” - finding out what has been written and published - was hard, and in the printed index days was by definition the responsibility of each library.

But in a networked world, with bibliographic metadata already online and available in many different formats and locations, we no longer have the problematic, difficult, discovery workflow that we did with Books in Print and periodical indexes. Answering those two questions: has something been written, and where/when was it published, is trivially easy. “Discovery” is only a problem when either, you want to be absolutely sure you’ve found everything that satisfies your search criteria (and nothing that doesn’t), or if you are trying to force users into a single portal that satisfies their search requirements. The first case has likely been impossible since the invention of printing, but is certainly completely unrealistic today. The second case is connected to the point of view that it is the library’s job to help users find out “whether something exists”. Neither of these, to my mind, is a problem that needs solving.

Perfect precision and recall is possible on a small, well-described, well-understood data set, none of which describes the non-trivial data sets that we or our users work with on a daily basis. The Google, Amazon, or Proquest corpuses are vast, opaque, and noisy compared to the clean, sleek (and mythical) bibliographic databases of yore. More and more, especially with newer search and indexing algorithms, precision and recall seem to be a zero-sum game; that is, improvements in precision lead to poorer recall, and vice versa. This is a problem for no-one but librarians stuck in the days of Books in Print and periodical indexes, when they could convince themselves that these sources provided perfect precision and recall, which was not really the case then either.

With respect to the portal question, we have known for a while that our users are making less and less use of our search systems for discovery. It’s not that they are abandoning our systems for other things, simply that they already have a way to discover resources. Forcing users out of the “wild west” of the open web into systems which – we like to believe – are clean and well-curated panders to our sense of (bibliographic) control, but doesn’t in fact to anything to solve a discovery “problem” – precisely because there is no discovery problem.

Rather than trying to “get our data on the web”, with every library exposing multiple copies of the same overlapping data, either to allow that data to be used by other systems or to drive traffic back to the local library (the Zepheira model), there are problems that we can and should be addressing.

In the first place, there’s the question of bad, noisy data. Publisher metadata is, generally, terrible, and is the prime obstacle to good-enough discovery on the web. Can we help fix that problem by exposing our data, either through APIs or Linked Open Data - yes, but every individual library doesn’t have to do it; perhaps that is a role best suited to OCLC or LoC (in the North American context; there are other organizations to play this role in other parts of the world).

The library best use that I’ve heard of for exposing more Linked Open Data on the web comes from Karen Coyle, who sees the ability to combine contextual bibliographic and non-bibliographic information to a user’s workflow and experience. This workflow and UI may not (probably shouldn’t be) implemented, owned, and hosted by a library, but if it lives anywhere else, our data should be one of the data sources in it. But again, this should not be the responsibility of every single library. If libraries do decide to get in this game, we are going to have to figure out our position with respect to portals, since at the moment, this is not something that works in our favour.

Then there are our systems - this is the access question. We shouldn’t accept that a user hitting a firewall and then trying to find a way around it is good library service. Given our licensing ecosystem, our systems need to recognize a user that “belongs” to us, and then remove as many barriers to access as possible. We’ve seen with SciHub what a user-interface designed to do that looks like. The duct-tape-and-glue approach to library systems, based on early-90s interoperability, is no longer good enough. We have the skills, expertise, and technologies to design better systems for access; this is somewhere it would be worthwhile focusing our attention, but in the age of link resolvers and proxies that “work OK”, we aren’t bothering. (Note that for these systems to work, the data on the web needs to be better, so this is inextricably linked to the data question above).

Finally, as @bibliocracy points out, there’s still a problem with how our users approach bibliographic resources that starts with discovery but does not end there. I’ve heard librarians talk about research as if it starts and ends with a perfect set of search results from which a bibliography can be created. This is patently ridiculous. More than discovering whether a resource exists, our users have to want to find things out and they have to be aware of the information context of the data they are navigating, with a view to producing something worthwhile which may (or may not) in the end be scholarship.

Too long, didn’t read version: “discovery” is not a problem that needs to be solved; better data and systems for access are problems worth tackling right now, but not at an individual library level; data, discovery, and access will not - despite a librarian bias - produce good scholarship; only good scholars can do that.


Sam Popowich

Discovery and Web Services Librarian, University of Alberta

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