Discovery tools: involving healthcare students in search/discovery

With the help of Evidencebase at Birmingham City University, in January 2013 Library and Learning Resources carried out a survey of healthcare students to assess their use of search/discovery tools.

Many thanks who the BSc (Hons) Nursing 2nd years  (Professional Values and Evidence Based practice (NUR5065) students in the School of Nursing and Midwifery, Faculty of Health who gave up their time to fill out the questionnaire in connection with this research. (This work is also being presented to UKSG by Jo Alcock and Mark Brown as a ‘lightning’ talk.)


We wanted to find out how students responded to the range of services on offer.(for example Summon, CINAHL Full Text, MEDLINE, PYSCHInfo, Library Catalogue, Google or Google Scholar). The questionnaire outlined scenarios based on assignments (both summative and formative), and included a poster PICO excercise and an essay). Each question asked: ‘Where would you start your search?’ and students were given the opportunity to expand on why they had given the answers they did. It was important that our recently implemented discovery tool Summon was  measured alongside other search tools.


It soon became clear that those healthcare students who replied were using different tools depending on the situation (e.g. for example if they are just scoping ideas or if they were specifically looking at the evidence base of medical research.) We came to two main conclusions:

  • Conclusion I: Healthcare students predominantly chose to use specific databases for evidence based clinical research.
  • Conclusion II : Healthcare students tend to stick to the tool they are familiar with for more generic research.  

We also had a range of quantitative data and responses which were fascinating.

Q1. “We’re interested in knowing which resources you would use during research for full text articles”. 


Many respondents selected all the resources indicating a broad variety of resources are being used . Not surprisingly, ‘Journal indexing services’ are clearly recognised as one of key starting points as routes to full-text articles. ‘Library Catalogue’ and ‘Google’ also scored high because up to until this point the student’s information needs (e.g. related to the theoretical basis of nursing) have been still broadly met using key texts from the book stock.

Q2.”You have been given an assignment to write an essay on comfort or dignity in nursing care and you need to find electronic resources as part of your research. Where would you start your search? ” 


When asked where students would start their search for this assignment, the choices in order of popularity were journal indexing services such as CINAHL, Medline or PsycINFO (40%), Google or Google Scholar (23.8%), Summon (20%) and the Library Catalogue (13.8%). Others (2.5%) mentioned specific journals such as Nursing Standard  or Journal of Community nursing. One reason for this maybe that only in the 2nd year do they students start to explore “the why?” that underpins clinical nursing practice and start to develop their curiosity across the field. This places a far greater emphasis on the research literature, and hence the drop off in use of the ‘Library Catalogue’ here, and perhaps also a realization that search/discovery resources like Summon, Google/Google Scholar and CINAHL offer better routes to electronic fulltext.

Q3. “Your group has been given an evidence–based research exercise, to devise a PICO around a specific aspect of care, find research, and present your findings in a group poster presentation. Where would you start”  


When asked where students would start their search for this assignment, the choices in order of popularity were journal indexing services such as CINAHL, Medline or PsycINFO (44%), Google or Google Scholar (22.5%), Summon (18.5%) and the Library Catalogue (3.7%). As in Q2, these results are similar with Google still seen one of the key starting points but also with a sharp fall in starting with the Library Catalogue.  Students needed to look for clinical guidelines (which they find via the web eg via NICE) but this exercise also asked them to undertake a database search, to justify their choice and also to evaluate the findings in the context of the evidence base as a whole. Their responses that reflected on several sources for  evidence based practice search process such as :“Google just to get the basic understanding” and also “indexing services are useful for finding research articles.”


Q4. You need to find full-text articles using clinical research in order to provide to your tutor/mentor with evidence-based research for a case study to support treatment decisions for a patient. Where would you start your search

This scenario was more focused on the practical element of the nursing course, asking students about where they would start their search for evidence-based clinical research. The results for this are very different from the two previous scenarios; the vast majority of students would start this search using services such as CINAHL, Medline or PsycINFO. Here the key idea is that students learn to use Summon and/or databases for scoping ideas and then moving to back specific databases when they have focused their search. Students who selected  ‘Journal indexing services’ said that “You can easily select ‘evidence-based’ for your search results” or “This option will allow me to search the evidence”. 

