Here’s a good blog post about perception of federated search from students, faculty, and librarians. Yes, this blog post is a year old but its message is timeless and the issue is well explained, so it’s definitely worth a read.

The concern is quality of search results, which I’ve discussed in my quality of search results primer, in my commentary on the study of undergraduates and federated search at Brigham Young, in my post about the trouble with general search engines, and in other places. The argument is that students can search sources more effectively if they use the search interface provided by the source. This is true. But the real question is, “What will students actually do?” Students, in general, don’t seem to be sufficiently motivated to learn how to use all of the powerful features available in the advanced search page of a particular vendor. They certainly won’t learn how to search a number of publisher’s applications, each with its own quirks. And, I would bet that most students don’t even know what resources are available to search individually.

Federated search comes along and promises to greatly simplify students’ lives. One search page. Looks a lot like Google. One results page. No need to know where the results came from. Students like it. But, librarians are concerned that students are missing the most relevant results. Are librarians right? If you read my article about the Brigham Young study you might begin to question that assumption. The more you learn about what factors influence the quality of search results the more you will realize that federated search can yield results that are better, as good as, or nearly as good as searching the sources directly.

I was disheartened to read what Lynn Lampert learned in a survey of hers related to attitudes and experiences related to federated search:

Lampert only got 33 responses, but a majority indicated they don’t teach federated searching, either because they do not have or no longer have a system in their library or have a system but choose not to include it in instruction. Librarians told Lampert that the loss of controlled vocabularies and specialized features of individual databases (such as the ability to limit a search to peer-reviewed journals) are a disservice to users and federated search systems “reinforce a Google-like approach to searching” that promotes poor search habits.

So, some of the libraries that have not removed federated search altogether just ignore it.

The blog post goes on to tell us that some of the students who do know about federated search may not want to change their searching habits, they may not see the benefits, or they might feel overwhelmed when they see too many search results.

As firm a believer as I am in the future of federated search I also acknowledge that it is an uphill battle. There must be a middle ground somewhere. Perhaps educating students on the pluses and minuses of different approaches to searching and then letting them make their own decisions would be valuable. Definitely identify the pitfalls of federated search. Tell them what they’re missing. But then let go. And, if a university or college is going to procure a federated search system, ask the “quality of results” questions up front.

If you enjoyed this post, make sure you subscribe to the RSS feed!


This entry was posted on Saturday, February 16th, 2008 at 5:10 pm and is filed under viewpoints. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or TrackBack URI from your own site.

4 Responses so far to "Is federated search as bad as librarians think?"

  1. 1 Brinxmat
    February 17th, 2008 at 1:44 pm  

    After watching this blog, I’ve been investigating use of FS at our (academic) library: very little take-up among users, and very poor opinions/understanding of the technology among library staff.

    I reckon that we’re doing ourselves a real disservice by ignoring what is potentially a worthwhile tool for quite a few users.

    Admittedly, the tech needs to get better, but so does the training we give our users (which is currently none). This blog has inspired to offer this training in my courses in future. Thanks!

  2. 2 Sol
    February 18th, 2008 at 7:03 am  


    I’m glad this blog has inspired you to look more closely at the value of federated search at your academic library.

  3. 3 niner
    February 25th, 2008 at 6:02 pm  

    Reference and instruction staff dislike federated search in part because their expectations of it are built on their expectations of the products it’s meant to work with. Date and peer reviewed filters don’t work in FS tools, and these features are built into reference and instruction routines. Controlled vocabularies and carefully constructed indexes are bypassed. Other things that are hard to swallow: some vendors (**cough lexisnexis cough**) don’t allow all of their resources to be federated right now. Resources with concurrent user restrictions-which, unfortunately, includes a lot of personal favorites for ref/inst folks-get left out. Finally, using it yourself as a professional librarian feels like putting the training wheels back on the bike. I am a huge FS advocate, yet when I’m helping a student find something, I instinctively go to our home-grown databases A-Z list. But, that’s because I’m a librarian. :) Our patrons aren’t, and they shouldn’t need to know what I know to find an article or two about a topic. Finally, how many databases did your library have in 1998? How many will it have in 2018? How will you display these in a way that makes sense to your users, who hate looking at lists of lists?

  4. 4 Sol
    February 26th, 2008 at 2:19 pm  


    Thanks for the comment. Isn’t there a saying that goes something like “Librarians like to search, users like to find.”

Leave a reply

Name (*)
Mail (*)