[ Editor’s note: This is a guest post by Jill Hurst-Wahl, author of Digitization 101. Jill’s post discusses an important topic that is not commonly discussed, that collection development and federated search application development are not independent activities. ]
Ed Shephard, Head of Collection Development & Management at Binghamton (NY) University Libraries, spoke during the second day of the Library Camp @ Syracuse, which was focused on collection development. Shephard reminded us that federated search is part of collection development because it impacts how users view and interact with a library’s electronic collection. (Note: I am purposefully using the phrase electronic collection, since (1) historically we have talked about electronic resources in libraries and (2) some people wrongly believe that “digital” resources mean “digitized” resources.)
While we see federated search as a piece of software and a useful tool, it is important to remember that it is the lens that our users will use to see the electronic collection. The breadth of content in that collection – ebooks, newspapers, journals, scholarly publications, digitized materials and other content – will generally only be as visible to the patron through that one interface. Although going directly to a specific content source is possible, the goal of federated search is for the user to rely on the software to provide a broader inquiry into the content that is available. The question, then, is what view of your collection does the federated search tool provide?
While Shephard did not have time to delve deep into this aspect of collection development, several ideas come to mind that are worth noting:
- Does your web site provide adequate information about the resources being searched by the federated search software so that users understand the breadth of content that is available to them? In the old days, users could look at the stacks to see the collection, but with electronic resources, standing and pointing at the vast amount of content spread before you is not possible. If a library has spent significant resources (time and money) to develop an electronic collection, then placed a federated search tool on top of it, the users need to be fully aware of how much content they are searching. Not only should that give them the feeling that they are searching a “lot of stuff,” but it should also provide them with an understanding that the library has collected many resources on their behalf.
- Does your federated search provide adequate options for the user? Since it is impossible for the user to browse the electronic resources in the same way she might have browsed paper resources in the past, are there a broad range of search options available to allow for serendipity? Many of us have stumbled upon useful information while doing research because we kept staring at the stacks, reading book spines, or flipping through book pages. Somehow federated search software needs to ensure that we don’t lose the ability to accidentally find what we really want (which may be different than what we were looking for).
- Are you educating your users about the ways they can access the electronic collection? Even digital natives need help understanding how to access the electronic collections that libraries have. The “how” is not always intuitive. With federated search, users need to understand something about the underlying content resources in order to know how to search them. They also need to know if it might be better to search a resource directly, rather than using the federated search software. Educating users can happen in many ways including online help pages, printed materials and the ability to ask real-time questions of library staffing using an instant messenger service (e.g., Meebo).
As you think about the questions above, consider challenging your staff that is in charge of collection development to help you with the answers. Engage them in the discussions about federated search and ensure that they understand the impact the software will have on how people view your collection. Having them in the loop will benefit your users and the collection.