A few months ago, a faculty member contacted me about acquiring a copy of the 1925 silent film by Sergei Eistenstein, Battleship Potemkin. I was sure that we must have multiple copies of this classic film within Penn State’s vast library collection, and went to our single-search-box discovery layer (LionSearch), which is essentially Serials Solutions’ “Summon” product. I typed the following into the search box:
I did not even bother to use quotes, figuring that these two terms together were unique enough that the search would take me directly to what I needed. After all, the same search in Google provides me with the Wikipedia entry for the film as the first hit, and the Internet Movie Database (IMDB) as the second. My fourth result is a full-length version of the movie (which is in the public domain) on YouTube.
My results in LionSearch were not so helpful, despite the fact that they were sorted by “Relevance.” Here are my top five results:
- Taylor, Richard. The Battleship Potemkin: The Film Companion. 1 Vol. I.B. Tauris, 2000. KINOfiles Film Companions
- Marshall, Herbert. The Battleship Potemkin. Avon Books, 1978.
- The Battleship Potemkin. Faber and Faber, 1988.
- Eisenstein, Sergei. The Battleship Potemkin. Lorrimer Publishing Co, 1968.
- Higgins, Steven. “Battleship Potemkin.” Journal of Film Preservation.74-75 (2007): 131-2.
In case it’s not clear from this list, they are all books about the film Battleship Potemkin. The third and fourth in the list appear to be some sort of book versions of the movie, although it is not entirely clear. The final hit is a scholarly article about the DVD release of the movie. [Complete aside: I only recently learned about Proquest’s Flow citation manager, which we have integrated into LionSearch – it made my nice bibliography above in seconds!] The actual film was the eighth item on my results list.
When I narrowed my search by Content Type in LionSearch and selected “Video Recording,” I was presented with 18 results. This was more helpful – as I had suspected, we have multiple version and copies of this film throughout the system, including one on our own shelves (I knew I had seen it before!).
A few days later, I was looking for something else in Alexander Street Press’s “Silent Films Online” database, to which Penn State subscribes, and decided to look for Battleship Potemkin there. It turns out that we have access to two different streaming versions of the film, with transcripts. Returning to LionSearch, I realized that there is a Content Type facet for “Streaming” that is separate from “Video Recording.” That said, my original “Video Recording” limit did contain one video that I would consider to be streaming, that does not then appear in the actual “Streaming” list. Confused yet?
In any search system, it’s difficult to ascertain how things like relevance are determined. Google, for example, is not revealing too many secrets, but claims that relevancy is determined by over 200 factors. Penn State Libraries does provide some information about how LionSearch is configured. I am going to hazard a guess that in this particular case, the actual DVDs and streaming versions of Battleship Potemkin fell to the bottom of the search because they are “older” and deemed less relevant by the algorithm. And, of course, the way items are cataloged will have impact on which facets apply to them for narrowing searches.
I decided to try my search in the web version of WorldCat, since WorldCat does attempt to consolidate records and editions of items. WorldCat does assume that I want a visual resource, although my first result is for the VHS version of the film. The DVD is number 3, with that 1978 Herbert Marshall book showing up in second place. I can understand why the book is popular – even I finally succumbed and requested a copy so that I could learn how the famous Odessa Steps sequence was filmed. Obsessed, I retry the search at my former employer’s local instance of WorldCat. Herbert Marshall’s book is number 1, and the DVD is number 2, so even WorldCats don’t agree. This can probably be explained by the fact that the University of Maryland’s WorldCat instance allows items in their holdings to rise to the top of the search results.
I can’t stop. Amazon. Amazon understands. Not only does it know that I want a visual resource, but it sends me to a direct, free streaming link because I am a Prime subscriber. Indeed, a 2012 study by Rice Majors in Library Trends, “Comparative User Experiences of Next-Generation Catalogue Interfaces,” specifically points to Amazon’s “rich data of ratings, reviews, lists of similar items, the ability to search within the book, the ability to see front and back cover, the ability to read the first chapter, etc.,” as features highly desired by users. I would add “instant, intuitive and correct search results” to that list. Another article in the same issue of Library Trends, this time by Joshua Barton, goes further in explaining how sites like Google and Amazon can provide such positive user experiences based on their large supply of available aggregated data.
Does this mean LionSearch/Summon is terrible and Google is great? Does it mean that I am a terrible librarian? No, I don’t think so. Those conclusions cannot be reached from this minor experiment. What it does mean, however, is that when I attempt to teach undergraduates how to search I cannot tell them that there is one true way. Or even a “better” way. But I will not tell them that Google, Wikipedia, or Amazon are “bad.” Only different. And as a librarian, I should really pay more attention to how things are indexed, sorted, and results returned within different systems. There are things about the commercial sites that should make users wary. I’m certain Amazon is so pleasing to me is because it knows where I have been and many of my habits. Privacy is something that libraries value highly, but I honestly think that in the coming years, libraries will need to adapt in order to allow for the creation of custom user experiences, ability to anticipate user needs, leading to increased relevancy in search results.