About a month ago, you may have seen an article published by Nature entitled “How To Tame the Flood of Literature“. The article focused on new tools for aiding researchers in keeping current with the literature in their fields. These are personalized recommendation engines, which may be based on a researcher’s publication history (Google Scholar), on users with similar interests (PubChase), or trained by an individual’s approval or rejection of suggestions (Sparrho). The article made some useful points about the time needed to train such systems as well as the ongoing necessity of human evaluative skills, whether one’s own or those of colleagues. They serve a purpose for researchers, but they are not yet fully mature as tools for discovery.
A week or two following that, Ithaka S&R released a challenging brief, “Does Discovery Still Happen in The Library? Roles and Strategies for a New Reality“, authored by Roger C. Schonfeld. The brief notes that discovery currently happens in a variety of settings. It discusses findings from a recent Ithaka survey that indicate that skilled use of discovery tools in the context of library resources differs dramatically between first-year undergraduates and experienced graduate students, between researchers in different communities, and even between institutions. Connecting users with the right content — a long-standing role for academic libraries — is currently a time- and labor-intensive activity.
Whether we blame budget constraints, technological disruptions, or some other aspect of modern life, discovery remains a significant challenge. By the end of that brief, noting the difficulties of delivering robust discovery services in a period of transition, Schonfeld is asking the hard question of “Can libraries step forward to play a greater role in current awareness? Should they do so?”
Should libraries abandon investment in formal discovery services (of whatever ilk) and leave the job to the somewhat mysterious algorithmic mercies of Google, Amazon, or the start-ups referenced above? There was feedback from the community which Roger subsequently shared publicly here. One of the most important points made was that discovery did not have to occur solely within the library, but that the library should be considered a key channel of access in supporting discovery. I’m in full agreement with that idea, but there’s some practical work that needs to be done if content and service providers are going to support discovery to the extent needed in the library.
The nature of that practical work is revealed in a recently released, cross-industry white paper, “Success Strategies for Electronic Content Discovery and Access“. To save you some time, let me quickly summarize the nature of the problems identified. They have to do with the speedy supply of accurate and complete metadata in connecting users with the content to which the library is offering access. Data suppliers, service providers and libraries are not giving sufficient attention to the gaps that occur for the user when:
- Data are incomplete or inaccurate;
- Bibliographic metadata and holdings data are not synchronized;
- Libraries receive data in multiple formats.
We live in a garbage-in-garbage-out world of information services. These are data quality issues that, if not resolved, impede the work of professional scholars as well as students. High-quality, rich bibliographic metadata must be supplied and properly fed into the various discovery and access systems in place in libraries if users are to be supported in efficiently searching the available literature. Identifiers have to match up. Holdings information must be kept current. Most importantly, stakeholders need to work together to ensure consistency and synchronization.
Before libraries can answer the question posed in Schonfeld’s brief about whether it’s worth supporting discovery in the library environment, the directors of those libraries must have an accurate sense of user need, preference, and adoption. Until those systems are properly fueled by accurate data which has been appropriately and effectively integrated, the role of the library in support of discovery will remain an open question mark. No one will be sure whether the profession took the best road or simply the most expedient one. Is it a question of defeat or of best practice? In an age when we are claiming that decisions must draw from real data, surely that is a faulty approach.
The working group behind this paper spans the broadest range of disciplines (HSS as well as STEM) and includes content providers Elsevier, Springer, Wiley, Project Muse, and Ithaka/JSTOR, as well as representation from the library community including OCLC, the University of Maryland and the University of Delaware. Those individuals participating have already taken the first step required by articulating the issues, none of which are insurmountable. They are, however, issues in need of resolution. If the information community acts collaboratively, we can continue to support the library’s role in discovery, even as we recognize that the library need not be the sole channel available to scholars or students.
This cross-industry paper will be in the spotlight over the coming weeks, via both an NFAIS webinar discussion (Oct 23) as well as during the Charleston Conference (specifically on Thursday, Nov 6 ). Take these opportunities (and the time) to familiarize your staff and your organization with the issues that have been identified as well as the recommendations offered as a solution. If your role as a content provider is to support awareness and access of high-quality content, then it’s incumbent upon the information community as a whole to ensure that the hallmarks of quality — that is, full and accurate metadata consistently applied and delivered in readily ingestible formats — are present in the feeds exchanged between stakeholders. To wait until we see which way discovery is headed before making these improvements has implications for how rapidly research and education move forward.
*Post updated 10/15/14 to note the efforts of OCLC in the working group.