[ Editor’s note: Scott Rice, E-Learning Librarian at Appalachian State University, reviews an essay in Christopher Cox’s book about federated search. What do users expect from federated search? What do librarians expect? Read on …
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. ]
The article “User Perceptions of MetaLib Combined Search: An Investigation of How Users Make Sense of Federated Searching” presents the results of a survey given to librarians and students that are part of the Washington Research Library Consortium (WRLC). Nineteen librarians and twenty-two students successfully completed the survey. Librarian participants were solicited through e-mail from several member libraries of the WRLC and student participants were obtained from a class offered by the School of Library and Information Sciences (SLIS) of the Catholic University of America.
The survey instrument had two different versions, one for librarian participants and one for students. Part I of the librarians’ survey asked questions about the background of the participants, opinions about WRLC’s MetaLib Combined Search (MCS) federated search system, as well as questions about search and information literacy. Part II contained questions about experience with MCS, and Part III presented screenshots of simulated searches. The student version of the survey contained only two parts, which were roughly the same as Parts I and II of the librarian survey.
The survey yielded a great number of interesting results but I would like to highlight just a few of the differences between students and librarian opinions. The first concerns the purpose of using the MCS. Using the MCS for quick searching was the stated purpose of 32% of librarians and 39% of students, and using it to search after a poor result in an individual database were chosen by 32% of librarians and 23% of students. These seem roughly congruent, with students more likely to use federated search to get quick and dirty results and librarians more likely to use it to cast a broader net after searching a single source failed. However, 85% of students and 0% of librarians said that their purpose in using federated search was to find full text. This great discrepancy in viewpoint appears again in a question asking to give details of how the MCS works. Again, 86% of students and 0% of librarians mentioned the location of full text.
This difference in opinion doesn’t seem to me to be a problem for federated search but instead indicates where students have found a better and unexpected use of a new technology. Students have latched on to one unforeseen way in which to overcome the cumbersome obstacle of obtaining full text. This goes a long way toward explaining the popularity of federated search. Students are not just getting a variety of useful information from a number of different databases (they get their quick results), but they don’t have to then jump through the hoops of finding the actual text of the articles in which they’re interested.
As librarians, we should always be asking not only what our patrons want, but finding out what they actually do, and changing our response to give them what they want and need. This is a perfect place to start. The question that is raised in my mind from this article is how do we change federated search to better facilitate what students do and how do we teach students about federated search to give them what they need?
The authors of the article reach much the same conclusion with regard to the uncovering of the students’ use of the MCS for full text. They propose developing components to meet this need for quick search and full text as well as advanced search and interoperability with native databases. Other conclusions the authors reach discuss the ways in which information literacy instruction regarding federated search needs to change and system and interface design could be improved.
Although the authors do present some interesting ideas and directions for implementing and teaching federated search, there still remains one flaw with the research: the problem of generalizability. The students selected for the survey all came from one course and were for the most part planning to be librarians. Fifty percent of them currently work in a library. Forty five percent of them had already had at least one prior SLIS class. For my own part, though the results seem to make sense, I would like to see more research that determines if the attitudes and opinions of this group are representative of the greater student population.