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April 29, 2018

Revisiting the Discovery Tool: a Periodic Exercise

The academic library has always been a place to develop and adopt new technology, tools and services. Over the last several years we have witnessed a great increase in the reliance on discovery tools. All the big players are here. EDS, Ex Libris and OCLC are some of the very prominent names we have seen in Pennsylvania. And let us not forget Pennsylvania’s own VuFind! Call them what you will, debate has continued as these tools are refined and adopted. It is always good to give a good hard look at what we offer our patrons. As we instruct students in class or assist them at the research help desk, do we see an improvement in their ability to find quality sources? Are these tools really successful in drawing users to our resources or will the familiarity of the “web” always come first? Does it matter? Let’s look again at some of the concerns.

In 2014, Marc Perry wrote a piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education referring to these issues as “the messy world of discovery tools.”[I] The word “messy” jumps out. He identified some of his concerns based on his thorough research. Have we made progress since then? Have we found a balance? One does not need to perform a rigorous study to make similar observational conclusions about discovery tools today.

While a visit to the website of many of the academic libraries in Pennsylvania will show that these products have a strong presence, not every school uses the same system. Sure the products are similar but as practice points out, even slight differences can confuse, delay or even deter a new researcher from continuing to use them. How many times do students approach you about how they “found this source on Google Scholar, do we have it?” When you tell them “Why yes, and here is how easy it is to find”, are they really listening? Do you find students tuning you out when you try to lead an instruction session about a discovery tool? Practice shows this can be a daunting obstacle for even the most skilled instructor. Yet we somehow persevere in our commitment to illustrate how useful the discovery service can be. And they can be. WE know that in our library world, but put yourself in the chair of the student. We are asking them to learn a new way of seeking information for their scholarly efforts. They seem to want grab and go. And why not, that is what they are used to doing for everything else in their lives. Experience shows most of our first-year student’s feel they have been, and can continue to be successful with the internet alone. Our discovery tools don’t yet truly emulate the familiar web search. Any experienced library instructor will try to convey that when it comes to modern research it is not simply one or the other- internet or discovery.

What about those subject-specific databases? Do we do a disservice to our students by tacitly pointing them away from the specific knowledge and tools provided by a focused database? Can you limit results in your discovery tool to “articles written by registered nurses” or would it be easier to point them to CINAHL? How about a company profile for business students? The databases are each different and information can be missed in large indexes of aggregated content. It is sometimes the case that students find the proprietary interface of a standalone database more intuitive and relevant.

Then one might want to consider what we tell/sell our students. “Hey check out this box, it searches everything we have!” It sounds like the best way to go and many students are drawn to the idea. But has this really come to fruition? Promises are made by vendors yet results prove that not every database and discovery service play well together. This has the potential to miss relevant results. About relevancy, are we convinced that the “relevancy-ranking” is not impacted by vendor? Observation shows that when a discovery tool vendor also packages content in databases, bias and business appear to impact results no matter how you configure your particular tool.

If the “one-stop box” approach is our primary answer to the “googlefication” of university research, why do most of our websites still offer links to databases, libguides, legacy catalogs, etc.? Probably because at our core we know we are not quite there with discovery layers alone. Every layer we add has the potential to stall research. It does not serve the mission of easy, quality research if students find an overwhelming amount of results or a dead link or at the end of a search. Are we making progress? Absolutely. Will these tools go away? Probably not.

Time and Effort

The work that is asked of us to maintain these tools is overwhelming. You may have a team at your college or university. You may be solely responsible. Either way the library world salutes you. While progress has been made some issues are likely never to go away:

  • different indexing
  • ever-changing licensing agreements
  • decisions to go with a cheaper competitor
  • learning curves
  • interaction with campus IT departments
  • systems that don’t speak to each other
  • the dropping/adding of databases and records
  • how the results appear at your institution
  • broken links/gateway errors
  • lag time of vendor response to issues
  • vendor bias and competition

These are a few of the many concerns of supporting the discovery tool from the back end. This doesn’t even include uploading cataloging and holdings information for books and serials. The hours/months/years of continuous work in simply maintaining the tools is incredible and often insurmountable. So once again- thanks to all those in our libraries that try very hard to keep up. We know it is a necessary yet often untenable position to be in.

So what do we need to remember? First and foremost, we are making great improvements but we need to keep assessing. Things are better yet many of the same issues remain with each periodic review of discovery tools. This is unlikely to change anytime soon. We should also never forget the user experience. WE see the value, do they? It should be considered one of the larger missions of our libraries to properly market the true value of these tools. Lastly, ask ourselves often if discovery tools should be the only gateway to information students are expected to use.

Do YOU see a day when it will be enough to simply provide one box to rule them all?


[I] Parry, M. (2014, April 25). As Researchers Turn to Google, Libraries Navigate the Messy World of Discovery Tools. Chronicle of Higher Education. p. 18.


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