Student responses: the ability to transfer searching skills

  • Students needed generic searching skills to cope with the mass of information and also appreciated how they could transfer these skills between resources:  “I would use Google first to find out whats out there and then go onto use CINAHL, NICE and Cochrane.” ; or again “I would probably use Summon as a starting point then CINAHL, Medline etc as I feel most confident with using these”. 

Student responses: the need to start a wide search then to narrow down 

  • Students were aware of the need to start off with a broad scope and then narrow down. For example Google was useful in that it helps me to get a ‘feel’ for a subject as a starting point“. One recommended to “Use [Summon]…as a starting point, then either work at narrowing it down, or move to more specific places”, a process which another student would follow elsewhere [CINAHL] : “I would search for the topic on CINAHL and then narrow using other parameters to try and find resources.” 

The need to refine down a relevant result from a mass of results seemed to be similar across the board, no matter what the resource was. Since a single resource didn’t always fit the bill, transferring their searching skills between these key discovery and search resources was also a key expectation.


‘Information on the move’: a mobile conference in the city of roundabouts

I must admit Milton Keynes (aka the ‘Roundabout City’) was never on my top list of places to see, as it is not very easy to move around on foot, being designed for the car. But the quality of speakers and workshops at the recent M-Libraries-Conference on mobile technologies in libraries more than made up for taking our life in our hands every time we walked from the hotel to the venue!

‘Hype Cycle’ -Jo’s graph plotting ‘Visibility’ against ‘Time’ for libraries’ mobile services – leaving its mark on an OU whiteboard!

The keynote speeches drew on what became a common theme : where does a library or information service place itself on what our very own Jo Alcock from Evidence Base calls ‘the hype cycle’? Or to put it another way : where we between ‘wow?’ and ‘wow-but-can-we-do-it-now?’

So Steve Vosloo’s summary of what UNESCO ‘s work, (with a statistic echoed by Bob Gann from the NHS : ‘there are more mobile phones in Africa than in USA’ ) showed us some great programmes delivered on phones that some might not consider ‘smart’ –  but they work. You might think retro-fitting technology to a literacy service for boat schools in Bangladesh or using cellphones to run an SMS check on drugs (in countries where 30 percent of medicines are fake and can kill you) is a far cry from introducing mobile tech into a UK library – but these are good examples of working out where you on that hype cycle. 

The lists of possibilities were endless – from QR codes – (we’ve got one already on our Summon posters and our library cards) to the case studies mentioned by JISC m-libraries project – which include Chris Langham’s post on here about using SMS in a successful way to reach students.) Another useful overview was from Ellyssa Kroski from New York in her presentation, Libraries to Go.

 I personally like Bath Library’s idea using QR codes to link to audio tours – (I use SoundCloud as a musician, and using mobile apps as sound-recorders and even mixers certainly is more flexible then what we did ‘in the early days’ by trying to record and edit our library induction on Sony minidisc – remember those?.) As you would expect, there were also some great demos : using Augmented Reality browser to overlay fragments of papyrus with teaching materials from John Rylands University, Manchester ; or the PhoneBooth project from LSE, a digitally mapped overlay of Charles Booth’s London survey that could be accessed on mobiles.

Thomas Cochrane’s closing keynote ended with the powerful statement that mobile technologies can transform existing ways of teaching  – and for libraries in particular that means thinking differently about how we teach students, and thinking about about student-generated content. We want to encourage students to map and document their library space, not just get us librarians to do it for them. He showed us a video by students at Auckland on QR codes – done as a project before the library even started promoting them! . He also ran a live demo of Chirp – a technology that sends digital data such as pictures via sound, that could be used in lectures.

As I began writing this post – a student came to the library help desk struggling to view a MyiLibrary book on her battered-but-still-servicable 8-inch tablet. She was still trying to access the book on our library catalogue, and therefore was struggling to access it in a way that she needn’t have done had she searched Summon. It struck me that by searching what is essentially a repository of physical objects (the library catalogue) for an electronic item, she was doing the equivalent of trying to cross a roundabout meant for cars.
We need to make clearer to the student where they look for ‘analog’ or ‘physical’ content, and where they look for ‘digital’. In the course of crossing that digital divide, lets make sure we don’t repeat the mistakes of the Milton Keynes planners.

Searching Summon : a pilot in the faculty of Health

There has been some interesting blog posts recently about the relationship of Boolean and other techniques to discovery tools recently (see for example Library search tools. Could we make them harder to use?) and being involved in a couple of recent pilot sessions in our faculty of Health reminded me of this debate.

