As I’m sure you all know, I’m not a librarian and I don’t play one on TV. But, to stay current on federated search I try to keep a pulse on what’s happening in the library world. After reading one too many articles replaying the “librarians hate federated search but students like it” tape I was eager to read some very fresh thinking by a librarian who I’m just getting to know, Steven Bell. Inside Higher Ed just published one of Mr. Bell’s articles: The Library Web Site of the Future.

Some of you may recognize Steven Bell, Associate University Librarian for Research and Instructional Services at Temple University, as the 2nd place winner in this blog’s Predict the future of federated search contest. I very much enjoyed his excellent contest entry and his recent Inside Higher Ed piece has helped me to think more clearly about the role and value of federated search web sites, although that’s not the aim of the article.

Mr. Bell is asking all of us to look hard at library web sites, particularly their home pages. Given that numerous studies have shown that few students spend much time at library’s web site, what value is there in making them prettier and more enticing? Mr. Bell articulates the problem quite well:

The academic library community’s general response to the dissatisfaction is to improve the usability. Tabbed interfaces, simple search boxes and more personalization are a few of the new features site designers are employing in chasing better focus group responses. All of this change suggests rearranging the deck chairs on this Titanic. Now is the time to let this ship sink to its watery grave.

Mr. Bell advocates that libraries not try to make their home pages look like search engines (since few people start their searches there) but that they should:

… devote the most eye-catching space to information that promotes the people who work at the library, the services they provide and the community activities that anchor the library’s place as the social, cultural and intellectual center of campus. That shifts the focus from content to service and from information to people. Academic libraries must promote their human side. The library portal experience should emphasize the value of and invite stronger relationships with faculty and students. That means going beyond offering a commodity that, by and large, the user community can well access without the Web site.

This statement left me wondering where to put the search boxes and led me to an Aha! moment as I read further. Put the search boxes and the links to content wherever students can easily find them. It’s a paradigm shift for me but it makes perfect sense in the context of Web 2.0. Replace monolithic central gateway search pages with distributed conduits to information. In the Web 2.0 world it would mean search boxes embedded in widgets, dynamically generated links to academic content that’s relevant to what’s in front of you, mashups that associate related information, and less focus on static web pages.

Mr. Bell explains where the enlightened libraries will place their links:

But if libraries radically change the nature of their homepage, where will all the links to content go? How will the library make those expensive databases accessible to faculty and students? Academic libraries are already moving in new directions that may provide the answers, and it suggests the library portal no longer needs to compete to be the one-stop portal where faculty and their students begin their research. These pioneering libraries distribute the content across the institution’s network and beyond. They are putting the links where faculty and students can find them easily. It changes the library website paradigm from “you must visit our portal” to “we’ll be where you are.”

I’m starting to get it. If monolithic search pages are so Web 1.0, then distributed search and content access objects sprinkled in front of students are the Web 2.0 way. Brilliant!

Before I send you off to read Mr. Bell’s article I want to highlight another important point: use course sites to guide students to your excellent resources:

Course sites are ready made for links to library content. Academic librarians are making it easier than ever for faculty to integrate an array of research tools into course management software or even a faculty member’s personal website. At the Temple University Libraries the librarians create customized content packages that contain just the right databases that students need for their assignments.

The takeaway for me in the context of federated search is that the enduring value of the technology is in finding, sifting, and sorting through lots of stuff to find the gems. Putting a search page in front of the technology and expecting people to go to your search page is only one way to serve them, and it may not be the most effective.

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This entry was posted on Thursday, February 19th, 2009 at 12:30 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.

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