[ Editor's note: A few weeks ago I asked Carl Grant if he'd be willing to write a regular column for this blog. He agreed in principle while expressing the concern that his new responsibilities as President of Ex Libris North America might make it difficult to commit to a schedule. So, I took the pressure off of Carl by inviting him to write when he was able to and not worry about a schedule. Not too long after that conversation I received an email from Carl with the article below.

As usual, Carl doesn't mince words in this article. He bluntly asks librarians to assert and uphold the value they provide to their patrons by demanding functionality from their federated search vendors that "feature[s] the added value of librarianship.” ]

We librarians need to remember what our
value is in providing metasearching….

By Carl Grant, President, Ex Libris North America

As a librarian, I frequently find myself getting very frustrated when I see fellow librarians forgetting a key point in their implementation of a metasearch solution. That key point is that as librarians, we must highlight the added value of librarianship in the world of metasearching. Sure, we all know that a good metasearch application is going to help users discover vast troves of information that they would not otherwise have discovered; that’s the whole point. In fact, we also know that the users will likely discover far more information than they can either deal with or digest. This is where the added value of librarianship comes into play.

On more than one occasion, I’ve publicly made the point that I see one of the missions of good librarianship as being able to help connect people with the information they need. This information should be 1) appropriate to the user’s needs, 2) authoritative (i.e. providing the most reliable, vetted, and reviewed information to address user needs), and finally 3) authenticated (i.e. the user can rest assured that the information s/he has received has not been changed, enhanced, or otherwise modified from what it was originally intended to convey). To borrow a phrase, I call this “Triple-A Rated” information. This kind of information is quite distinct and different from that received from your average search engine, which pulls together a wide base of information without much discrimination.

So, why then would librarians be willing to diminish their brand, their value, and their very reason for existence by providing metasearch applications that don’t feature the added value of librarianship? Perhaps this happens all the time because librarians have become so frustrated with their users turning to Google that they’ve decided to simply try to replicate this service on a smaller scale.

To me, a library metasearch application should at a minimum provide the following:

  1. Targeted search. If your users wanted to search everything in the world, they’d use Google (and as we know, that’s exactly what most of them do in the first place!) The value of your library is that the resources that the users have access to have passed some screening test. They’ve been reviewed by librarians and/or peers and they’ve likely passed a purchasing committee that has read the published reviews and/or otherwise screened these materials to ensure that they meet the larger goals of the organization that the library is affiliated with and financed by. Library information comes with authority; it represents something, and carries value above and beyond the information that is openly available on the Web. Librarians must remember and enhance these principles, making sure that the information we deliver is authoritative and authentic. We must make sure that we don’t display information just because it relates to the same subject that the user is searching for and if we do, this information should at a minimum be clearly segregated and labeled differently from that presented by the library metasearch application.

  2. Filtering tools. Remember when the librarian would stand there and ask you all those questions about exactly what it was you were looking for so that s/he could help you get the exact right piece of information? Today’s users are out there in the big blue open-be that at work, home, or at the desk in their dorm room. They still require help in filtering the ever-increasing sets of information they’ve discovered in order to try and find that “right” piece of information. So, one has to wonder why librarians would settle for a metasearch application that just returns results, without the ability to facet, sort, refine, and/or otherwise filter a large set of results down to exactly that which meets the users needs. Even more problematic, why don’t librarians demand tools that utilize user profiles, recommendations, and tagging as ways to filter these results?

  3. Multi-lingual support. Most libraries have invested in a multilingual collection of materials and digital objects. If their metasearch application does not support Unicode, do we suddenly expect users to perform all of their searching/interaction in English? Does this make sense? Users searching for multilingual works may speak English, but then again they may not. Librarians should require their metasearch application to provide users with an interface that supports and displays results in the user’s language of choice.

  4. Consortia support and/or delivery mechanisms. Many libraries have banded together in various types of consortial arrangements to acquire and use technology—this makes good sense on a lot of levels. When this is done, the technology that is purchased should support and extend the library capabilities for their users. What sense does it make to show users dozens of items that will meet their needs only to inform them they can’t actually obtain and use these items as they aren’t registered users of the owning library?

    On the same note, I wonder why we create digital repositories of information that could be delivered instantaneously, but then put up metasearch applications that don’t search the repository, why do we not provide patron-initiated interlibrary loan and why do we continue to blockade and/or delay user’s access to information?
  5. Recommendation features. Even basic Web search applications feature numerous ways to direct users to other possible points and/or items of interest. When a person comes into contact with a librarian, they almost always walk away with something that will meet their needs, even if it wasn’t what they originally thought they wanted. So, why do we put up with metasearch tools that allow users to walk away empty-handed?

Librarians and the information they provide, comes with important added value for the end user–service-service in providing “Triple-A rated” information. As such, we should be extremely careful in selecting and implementing automation tools to ensure that they carry through and deliver that same added value in the online environment. A library that understands this will succeed in serving the profession and more importantly — its users.

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This entry was posted on Wednesday, September 10th, 2008 at 4:21 am and is filed under carl grant, 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.

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