One of my teaching colleagues commented ‘You wouldn’t use it [Summon] if someone’s life was at risk’ – true, but there again would you really trust a database front-end to give you what you want? What with the amount of ill-matched content, paywalls to negotiate, openURLs to fail, links aggregated from a third party, relying on eresources to try and save a life would be a risky strategy to say the least – whatever the platform.  But confidence in retrieval is just what, say, a student nurse in our Defence School of Health Care Studies might require.

The pilot sessions we conducted so far bought the expected rash of error messages: a realization that Nexis UK content doesn’t work (all of it – so we have temporarily switched it off), a problem with the Nursing times through Ovid (why did the Nursing Times not have full-text article links but others did – was it because it was weekly?), a ‘Page not found’ for a one journal. We realized for example that an ‘Author’ limiters on the left-hand side only appeared where we had loaded a related MARC record into Summon, and they did not seem to appear with to other resources. The session also gave me a chance to study the Summon interface close up, including what looked like a fairly decent attempt to break it: !

Summon search log

Looking in the Summon search logs shows a variety of terms entered, many of them keywords aimed a particular specialism :for example one entry shows the search ‘foreign accent syndrome‘.

The real  challenge that Summon brings with it is to traditional information literacy : an academic commented that it was ‘easy to use’ but would be great for undergraduates, who maybe come straight from searching Google but without any of the skills, rather than later years where searching habits need to be more refined. Summon is dynamic, but buries its structure : whereas CINAHL, for example, can be overtly complex but requires more methodical searching.

For example I compared the above two searches for this query ‘foreign accent syndrome : on CINAHL Ft on Summon

One thing that immediately stuck me was that the traditional skills of thinking’ about the ‘context’ of the keywords you use still applies, in fact they become even more important with Summon. Another was that the differences are not necessarily about Boolean logic (pace @daveyp and @carolgauld) – both sets of terms are ANDed by default. The differences seem to me to be the level of information that is fed back to the searcher , rather than the technique themselves.

One interface gives you large number of quick results but then requires you to filter, searching across all resources – the other filters first and makes you structure your search. Here I am reminded that we have set up most of our native databases to default to Advanced rather than Basic – did we consult we any students to do this? Did we offer any options? –  the Basic Search screen in CINAHL for example, is more ‘googlised’ and closer to Summon’s Basic search.

It would be helpful in my view if Summon unpacked some of its ‘magic box’ – and gave your more feedback as you search (here I think an option to get the instant numbers of searches that you get back from each term as you go along might be useful, to show the results set from each interaction). It doesn’t do itself any favours in the ‘Advanced screen either’ : do students really need a search using an ISBN or ISBN box right up there as a priority? The crucial point however is that the student is more on their own (as they would be with Google), gets results back quicker (even though they have to trim them down more – as with Google). They are using a search engine for *library stuff* that is closer to what they have may have used before they came here.

We are hoping to get more in-depth results from library colleagues in Health who have circulated some student questionnaires so it should make for some fascinating reading…

SSUGUK : conversations about content, and a community of users

Several of us attended a useful SerialsSolutions User Group day hosted by University of Surrey, the first part of which was setting out the scope of such a usergroup, raising product issues & also the developments and product enhancements planned by SerialsSolutions.


The session was hosted by Dave Pattern who took us through in the morning session the different ways in which we could share solutions and raise issues to the company including the Summon Community wiki, and the LISSERSOLUK mailing list. It was good to see a full complement of Serials Solutions representatives there who listened to points that were made from the floor about a number of issues : how do you reduce the number of newspaper articles and book reviews cluttering up Summon (the response came that can pre-set these in a widget – personally I think there should be an admin setting that should last for the whole of your Summon session not just your landing page, but at least we got the issue raised), an issue with linking through to EBSCO databases (due to be addressed in the next release of Summon).

Other themes included how to use EZProxy (some insititutions run it through Shibboleth which gives a cleaner authentication, we don’t as we currently only have an old version of AthensDA), and the perennial problem of working out what content we have and how to switch it on in the Client Center. An easy example (close to our hearts) is MINTEL for example. It’s great that MINTEL reports can be surfaced in Summon, but in order to work out what to best switch on in the knowledge base we have to know (from the rep) which library codes apply to our subscription (otherwise we get the whole package of reports which we don’t subscribe to).

