Monday, November 16, 2009

Another facet of the “library bypass strategies”

I really appreciate when readers of this blog contact me about various postings. Especially when we have the chance to not only discuss posts via comments, but to also verbally connect and share thoughts about libraries. I recently had one of those conversations with Jean Costello, a library patron in Massachusetts and a reader of this blog. During our conversation, she pointed me towards a recent blog post of her own, entitled “Library bypass strategies” that echoed a different facet of the same thought I’ve been having a lot lately (and have briefly mentioned in another post of my own.

Jean’s concern was how libraries might get bypassed in the context of e-book supply strategies. I totally agree with the comments she makes in her post. What I see, that echoes her concern, is in the area of e-content and discovery products which are being offered to the library marketplace. Increasingly, these are offered as pre-packaged solutions with a discovery interface and with databases from a select number of organizations. But there are some real differences in the offerings and librarians need to be careful how they select and implement this technology.

Libraries must retain control over the selection of the content that is offered to their end users or else they have abandoned a core value-add of librarianship, i.e. the selection of the most authoritative, appropriate and authenticated information (in this case electronic resources) needed to answer a user’s information need. If, as a librarian, you cede this control to a third party organization, you’ve setup your library to be bypassed and ultimately replaced in the information value chain.

Some may ask, how is this any different than the book approval plans most libraries have participated in for years, where vendors put together recommendations of titles for a library to purchase? Those plans, designed over the last approximately 20 years, are built around the Library of Congress classification scheme and subject headings and a variety of other criteria by which titles are selected. With this model, Librarians had the ultimate say over acceptance or rejection of books supplied in response to the plans. However, e-content selected by your vendor, particularly if that vendor is owned by a content aggregator, come with an entire host of complications. You have to ask yourself if you really want to trust a vendor of content to be objective when it comes to managing or delivering content from their competitors. Will they take advantage of usage statistics when determining packages or pricing? Will they tweak ranking algorithms to ensure that their own content gets ranked higher or more prominently?

I think it is important, as a librarian, to understand these realities. If you want to provide your users with an assurance that what they’re searching has passed your selection criteria and that it is the best information to meet their needs, then you’ve just created some important criteria to be met when you select the discovery tool and e-content your library is going to use. These include:

Content-neutrality. Using a discovery tool that is tied to (or owned) by any one content provider is obviously increasing the probability that content from their major content competitors will not be available. Furthermore, content from companies owned by the parent company will likely be more heavily favored in the ranking/relevancy algorithms. This will likely be disguised as “since we own these databases, we can provide richer access”. I’d be cautious if I heard those phrases. The discovery tool you select and use should allow you to provide equal access to all content that is relevant to the end user, not just the content supplier who is providing it. One way to do this is to make sure the discovery tool that is used is from a source that has no vested interest in the content itself. Another way is to ensure you have the ability, indeed control, over the final ranking/relevancy algorithms.

Deep-search and/or metasearch support. If you believe that all content your users will ever need or want to search will be available solely through any discovery interface that is searching harvested metadata, then you need to know this is probably unrealistic.

There are two ways to avoid getting caught in this trap. One option is the ability to add in metasearching capabilities. Yes, we all know the limitations of metasearching – but the reality is that, if you believe like I do, that your job is to connect your users with the most appropriate, authoritative and authenticated information needed to answer their questions – not just the easiest information you can make available that might answer their question -- then you have to provide a way to search information that can’t be harvested, which depending on the topic, can be important information.

The other way to do this is the ability to deep-search, i.e., to connect to an API that will search remote databases. This technology typically offers faster and better searching as well as much better ranking and retrieval capabilities.

Either way, these are capabilities that many discovery interfaces don’t support. But they should, indeed they must, in order to support the value-add of librarianship on top of information.

The ability to load and search databases unique to your user’s information needs. If the above options don’t cover the content you need to provide access to, then you should have the option to add in a database of e-content locally to your harvested metadata. This might be a local digital repository or other e-content, but you should insist on this capability to ensure needed access through the discovery interface.

Any librarian who understands his or her user’s unique information needs will insist, just as librarians have for years in building other collections, that we must have a selection policy that will give us control over the e-content users will be able to utilize.

Watching librarians in action today, there are those ignoring these issues. They are selecting discovery tools that provide quick, pre-defined, pre-packaged content with a discovery interface that doesn’t really meet the deeper needs of their users or their profession. Once they've done this, they’ve reduced their library’s value-add in the information delivery chain and they’ve lost another valuable reason for maintaining their library’s relevance within the institution and handed it to those that believe good enough, is well, good enough.

To avoid this situation be careful in your choice of discovery tools and e-content. Be sure they support the value-add of librarianship. That way you, and your library, won’t become another facet in what Jean calls – “the library bypass strategies”.