[ Editor's note: In this guest article, Carl Grant adds his contribution to the discussion I started in Beyond Federated Search? and continued in Beyond federated search? The conversation continues. Be sure to read those two articles before reading Carl's response. Also, check out the comments on the two articles.
Carl Grant is President of Ex Libris North America. With more than a quarter century of experience in the library-automation industry, I'm grateful for his periodic and very popular contributions to this blog. ]
Beyond Federated Search – Winning the Battle and Losing the War?
I’ve read the “Beyond Federated Search” posts with considerable interest. I’ve previously written posts in this blog about the need for federated search and of course, as President of Ex Libris North America, a company offering both a federated search/metasearch product and a local index discovery product, I’ve had some experience with both sides of this discussion.
Of course, the perspectives presented thus far have many valid points. We all agree federated search has never been a perfect technology, in part because of the limits imposed by systems, standards and people that have developed the technology. Other problems have resulted from the fact that the library and search professions have failed to properly position these tools as discovery tools and not as replacements to the proprietary interfaces that are designed to fully extract the value of those databases. As a result, many users have come to these products with oversized and unmanaged expectations and may be quickly and thoroughly disappointed. As I’ve argued in this blog previously, extending the value of librarianship through the search/discovery tools we put in place is essential. As a librarian, this is the issue that ought to be remembered and answered. The library profession must differentiate itself and market that differentiation to its organization’s end-users.
Yet, when I apply that test of differentiating ourselves to the “Beyond federated search” blog posts and comments, I see some very clear areas of concern. I see areas where I believe we might win the battle but lose the war.
I’ve long argued that librarianship on top of digital information is about the authority/authenticity/appropriateness of the information provided to the user, as opposed to the overwhelming amounts of information available via other search tools that don’t provide that differentiation. In order to meet those tests, one thing that is clear is that libraries and librarians should never cede control to other organizations over the content they offer to their end-users. It doesn’t matter if that happens because the content providers fail to provide access via federated search, or whether the library has allowed third party organizations to determine what content they can access via a local index discovery tool. Ceding this control cripples the ability of a library to build unique and precise informational offerings that target the needs of their end-users. It brings to mind an opinion stated in a recording I once heard (and remembered well because I found it so alarming.) It was a recording done by the Chronicle of Higher Education and was called “Libraries vs. IT Departments.” In that recording, an IT person basically said that academic libraries offer access to content which they never own and to which they offer little added valued. If all the library does is license content, why not fold it (the library) into the institution’s purchasing department? It’s a scary statement. It becomes even more disconcerting when one realizes that some of the comments in these blog posts will further exacerbate that type of thinking by ceding the control of selection of content to outside parties. True, those outside parties may offer large and impressive lists of content, but the fact remains, the library will have ceded control of selection, i.e. the “authority” and “appropriateness” aspects of their differentiation. Once libraries have done this, they have paved the path for the content providers to bypass the libraries entirely and to offer their products/services direct to end-users.
I’m also concerned by the fact that libraries are willing to continue to parse end-user’s search experience into facets that allow them to provide a “better” experience over only part of the library resources. While I understand and agree with the comment that this is already the case, it again compromises a core aspect of the value-add of librarianship. Libraries, by their very mission, set a bar for the inclusion of quality information in the resources they offer (the appropriateness and authority factors in particular.) Offering access to anything less than as-much-as-possible speaks to the core of the problem in the profession of librarianship today. Libraries are unwilling to realize that their power lies in their number and common needs. Libraries and searchers should seek and demand tools that maximize their flexibility to address search problems across ALL resources they’ve selected to meet end user needs. They should use their ability to organize on a large-scale basis to negotiate with content suppliers to provide that needed access. If the profession continues to try and serve ever smaller microcosms of users they may well suffer in the long run. The point that libraries want to offer discovery access (be it via federated search or local index) to ALL content is absolutely the right one. However, it’s a little mystifying to me that librarians, who voice frustration towards vendors who don’t make all the content available that they want right now, while using very flexible federated search/local index discovery tools from truly independent suppliers, now suggest that they believe, by turning over all control of access to those same content vendors, they will have a better result. Hmmm… that might deserve a bit more thoughtful analysis.
Searchers and librarians are in the service business. Theirs is a value-add on top of the vast information resources now available, most of which they no longer house or own. Remembering that, and the role played by libraries/searchers in shaping the experience of the end-user, is key to the long-term survival of these professions. Otherwise, they might well win some battles but lose the war.