[ Editor’s note: Scott Rice, E-Learning Librarian at Appalachian State University, reviews an essay in Christopher Cox’s book about federated search. The article looks at the age old question of information literacy and whether federated search helps or hurts library patrons in their journey towards this literacy.
Given the quality of the essays in Mr. Cox’s book plus the severe lack of any books related to federated search, I highly recommend the book. You can purchase a copy of Mr. Cox’s book of essays from the publisher, Taylor & Francis, who donated the review copies, by calling their Customer Service department, Monday-Friday 9 A.M. – 5 P.M. EDT, at (800) 634-7064.
You can find other reviews of essays from Mr. Cox’s book in the Cox essay review category. ]
In the article “Librarian Perspectives on Teaching Metasearch and Federated Search Technologies,” Lynn Lampert and Katherine Dabbour discuss the results of three surveys which they had conducted. One survey asked users at California State University Northridge (CSUN) what their experiences and attitudes were about federated searching. Another survey was a national survey of librarians administered in 2005 for the Library and Information Technology Association (LITA) National Forum. The third survey, also of librarians, took the form of a moderated discussion at the California Academic and Research Libraries South mini-conference.
The first librarian survey asked 10 open-ended questions and was advertised nationally to various listservs, but garnered only 33 academic librarian responses. Of these 33 respondents, one-third did not have federated search in their library. For these reasons, the results are not considered representative of academic librarians. When delving into the results, two-thirds of the librarians did not teach federated searching in their libraries and offered a range of reasons (no controlled vocabularies, no specialized searching, etc.). A similar sort of response was received from a question about teaching federated search during reference transactions. In addition, over one-third of the respondents characterized federated search as having a negative impact on information literacy. A question about the librarians’ confidence level for teaching federated search indicated that nearly half were confident doing so.
The second librarian survey (also in 2005) involved three questions given in a small group discussion format to 10 groups of librarians. One question asked if federated search should be considered a starting point for research and three of the groups agreed, compared to a 3% affirmative response to this same question in the first survey. Another question echoed the previous survey, asking about the impact of federated search on information literacy, and no group offered an unequivocal positive or negative response.
The user survey was also done in 2005 and garnered 88 responses with over half being returned from graduate students, one-third from undergraduates and about 5% from faculty. The respondents overwhelmingly thought of themselves as “good,” “very good,” or “excellent” searchers and seemed to use both individual databases and federated search with equal frequency. More than half (57%) thought that training was necessary to use federated search properly and again over half (53%) had a positive response to it. They also had some misconceptions about federated search, including thinking it could limit to scholarly journals and should contain full-text.
The conclusions reached by the authors of the article were that librarians were right to be hesitant to use and teach federated search solutions. The authors considered librarians’ criticism of federated search valid, given the misconceptions in users’ minds. However, it seems to me that the data could support a different interpretation, though with the caveat that the two types of surveys (librarian and user) are difficult to compare given their methodologies.
Given their criticisms of federated search, it appears that librarians’ first reaction to the new technology is to treat it as just another database. This produces the poor results and misconceptions uncovered in the minds of users. Librarians then point to these mistaken notions as proof that they were right all along to be critical. As a result, librarians are reluctant to teach users about federated search. This is a self-perpetuating and self-defeating cycle. If patrons have misconceptions about a new technology, that points out a need for more and better instruction. The first step for librarians is to adapt to this new technology themselves and understand the best way to use it in research, and then teach it to their users. There are several ways in which federated search can be synthesized into the research process, with “providing a starting point” just one of many possible answers.
The bottom line is that most users see federated search as a positive thing and use it frequently. The fact that they use it poorly or don’t understand how it works is, in one sense, not their problem but ours as librarians. That librarians don’t see it as useful or see it as having a negative impact reflects poorly on their ability to find its best uses for research and teach that to the users, rather than simply finding its weaknesses and calling a halt to inquiry.