Thursday, November 11, 2010

Conclusions from the Charleston Conference "Face-Off"

I returned from the Charleston Conference this week. It was a conference crammed with content and crammed into a facility that is stretching at the seams to accommodate it. The overall success of this conference is quite visible and impressive. Hats off to the organizers!

The face-off between the gladiators of publisher / aggregator / discovery vendors that I discussed in my last post was a session that was also crammed with people. Hundreds of people in two linked ballrooms showed up for this session. It strongly indicates the importance that discovery solutions now carry for libraries. That was the good news.

Unfortunately, the bad news is that the face-off ended up being disappointing for a variety of reasons, but mostly because it was really two vendors talking to each other and at the audience, but no useful discussion resulted. In addition, no questions were permitted from the audience. So even that avenue of discovery was slammed closed.

As a result important points such as how librarians should protect themselves by having some checks-and-balances in their supply chain did not get discussed.

Nor was there a useful discussion about why some vendors see an important role for federated search within discovery tools. The long tail of information was left flapping in the unseasonably cold Charleston weather.

Finally any mention of the ICOLC Statement, Principle 3, was avoided like a plague and librarians lost out as a result.

The questions that were posed by the moderator at the end of the face-off were interesting to me in that they seemed to carry a heavy heritage from librarians experience with OPAC’s and the end-users of a different time. While I suppose that is to be expected, it concerns me that the questions seemed disconnected from the way we actually see students/faculty/staff wanting to and/or performing searches, not to mention their use of discovery tools to facilitate learning.

So the session, as I predicted in my last post, resulted in a lot of silliness. Certainly it missed the opportunity to serve as a focused discussion among companies delivering discovery products and the librarians curious about and/or using discovery tools.

Hopefully, this face-off can serve as a foundation for future discussions. There were other sessions at the Charleston Conference that did provide important and useful insights that could be added to the list of topics for a future discussion about discovery solutions. These included:

1) Procurement processes. I’m truly worried that discovery tool procurement processes, as I heard described at the Charleston Conference will, if unchanged, result in libraries buying wonderful tool for librarians, but unfortunately not for the end-users. If that happens, libraries will ultimately set the stage to be dis-intermediated out of, or further diminished, in the information discovery process.

2) Learning models. Another session was given by Stephen Abrams where he pointed out that if you look at learning models (for instance, the Fleming’s VAK/VARK model), you see that most users learn by one of the following methods:

a) Visual
b) Auditory
c) Text (reading/writing)
d) Tactile

He pointed out that in the general population, only 20% of people are text-based learners, but that if you do that same survey on library staff, some 80% are text-based learners. Again, it is not altogether surprising that librarians love text. However, the “disconnect” mentioned above can come into play as a result. If the librarians buying discovery solutions, specify, buy and implement a solution that reflects the way they learn without considering the learning styles of their end-users, the solution they select is likely not going to meet the needs of those end-users. When that happens, we all have a major problem.

If a future discussion/face-off is held I think it would be interesting if some end-users (students/faculty/staff for academic libraries) and public library users were invited to participate. We could have them describe how they use the existing discovery tools and what they find good and bad about them. The session could then have vendors show (or talk) about ways the issues could be addressed through existing product functionality, existing but currently unused or even new technologies. Such a session should also accommodate more vendors on the stage. All of which would make for a more fair, balanced and informative session for attendees.

If that happens, I believe all involved could learn what might need to be done, or changed in their understanding of end-user needs, library procurement processes and in the questions asked of each other in order to help facilitate vendor capabilities being appropriately utilized to meet the needs of both librarians and end-users.

I think that would prove a far more useful “face-off” than what we saw in Charleston last week.