[ Editor’s note: Scott Rice, E-Learning Librarian at Appalachian State University, was one of the volunteers who took me up on my offer to review several chapters of Christopher Cox’s book of essays about federated search.

Scott Rice reviews an article that asks the difficult question: Do we give students what they want or what we think they need?

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


One of the basic debates in library and information science is the tension between giving searchers (or patrons) what they want and giving them what they need. The rise of federated search has renewed debate over this fundamental tension, because federated search is often seen as something that patrons want that is not necessarily the best tool for the job. Students need information literacy instruction but they want to use tools like federated search, get their research done and forget the rest. In the article “Initiating the Learning Process: A Model for Federated Searching and Information Literacy” in the book Federated Search: Solution or Setback for Online Library Services, Patrick Labelle attempts to answer the question by analyzing federated search in light of the ACRL Standards for Information Literacy.

In the article, Labelle begins by giving a brief summary of the limitations of federated search, including its lack of functionality, the way in which result retrieval and display is presented, and the problem of de-duplication. Labelle then discusses the ways in which students seek information, with emphasis on student’s need for quick results, interface simplicity, and types of searchers which includes “broad scanners” and “fast surfers.”

Labelle spends the majority of the article discussing the ACRL Standards for Information Literacy and the impact of federated searching on each. Standard 1 is about recognizing the information need. Here Labelle argues that although federated search can muddle the types of information resources available, it ultimately can present an overview which makes it easier for the student to determine what information they do need.

ACRL Standard 2 says that a student should “access needed information effectively and efficiently.” Federated searching is regularly criticized for glossing over the search capabilities of individual resources. Labelle’s response is that federated search allows students the ability to investigate multiple resources and then drill down to the individual resource with its more advanced capabilities. He also thinks that the standard should be broadened to encompass the realities of federated search.

Standard 3 is about evaluation of information sources and here Labelle distinguishes between source evaluation and content evaluation. He adds that because federated search makes source evaluation difficult, if not impossible, the student is afforded a greater opportunity for content evaluation, which is more important.

For Standards 4 and 5, Labelle has little to add. Standard 4 involves the purpose of information seeking, and there is little research to determine if federated search has any impact on that. Standard 5 deals with the issues surrounding information and Labelle concedes that federated search might hamper meeting this standard and adds that the presence of federated search should not have any impact on whether it is taught or the importance of learning it.

In his conclusion, Labelle argues that the ACRL standards must be interpreted more leniently, because of the characteristics of information seekers and the impact of federated search. He says that librarians must change their information literacy instruction to accommodate federated search. Federated search is not going away and it is a popular choice among students, as it fits many of their characteristics as information seekers. However, he finds little to worry about because federated search will “likely not pose a serious threat to the foundational principles of information literacy.” This statement seems a lukewarm defense at best. It seems to me that this puts Labelle in the position of advocating giving searchers what they want, rather than what they need. As a federated search advocate myself, I agree that it is a useful tool and it does fit many of the needs of information seekers. Labelle seems to want to say that information literacy instruction should be modified to take federated search into account and I agree with that as well. However, his analysis does not offer compelling reasons to make the standards more lenient. If anything, his discussion of the various standards leads me to think that renewed emphasis needs to be placed on the standards. As librarians, we should be concerned with fitting federated search into information literacy and not the other way around.

[ Update 9/21/09: I just published a blog article pointing to a site with excerpts from the paper. ]

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