Switching on content in Summon would be easy if the publishing market was neatly packaged, but it is a complex landscape, as Liam Earney outlined in the afternoon when he went through the challenge facing KB+, now in Phase One of its life cycle. As an institution that only has one NESLi2 deal at the moment though, this first phase might seem irrevelant to colleagues here – but any work that shows that publishers (and subscription agents) need to put their house in order when providing us with content, (and ourselves when we buy that content & consequently legitimize it).

However I think that the issues start to kick in when we move outside the deals/packages, and start wading through the undergrowth of individual titles. For example we have to set up access to Practical Diabetes International – because it seems recent content has not been loaded onto Swetswise  and we needed an alternative access point. Searching for that title on SerialsSolutions’ Client Center gave 48 places where that title is published, with 45 relating to Wiley. Which one to switch on?

The fun starts with holdings : if I ignore 7 or so backfiles, there are 36 places where holdings dates start in 2000 as a default. A quick look in Wiley’s admin area says ‘Holdings Report – Under Construction’ – so no help there. So I go back to the Client Center, ignore any journal bundles and look for Practical Diabetes International in something called ‘Wiley-Blackwell Journals (Frontfile Content)’ that sounds non-bundled. Out of the 1961 titles in this particular group, I find the right journal, tell it that we ‘subscribe to only some of the titles in this database’, check the start date on Wileys’ pages (which is 1996, different from Swets), and add it to our collection.

The point of this is that switching content on in a resource discovery tool like Summon means getting to grips with which collections you have. At both macro and micro level. It was good to see SerialSolutions engaging with the issue of content, but I did notice that a lot of their development talk was on 360 Resource-Manager – a product which we don’t have. However the day was a great way to discover that we weren’t the only ones struggling with content issues, and I felt that at least those conversations had begun.

Hitting a moving target : ejournals, subscription agents and holdings

In light of the recent posting by Mitchell Dunkley at DMU, I thought it might be useful to share some of our recent experiences about trying to track down ejournal content. We share what seems to be a similar problem : that of actually finding out what holdings we have – and particularly for ejournals, there are different issues than with ebooks.

Stormtrooper plays human target for kids. Image credit :

Our main point of contact for ejournals data (as opposed to journal titles in databases) has been our subscription agent Swets, and following a recent account meeting with them we flagged several inconsistencies between content available Swetswise Online Content (SWOC) and content available via some publisher’s sites. Swets are still looking into this for us but uncovering some of these problems has raised several issues that I think are generic and the examples below apply across the board. (I have used screen shots from to amplify some of these points – in this the small set of journals happen to be from Oxford Journals.)

1) Differences in holdings between subscription agent and publisher. There seemed to be often a wide variety of conflicting data depending where we looked: for example we found 37 OUP titles on SWOC but only 29 listed on Oxford Journals site. I found downloading information from SWOC problematic and unfriendly – we had to break up a download into several spreadsheets and couldn’t download one spreadsheet for all our holdings.(see this screenshot : We have no idea of how often our subscription agent and the publisher update each other – these conflicts may be a simple mistake, or a reporting error that has lasted for years. Again OUP was only one example, we know of at least two other publishers where this is happening.

2) Publishers approach the problem of ejournal data in different ways. If we turn to the publisher, the Oxford site in this case seems to be structured around a  volume issue-based system – which is great for an individual user but access entitlements are shown as being an long HTML through which we had to scroll down It was difficult to work out our holdings start and enddate from this, and as far as I can see an Excel list of holdings was only available on request from Oxford’s help desk.

Not all publisher administrative sites are the same – and in fact access to ejournal holdings may be reported differently depending on whether the publisher is showing holdings via our subscription agents entitlements or via a different account.The package under which a group of titles is accessed or set up may also efffect access – for example we also get Oxford titles through Oxford University Press Archive via JISC Bundles of titles tend to be reported better than individual ongoing ejournal subscriptions.

3) Technical reasons :any discrepancies about content entitlement are often compunded by technical confusion – because of an IP-check the publisher’s site  will often say the user is recognised as belonging to the University but then is prompted to login : see (incidently this is a article we can currently access via SWOC but not via OUP ).This is often compounded when the user logs in off-campus – we have licenses with other publishers where off-campus accesss has not been made available.

