If you are a reader of The Chronicle of Higher Education, you may have seen last week’s article about library discovery tools. Marc Parry’s article, As Researchers Turn to Google, Libraries Navigate the Messy World of Discovery Tools, sheds light on some of the complications and questions caused by discovery tools and their ability to make library resources more discoverable. Parry opens with this description of discovery tools:
“Instead of bewildering users with a bevy of specialized databases—books here, articles there—many libraries are bulldozing their digital silos. They now offer one-stop search boxes that comb entire collections, Google style.”
As much as we’d like to promise seamless access to our entire collection through a single search box, the discovery tools on the market are from perfect. The items retrieved in a search and their page ranking are not always determined purely by their relevancy or recency, but instead by algorithms and licensing agreements between publishers, database vendors and the companies creating discovery tools. Parry’s article questions the possibility of bias in discovery tools, which would cause results from one vendor or content provider to be ranked higher than another. (Vendors will not explain the algorithms used to rank results for fear of sharing proprietary information). The article also points to the possibility of the unfortunate pairing of an imperfect ranking system and high number of results so the “best” sources are lost in the mix. What happens if we’re using discovery tools as a primary access point for research, but we don’t exactly know how the tool sorts and ranks results? Is it that unlike searching Google, but not knowing how Google’s algorithms work?
OneSearch. We like it a lot. It’s the main search on the library website and will give you everything from journal and newspaper articles to books, images and DVDs. It’ll retrieve anything it can find somehow related to your search terms. It’s a great tool and time saver.
Despite all the positive things we have to say about OneSearch, we’re feeling a bit frustrated at the moment. We always knew, and do our best to explain, the results in OneSearch would not include everything which the library owns or has access to. OneSearch provides a service. It pulls results from the library catalog and databases in one search, on your behalf, so you do not have to search the catalog and databases individually. In exchange for this service (and in order for this service to function properly and legally) the company which owns OneSearch, EBSCO, has signed licensing agreements with other database vendors and publishers. The providers who do not agree to such terms do not participate in the service. We knew about these agreements, always and from the beginning.
OneSearch is accessible from off-campus. Students, faculty and staff members can search and must only authenticate into the system to access the full text of articles. Members of the community can search our holdings and view citations, but not access licensed materials. To borrow a book or read an article, a community member would have to physically come to the library. This “guest access” is helpful to our community members who rely on our resources for their research needs, and to students from other academic institutions who also use our resources.
Something has changed in the licensing agreements. Now, some of the citations themselves are inaccessible and un-viewable to anyone off-campus unless that person authenticates using a network ID and password. What does that mean? Faculty, staff members, and students, have to login before being able to view all the results displayed. It’s an extra step, but not any different from searching a database from off-campus. Members of our community, however, can no longer search across our collection and view article citations from the databases while off-campus. Essentially, OneSearch, which is designed to promote discovery and access, is now limiting that freedom and access and our patrons are suffering because of it. What to do about it? We’re not really sure yet.