Discovery services in a Google world

Pete Coco’s recent post on the ACRLog discusses the ups and downs of discovery projects like EBSCO Discovery Service, a tool recently implemented at the IU Libraries as OneSearch@IU.  Coco writes that these tools may look like Google, with their sleek white single search bars and straightforward interfaces.  They may even act a little like Google, crawling through thousands upon thousands of resources to bring you only the most relevant, most perfect source you could possibly imagine.  Right?  Well, not quite.   According to Coco, who is a humanities liaison and library instructor at Wheaton College, although his students are usually able to find something using these discovery tools, they are not always able to find the thing.  One reason for that could, of course, be unreasonable student expectations.  Students often suppose that their sources must iterate their perspective verbatim, or cover the exact parameters of their research question.  Of course they’re not going to find a source comparing the ironic symbolism in Franz Kafka’s Before the Law with J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.  Some things just don’t exist.  That said, student misconceptions about scholarship might not be the only issue at play.  While discovery services, acting as a sort of hybrid between Google and academic databases, are good for getting students into the research pool, often it leaves them in the shallow end.  Once students understand the scope of what’s available, more specialized databases might be just the ticket to finding the thing and giving students that tough-love push into the deep end of scholarship.

That is precisely why quality information literacy instruction is still a necessity in academic libraries – to help students find their scholarly legs in a strange new land of information.  In order to achieve that end most effectively, perhaps we should be emphasizing the differences between popular and scholarly modes of information gathering, rather than the similarities.  Despite OneSearch@IU’s outward resemblance to Google, the fact is that it is not Google, and we are not doing students any favors by marketing it as such.  Coco writes:

To find the scholarly articles that will meet the paper requirement, the student will need navigate a host of alien concepts, vocabularies and controversies that will, at least at first, drive his experience with peer-reviewed scholarship. And while some degree of anxiety is probably useful to his learning experience, there can be little doubt that the process would be easier and of more lasting value to the student who has support—human support—as he goes through it.

Advances in technology require more, not less, pedagogical attention to ensure that students comprehend the underlying structures of scholarly communication.  We often expect this generation of tech-savvy undergraduates to see a blank search bar and know what to do with it.  But the reality is, not all search bars are equal.  Effective library instruction serves to illuminate the unique function of academic databases and discovery services as compared to popular search engines.  After all, if what you want is Google, you can always go to Google.

Aside: Read this post by Margaux DelGuidice from In the Library with the Lead Pipe to see why librarians are oh-so-glad that discovery services are not Google.

Photo credit: Opening of Lincoln Park swimming pool 1925, courtesy Seattle Municipal Archives from

Student technology use during crunch time

Project Information Literacy (PIL) is a long-term national research study based out of the University of Washington’s Information School.  The overarching goal of the study is to better understand how college students engage in information-seeking and research behaviors in the digital age.

Earlier this month PIL released their findings from a short-term technology study they completed during the spring of 2011.  For the study they interviewed 560 undergraduate students at 11 different libraries on 10 different campuses during “crunch time” to determine how students use technology during stressful times of the year.  “Crunch time” is defined as the two weeks preceding final exams.  For the interviews, they asked students what tasks they had been engaged in during the last hour and what devices, resources, and library services they had used to help them complete those tasks.  The purpose was to discover how students managed technology and how they defined their “individualized information space,” the array of applications and programs students had open on their devices that aided them in task-completion.

The researchers found that students largely engaged in a kind of restrained multi-tasking.  They would switch tasks frequently, but would have only a few devices or applications running simultaneously.   85% of students interviewed were classified by the researchers as “light” technology users.  In other words, they were using two or fewer devices and engaged in two or fewer primary activities. The students seemed to take a very focused approach to technology, conscientiously winnowing down the devices they used to match their information needs.