4) Every institution has a different subscription history  : ‘retrospective’ entitlements to content may be complicated by insititutions not maintaining a print run in the past –  broken runs or cancellations can lead to an interruption in electronic access. This similar to the problem that has been mapped by the KB+ project  : ; and the reality is (like in most things) there is no single source of truth. 

Country pursuits : Image Credit neilrickards

5) Free access – is often used by publishers as a marketing tool, which leads to difference between what content the library says is available and what the publisher is actually offering. There is usually no clear statement on how long the offer is for. Publishers vary in how they signal it.

The national work being carried out at KB+ (a JISC project led by @liamearney) is relevant here, but the key question for us is that of scale. When these issues are scaled up per publisher, the inaccuracies can be too resource-intensive to deal with en masse, especially in the light of implementation of a resource discovery system such as Summon. This adds another layer of dependency into the the mix : for example our Elsevier Freedom collection titles also appear in SWOC and we initially found that  there are around 390 titles (about 18%) in Summon’s KnowledgeWorks’ definition of the Freedom Collection that don’t appear in our Swets holdings.

It may be that in implementing a resource-discovery system we have to review where we get the data from, and who best to trust. And also be preprared to be flexible. There’s no guarantee. Put up the best that we have, when we have it then take it down later. Journal holdings, like clay pidgeons, never stay still.

More EZProxy, a visit to Wolverhampton, some cake and Athens LA

Robin and I had a very productive visit to Wolverhampton University yesterday to talk about authentication, EZProxy, OpenAthens LA, football and also consume some of these.

Ben Elwell from  Wolverhampton was able to share with us their latest news on how they had implemented Summon as- ‘the new Library Catalogue‘.

He reinforced the point that having access to resources in Summon without any proxy at all was a major stumbling block because the student found it hard to navigate between the provider’s logins. This was something we had also experienced.

Although they were running EZProxy for a few resources, Wolverhampton are moving to a later version of Athens, Athens LA 2.2  – which also includes an integrated proxy and improved statistics. One observation to make is that this appears to have better support for username and password protected resources, and configuration seems lot a easier than in EZProxy. 

In a tweet exchange with Eduserv they say there are 60 database configurations out of the box, and more will be contributed by the user community – so Athens LA 2.2 as a alternative solution to EZProxy seems definitely worth looking at.

EZProxy testing : first impressions, ‘less is more’

We are currently are trialling EZProxy and here is an update of where we are with it. At the moment, our CICT colleagues have set it up locally on the network for us, and have got it working through our firewall. I am hoping that it might give us a complementary route to access off-campus resources alongside Athens, IP and username and password. For starters, I have put this list up to see what routing some of them through our EZProxy server might mean. 

After you log on to the server it returns a list – which we can configure by amending a text file. On this initial list are about 16 of our e-resources that we either currently not access off-campus (because the publisher doesn’t support Athens or Shib), or are currently hard to access because the student has to plough through either Athens cookie-setting screens or publisher screens (often a publisher will have many routes to off-access because they have many different types of clients, so these are to be expected) or a heady mixture of both.

Using Jing I recorded two videos from off-campus 1) accessing British Journal of Music Education  from Swetswise via Cambridge University Press as we currently do and 2) accessing British Journal of Music Education via Swetswise going directly through EZProxy. (Apologies – these are very rough cuts but you get the idea – one route asks for money even after the student logs in via Athens, the other doesn’t. The same publisher, the same journal, sometimes the same article). The point is not why this happens, but as Dave Pattern’s series of slides at #uksglive pointed up, why barriers like these still happen in academic publishing and continue drive students away to Google.

To be fair, subscription agents’ websites are not always the best places to start – but that’s matter for another blogpost. And at the moment  we are only trying to show ‘proof of concept’ for EZProxy, so yes first impressions are bound to be good. The next stage is see whether it is feasible to get this new route working in Summon and also through our institutional portal iCity ( with the help of our CICT colleagues) – which is where we factor in more control over who can access this stuff.

But anything that can cut down the number of login screens, over which we don’t have much control, is good. Anything that can mean the student only has to log in once is good. Anything that mean the student doesn’t have to click via a special route to install a cookie is good. Anything that means the student doesn’t have to work out which password to use is good.

