15 Sep 2013

Discovery Services and the Information Literacy Challenge

Image: Jocelyn Wallace: http://www.flickr.com/photos/red11group/4869913259/
This blog post was partly prompted by another one, as well as my own reflections on discovery platforms of late. I am a big fan of the idea of such platforms - after all, anything that makes things easier for our users is a good thing. Discovery services remove a lot of the barriers that libraries and publishers have inadvertently created: if students don't understand all our fancy library terminology (databases, subject headings, filters...) it doesn't really matter; users don't have to know the often-unwieldy and confusing names of our products in order to find information; and perhaps best of all, they are fast and reasonably intuitive. From an instructional point of view, these tools allow librarians to focus on the bigger and deeper issues and concepts involved in using, evaluating and managing information by freeing up traditional "database teaching" time. A great tool for first year undergrads for a lot of reasons.

However, one concern I do have is how we manage the teaching transition from the discovery service to more complex information-seeking. Our students may become so comfortable with and reliant on using our single-search interfaces that they become (understandably) reluctant to relinquish their grip on Summon, Encore or Ebsco Discovery Service. As information literacy librarians, how do we persuade our users that the speedy and seamless tool they have experienced success with, is not enough after all, and really they need to move beyond it? How do we encourage our students that the more time-consuming and cumbersome process of wading through individual resources separately is sometimes needed and actually pays off? On paper, this is not an easy sell. At the same time as promoting our discovery services, we clearly need to keep developing how we package and provide access to our individual products. Libguides and other subject portals are one example of how we can simplify this process for our users by bringing our resources together thematically or by subject, but it doesn't solve other problems, such as those concerning interdisciplinary research.

The real challenge remains how we can support our students in managing the leap from our discovery services to databases as they progress towards final year projects, dissertations and postgraduate research. It requires helping them to understand the difference between both approaches, and explaining that each can be successful for different purposes and contexts. For those that teach information skills primarily (or solely) using discovery services with early undergraduates, it would be interesting to follow these students through and examine their behaviour at the end of their degree programmes or beyond. Are they overly reliant on these tools when a more sophisticated approach is required? It may be too early to expect this kind of study right now, but I'm already awaiting the results on this one.

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