12 Dec 2012

Discovery Platforms in Special Libraries - Do We Need Them?

In recent years, libraries have been actively pursuing the 'single search box' philosophy to attract patrons used to the minimalism of Google's interface and to simplify the process of searching for scholarly content and resources. Publishing and database companies have happily obliged by providing a range of different products and technologies including Ebsco's Discovery Service, Primo and Summon from Serials Solutions. However, if users are already comfortable using Google's interface as an access point, do we really need to devote time and money to institution-specific consolidated indexes and discovery layers?

Aaron Tay discusses the key arguments in the discovery debate. In the academic setting, I think there are certainly some arguments for discovery layers and interfaces to help undergraduates get to grips with searching for scholarly content. However, even this is not clearcut. Tay quotes evidence from the University of Illinois who found that "users of their Ezsearch (a very impressive advanced federated search system that is for all intents and purposes on par with Summon and services in its class), did known item searches for almost half of all searches (49.4%)". Whilst searching for a known article will 'generally' work well using such interfaces, this is obviously not what these services are primarily designed for. Indeed, this same trend prompted Utrecht University Library to shift their focus to delivering content rather than discovery (Thinking the Unthinkable, a Library without a Catalogue; see also the video), and not because they do not not have the capability (they built their own in-house platform over ten years ago).

Moreover, without filtering or narrowing the sources appropriately (arguably defeating part of the one click advantage of these platforms), users may be overwhelmed and frustrated by a large volume of news articles and other content which may be useful to a journalism student for example, but not so helpful for a medical student.

Notwithstanding these issues, discovery services are now commonplace in the academic library setting. However, more recently I have also seen these platforms being implemented in special libraries, and I am not so sure about their real value in this context. From my own experiences as a medical librarian, the majority of searches undertaken by users require relatively complex search strategies rather than simply basic keyword searching; the use of MeSH and EMTREE terms are pretty much essential because of the need for searches to be systematic and comprehensive. No doubt a similar level of detail is required in other special library contexts, such as law libraries. However, discovery platforms often don't include all of the rich metadata from the original source in the central index that underlies the discovery layer. Furthermore, some databases and resources are not yet included in any of the commercial products currently available. This in itself causes confusion for users - which databases are included in the index and which resources are not? They may think using the discovery interface searches everything (like Google apparently does!), thereby omitting useful additional sources.

Many clinical staff and health-care workers still use PubMed as their default access point for the majority of primary research, and introducing a discovery platform would probably not change this. But do we even want it to? Replacing a freely available source with a subscription one is questionable. When staff move to another hospital (or indeed when most students leave University) they may have to switch back to sources such as PubMed and Google Scholar anyway. Right now, I don't see any great value in implementing discovery services within a health sciences library, in fact they may even do more harm than good in the long run. After all, are we just trying to help our users find information during a four-year degree or an employment contract, or for the rest of their lives?


  1. Hi, thanks for the mention.

    I think for the case of medical, it's pretty clear cut, the gains from implementing a web scale discovery layer like Summon is going to be limited.

    Based on what I have read about the experiences of US, UK libraries in general medical users tend to stick to pubmed & ignore Summon etc.

    In my own University, we didn't try too hard to promote it to the medical faculty either.

    I think the reason is that for all intents and purposes, PubMed is already a web-scale discovery layer in the field of medicine & life science.

    Add the advanced search features such as mesh heading searching that are solidly established in the medical field, it's a stretch to think Summon and similar services can displace PubMed which isn't designed specifically for it.

    In fact if you go by http://www.educause.edu/ero/article/thirteen-ways-looking-libraries-discovery-and-catalog-scale-workflow-attention , Summon and similar services are actually working at a lower level "institutional level", compared to Pubmed which is at the "network or web" level and Lorcan Dempsey/OCLC argues that the future lies in pushing up towards the higher levels.

  2. Thanks for the comment Aaron - really interesting link also. Agree with your sentiment that's why I am surprised to see so many medical/health science libraries now using products like EDS now. Right now if somebody gave me the money to buy one of these platforms, I would say thanks but no thanks :) Time will tell I guess!