Only a small percentage of the students interviewed were using the library for its scholarly resources – such as print or e-books, online databases, or reference services.  Many students indicated that, more than anything, it was the communal scholarly atmosphere that drew them to the library during the final weeks of the semester.  The library offered these students a unique environment in which they could escape into their work, while still sharing in the collective experience of the finals crunch.

students studying in library

This study provides some surprising insights into how these digital natives manage technology during times of stress.  Rather than hopping distractedly from device to device, or website to website, they purposefully limited their technology use to support their current task.  Even though a large majority of students had “time-wasting” sites like Facebook or gossip sites up on their devices, they often used these to incentivize learning.  These sites provided a way for students to hit the mental refresh button.  They would use the “Facebook break” as a way of rewarding themselves for a job well done or refocusing their attention on studying.  Although the most common task students were engaged in was communication (via email, texting, Facebook, etc.), these students were not engaged only in communication.  It was seamlessly interspersed with their other activities.  They often used social networking sites or other means of communication as part of their coursework to schedule meetings or discuss issues with their instructors and peers.

In this study, students managed their learning spaces, both physical and digital, in a very similar manner.  They allowed themselves a taste of the outside world, while choosing technologies and spaces that would ultimately focus their attention back on scholarly pursuits.  This is something that resource and website developers ought to be mindful of when designing materials for college students.  They do not want to be inundated with information (at least not during times of high stress).  Rather, they want focused materials that have a clear connection to the task at hand.  On the other hand, the results of the PIL study also indicate that students want their resources to be integrated.  The students interviewed had little issue using the same technology for personal communication one moment and research the next.  Although it is best to use this kind of integration with caution (i.e. ask yourself if it appropriate for your resource to be linked to Facebook), the multi-purposing of technologies is clearly something that current college undergraduates are comfortable with.

For more information, see the full report, Balancing Act: How College Students Manage Technology While in the Library during Crunch Time, or watch this brief video highlighting the major findings.

Searching for answers

And now for the exciting conclusion … this post is a continuation of last week’s post on search behaviors, inspired by Jakob Nielsen’s recent article.

The problem, simply stated: For early adult users in particular, lots of things to search, too many results, how to choose rightly?!

There is a long, distinguished list of brighter minds than mine who have addressed this problem. Nevertheless, here are some of my thoughts on how to make progress:

Information literacy (or fluency, if you prefer). As an academic library, does not nearly everything we do begin and end with teaching? It’s so easy to agree with Nielsen about teaching the people to fish: we know that so many of them are figuratively standing in the middle of the creek making a grab, and they’re getting hungry. Thank you, and keep fighting the good fight, instruction librarians everywhere. [Here’s a special shout out to the good folks of our Teaching & Learning department.]

Specifically, it’s a high priority for DUX to enhance our current class pages so that they better meet the needs of our teaching librarians and our teaching faculty as they work together to support and facilitate student learning at all levels. For other ideas related to this, see point three below.

Better discovery. First, if we want civilians to use library search interfaces – voluntarily and joyfully, anyway – they need to be much, much more like Google or Amazon. Rest assured, I too have a deep and abiding love for the power of peer review, scholarly content, controlled vocabularies, indexing, and their noble brethren. (Please don’t run me out of town on a rail!) But, really – who wouldn’t prefer a friendlier, more responsive IUCAT, for example? In a world where quality content and fantastic interfaces co-exist happily, even experts will love being able to do what they need to do more efficiently and more easily. There’s a lot of power in leveraging our end-users’ existing mental models, particularly as a starting point for novices. Once we hook that unsophisticated user with some positive experiences, she’ll be more ready for us when we roll out the specialized resources and advanced functionality that information professionals know and love.

Second, if as Nielsen said, people are treating search engines like ‘answer engines,’ then we are uniquely positioned in our ability to load our discovery resources with good answers … in a ‘chocolate is good for you’ way, not in a ‘here’s a bran muffin for Halloween because it’s healthy, nevermind that kid over there with the king size candy bar’ way. Up to now, I’m guessing the complex trajectory from identified information need (AKA assignment?) to PDF-in-hand feels more like the latter than the former.