Nothing is more annoying than a series of screens one after the other. As Miles said about music (he was really talking about login screens) – ‘less is more’. Play less, design less. Which sounds like an perfect excuse to play some jazz : So What ?

One Day in the Life of an Electronic Services Librarian

Unlike this, or this, my day usually starts with a coffee, then emails. I don’t have the luxury of email zero, it’s usually just making sure I don’t miss important ones. One of my main areas of work centres on the implementation of Summon,and what’s significant for me about this is that it is a joint Library/CICT project that will hugely impact our access to electronic resources which are currently held in separate places.

Being responsible for ‘Electronic Services’ has up until now meant responsibility  for those platforms where most of our eresources are accessed (eg AtoZ of Electronic ResourcesAtoZ of Electronic Journals, and/or also making sure that the methods of authentication for all of them we have in place (Athens,IP, username and password) work as smoothly as possible. Since last September, we offered a login route to our eresources through iCity that has reduced enquiries solely avia our Athens email box to about 300 over six months, so more common issues now centre around content: have we switched on full-text content to we have actually paid for, etc? Are we giving access to the right people?

Summon isn’t magic: it only ‘knows’ about most of our electronic collections if we tell it what we think those resources are, so today I am trying to work out why the holdings that we have via our subscription agent  don’t match those of the publisher (18% of our initial download from Swets didn’t match up with our Elsevier holdings according to Summon, for example). I contact several publishers eg CUP,Taylor and Francis) to start finding out about metadata for our institutional journal subs. I also begin a template to load third party holdings from Ingenta in to our Summon admin area,but decide to put this on hold for a while. Data problems are a longstanding issue, even with national initiatives like KBART, and especially where we don’t buy that many big ready-made deals.

After some mild twittering with @benelwell from Wolverhampton and then, over lunch, chat with @TheCloudSurfer over a new design for a website for a band I play in, I bump into one of the CICT developers for iCity. He confirms that a recent change he had made to the business rules concerning Athens was now working. Back at my desk,after reading the new Student Access Network Policy,I suggest a rewording to a new message screen for alumni (still to be approved:-).

Working out how all to satisfy both our students expectation & get them through the publisher paywalls as painlessly & legally as possible might be easier once we trial some authentication ‘middleware’ called EZproxy. I am excited about this a) because I asked for this software 5 years ago, and b) I want to stop reduce the numbers of hurdles wherever possible that we throw in front of the student –  hurdles like this damage the student experience.

I’m looking forward to testing EZproxy on my phone, and then I remember the mlibs project from Evidence Base here – if only web platform access was as painless as that via mobile apps : we promoted the EBSCO mobile app here some while back for example, and once students register they get access to our subscribed content on their phones, that can be set to remember their logins. I’m keen to be involved in mobile learning, and without sounding too corny, it is the future.

I manage a central fund for electronic resources,so in the afternoon follows some fund management,checking how to measure spend across financial rather than calendar year, following new procedures I agreed with our Finance Officer. Then it’s more of a mixed bag : reading our Dignity at Work policy for the Line Managers Forum I’m attending tomorrow, trying to establish whether colleagues asked us to renew their subscription to an eresource that has been up on our AtoZ pages for a number of months, signing up for a JISC webinar on their new machinable readable license system which I picked up via a tweet from JISC’s @carenmilloy, posting on our eresource blog about an Index to Theses problem (now resolved).

Luckily today I have not had to think about whether our authentication systems are giving the right people the right permissions to access content: I was involved in the initial Information Architecture Review at BCU some years back, and it is an increasingly uphill and relevant struggle, particularly as the University focusses outward on partnerships with other institutions. Last year I raised a CICT project proposal for OpenAthensLA that is still on the table, as our current version of Athens is no longer being actively developed by Eduserv, it has also free authentication ‘middleware’ (like EZproxy) that comes bundled with the subscription. But first we have to define who those users are, in a way that our systems can understand – there is a long legacy of working in silos across the institution to unpick.

My day finishes by replying to a student who couldn’t get into an electronic journal on Swets, who had logged on fine but maybe had not realised that she was only being offered an abstract or summary rather than the full-text, so in a way I end where I began…..

