[ Editor’s note: This review of one of the chapters from Christopher Cox’s collection of federated search articles is by Susan Fingerman. Susan is on the staff of the R.E. Gibson Library, Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, in Laurel, MD.

Susan, like other reviewers, selected three articles to read and comment on. Susan picked the theme of user expectations for all three of her articles. Below is her second review. The review articulates six challenges to federated search, including "disaggregation," a term I have to admit, is new to me.

Susan can be reached at susan dot fingerman at jhuapl dot edu.

You can find other reviews of essays from Mr. Cox’s book in the “Cox essay review” category]


“Challenges for Federated Searching” by Peter M. Webster of Saint Mary’s University, Halifax, Nova Scotia, takes a somewhat technical look at the state of the art of federated search software in 2007, and finds it wanting.

Webster, an Information Systems Librarian, details the many challenges of federated searching from several angles. First is the difference in needs and expectations from one search to another. Second is the competition from database vendor products, whose “sophisticated capabilities,” including thesauri and facets, are optimized for their own content and perceived customers.

Third is the challenge of standardization and integration. Webster briefly refers to the 2003 National Information Standards Organization (NISO) Metasearch Initiative, the SRW/SRU protocol, and link resolvers such as SFX. Anyone wishing to fully understand this challenge, or who is at all unfamiliar with these efforts, will want to investigate further through the references, with urls, at the end of this chapter.

The fourth challenge that Webster describes echoes the first, that of bringing the search to the user rather than the user to the search. This recognizes that the library portal, catalog, and other library constructs are often not the starting point for information seekers. He cites the 2005 OCLC finding that only 1% of researchers begin their search with a library Web page. Academic products like Blackboard or WebCT are among some mentioned as “venues” for multiple points of entry to federated searching. Some of the developments mentioned here are “old news,” but worth remembering, such as Serials Solutions agreement with Vivisimo, and the Endeca Corporation splash on the federated search scene a few years ago. It is interesting to realize how things all those companies’ products have developed, and how visualization and faceted searching has become more mainstream, even since 2006.

Fifth is the fundamental challenge between searching individual databases and the Google Scholar approach. Webster tellingly quotes from a 2005 presentation by Andrew Pace that metasearch will “work perfectly when all the data is on one database.” We all know that Google, in it’s many manifestations, is itself far from perfect. But it is the gold standard by which all others are judged by our clientele, even when they are frustrated by its imperfections.

Finally, there’s the challenge of what Webster describes as a “new e-content business environment.” Basically, the vendors are providing their own federated search tools. Disaggregation rears its ugly head once again. Products mentioned are those from MetaPress, SpringerLink, and Elsevier’s Scopus. An even more recent entry into this field is Scitopia, the recently federated search tool recently launched by professional scientific and technical association publishers such as IEEE, IOP,APS and many others. Webster writes that this trend can be a positive one, if it leads to a uniform and standardized source of e-content. I’m not so sanguine.

Webster concludes with a ringing exhortation for libraries to “set the bar high and articulate a clear set of shared expectations.”

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One Response to "Review: Challenges for Federated Searching"

  1. 1 Stephen Arnold
    July 23rd, 2008 at 6:11 am  

    Is an entity with multiple search systems and duplication of functions qualified to comment on federated search? Quasi government agencies often mire themselves in situations that conflict with generalizations about search and content processing?

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