Bringing this back to IUB: EBSCO Discovery Service (EDS) is one obvious way to reach the “early adult” population Project Information Literacy talks about, and we at DUX have been working towards implementing this resource, checking and double-checking how catalog records display in the interface, which features to enable and which to switch off, and thinking a lot about how best to integrate its results into the Resource Gateway. Look for big action on this front very soon – like, this summer.

EDS isn’t the only thing, though – the integration of a discovery layer as the public interface for IUCAT is going to be a huge step forward in this area, and a system-wide task force is working away to evaluate the two candidate applications, VuFind (example: Mirlyn [Michigan]) and Blacklight (example: Searchworks [Stanford]). If all goes to plan, we should all be basking in a new OPAC as soon as next June.

Contextualizing information. The world isn’t simple. Neither are library websites – and across our profession, we are engaging with the hard work of eliminating unnecessary institutional complication from the inherent complexity of scholarly information and the research process.

Let’s frame the user’s experience in a way that helps them process what they see … and let’s do it invisibly and automagically, whenever possible. In some cases this is going to mean beginning by presenting fewer choices, and trusting our users to dig deeper to more comprehensive listings when they are ready. This idea can be hard for us to accept – but careful curation is everything. Imagine a huge empty wall in a museum: first, fill it with paintings; then, picture it with only three. What does this say about focus of attention?

In other cases, it’s going to mean finding ways to dynamically deliver relevant help – a project near and dear to my heart, and one that has a high profile on the DUX radar, is the development of a system that will allow us to do just this across our website and within IUCAT, too. We do a good job of embedding mechanisms for feedback (IM, email) and we can continue to seek opportunities to expand as vendors enable this functionality within their interfaces, and as we update and redesign our mobile presence.

Rendering the intricacies of our many-faceted collections, services and resources into something that’s simple enough for a novice, but powerful enough for an expert, might be the one of the very hardest – and most worthwhile— things we could ever do. Now, I’m going to wrap up this post so I can flee the building before everyone reads what I said about Google …

More food for thought
A great article from A List Apart: You Can Get There From Here: Websites for Learners
Some comments on mental models from Nielsen
A nice brief excerpt from an interview with usability expert Don Norman
Steve Krug on How We Use the Web from Don’t Make Me Think
Again, Project Information Literacy

Seek, and keep on seeking …

In his latest Alertbox column, usability guru Jakob Nielsen tells a sad tale of search behavior:

Incompetent Research Skills Curb Users’ Problem Solving

I only wish that the results he reports seemed less obvious, but it felt distressingly familiar – the topic of a thousand conference presentations, committee agendas, casual conversations with colleagues, and internal dialogues across libraryland.

Some highlights, or low points, depending on how you want to look it:

  • By and large, people aren’t very good at searching, and they don’t course-correct well;
  • They will type into any box they can find;
  • A lot of the stuff that’s out there to be found is junk;
  • While technology is making this a little better, none of this is improving fast enough.

So what do we do about it? Nielsen suggests “more education” and better interfaces, and who am I to disagree with that! (Although the fact that he doesn’t once mention the existence of an entire profession of trained searchers and information specialists in reference to the dilemma he presents is slightly deflating. I see yet another call for more and better library PR.)

Of course there’s other, more library-focused research. If you haven’t been reading the very interesting reports published by the Project Information Literacy researchers: yes, they are long, but yes, they are worth it. To quickly sum up: Project Information Literacy, based out of the University of Washington’s iSchool, has been studying how students (early adults, so primarily undergraduates) do research, using a variety of methodologies at a wide array of institutions nationwide. While their results show that students do turn first to course readings for assignment-based research, they have done some work on how students look for non-academic information that echoes Nielsen’s findings: when left to themselves, students aren’t sure how to process what they find.

In the interests of being a bit more specific about actions we might take, I’ll share some ideas of mine … next week! Same bat time, same bat channel: see you there!