Perspective on Discovery

By on September 26, 2013
Follow me on Twitter: @varnum

I’ve been reading with interest the items that have been written in the past few weeks about library discovery by Lorcan Dempsey, Dale Askey, Aaron Tay, and Carl Grant, among others. Library discovery, of course, is the capability to search effectively across a wide range of online materials available through a given library (whether owned, licensed, leased, open source, locally digitized, or what have you) through a single search box. There are vendor products and homegrown solutions, and hybrids of the two.

Is discovery dead already? Is it still the hot new thing, the Holy Grail of disintermediated patron interaction?

No, and no.

Askey makes great points about the serious challenge we libraries in digitizing our materials for access (not to mention preservation). I’ll call this the “last shelf” challenge. Just as incredible high-speed internet is within the reach of just about every urban home, it’s the “last mile” that’s the kicker. Getting fiber to the door of every abode is and expensive, slow, process. Getting the “last shelf” digitized is similarly expensive and slow. We’ve done the easy stuff — non-unique, commodity items — already. Digitizing the “last shelf” should rightly be a significant goal for all libraries holding unique materials.

A discovery tool is only as good as its content for the intended use by the individual patron. Yes, libraries should be proud of, should enable access to, and should promote the living daylights out of the items that are uniquely theirs. These “lost” items can provide researchers at all levels with paths to innovation and discovery (in the traditional sense of the word).

Where I think the value of discovery could be, for academic libraries in particular, is in customizing the results of discovery for the user’s need. Why not offer a “personalized” slice of the discovery pie, perhaps as a facet, that filters results based on the user’s presumed context? So a patron, logged in to the system, might get results focused on those appropriate to each of the enrolled classes (by level or department, for example). Or to remove one’s own native discipline from the results and focus on results from an entirely different one. That could be a powerful tool to enhance research at the interdisciplinary boundaries of two subject areas.

The power of discovery, in my way of thinking, is not just in harnessing the local and the global — which is something in and of itself — but in providing tailored, focused access to that breadth. It’s not just the Mississippi as it dumps into the Gulf of Mexico; it’s just the right tributaries out of thousands that feed into the torrent.

So I don’t think discovery is doomed, or misguided. But I do believe that the path forward is in more focused, context-aware, services.

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