2011 UKSG Conference, Harrogate : libraries and the ‘discovery deficit’.

photo In 1931 the critic Walter Benjamin described in his essay ‘Unpacking My Library’ the intimate side of collecting books, how each book brings with it a particular memory or association: ‘the whole background of an item adds up to a a magic encyclopedia’. He goes on to develop this idea further in the influential Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction(1936), where he describes how modern works of art (such as photography, film) lose this unique ‘aura’ of association, once they can be copied over and over again,

image credit:Nesster

whereas older forms (such as painting, sculpture) still keep their ‘authenticity’ intact. As a result of this changing mode of production, new relations between author and public develop, the artist loses their separatedness, and readers turn into writers.

This struck me as a good thread to follow through the talks at the UKSG conference I recently attended. In his keynote address, John Naughton (The Open University and Cambridge University Library) referred to what he called the disruptive innovation’ of capitalism, and its effect on markets where ‘the basic unit of communication is shrinking’. He gave as examples both Amazon, that now sells Kindle Singles alongside books, and also iTunes where individual ‘tunes’ are now downloaded instead of ‘albums’ (this is where some of us get misty-eyed and reach for our vinyl). The digital age creates new, sometimes temporary, forms of consumption that have shattered artistic ‘auras’ long ago. What would Benjamin have made of the enhanced e-book, I wonder?

Many libraries and publishers have not yet fully woken up to this yet. Andy Powell’s talk Open, social and linked – A ménage à trois of content exploitation’ showed how Web 2.0 has revealed new forms of social relations that challenge our ‘academic inertia’. He drew on work by Dave White of Oxford University on ‘Visitors and Residents‘,which moved beyond concepts of ‘digital native’ and ‘digital immigrant’ to identify new categories of student users.

Whereas the web is social and-behaviour changing (see The Machine is Us/ing Us‘ video); libraries are still content-centric, and we often show a ‘mis-match between repository architecture and real-world social networks’. (And to add to that, I would say we still manage library systems that were built on the book, or a list of books, rather the article or the chapter; publishers still bury content for us in large, unwieldy aggregated e-resources, and some of them even build ‘discovery tools to help us discover their own content – which is nice).

Publishers face similar disruptions, and as Philip E. Bourne pointed out in Digital research,analog publishing : one scientist’s view , even the PDF (that ‘irreducible’ commercial unit) is being open up to semantic tagging of PDF. So researchers are suddenly commenting on, and sharing texts, as scholarly  communication is socialized, and there is a corresponding flurry of new pricing models for students – the most obvious of which is ’patron-driven acquisition’ (PDA) for e-books.

Terry Bucknell’s review of current e-books practice at Liverpool, Buying by the Bucketful advocated a mixed economy but also advised caution in getting the best deal. Sarah Pearson’s session on KBART showed how it was difficult to achieve consortial agreements with publishers on common knowledge base standards for link resolvers. KBART is making steady progress here, and that means sharing publisher metadata at the micro-level .If you look beyond the comfort blanket of a standard model license, the fragmented nature of the e-journal market with all it different pricing mechanisms is all that you see. That effect is multiplied the more we deal with agents, and agents of agents.

Multiple market-led technologies are still driving this change, so the question is not just whether or not It’s a Book, but how many formats is this ‘stuff’ available in? As Rick Anderson put it, in The Future of the Collection Is Not a Collection : before the Internet,libraries were an ‘information temple with the librarian as high priest to grant the sacred knowledge, now they are ‘one of many store fronts offering access to information at a price’. The key word here is many : theplatform fragmentation’ that so bedevils the mobile world (versions upon versions of apps and software that don’t always work together) is rife in other media too, such as  Blue-ray v. DVD.

That’s where us librarians come back in, helping to navigate our students through the format jungle. We need not only to develop tips and tricks ourselves (like the ones Tony Hirst talked about) but also be aware of how many different ways there are to search for, and to comment on, an ever expanding universe of texts. (see for example my comment on a quote from Benjamin which I recently tweeted from my Kindle : the ‘plurality of copies’ he talks about in his essay looks forward to our digital age ).
The ‘magic encyclopedias’ have gone – but the ‘discovery deficit’ (as pointed out by Cameron Neylon) is still with us. This ‘stuff’ is still buried within institutional and commercial silos, and we need to shine more light on it.

Or as Groucho Marx put it :
Outside of a dog, a book is man’s best friend. Inside of a dog it’s too dark to read’.

23 things that might make the student experience of our e-resources better

student protests liverpoolThe recent student protests have highlighted for me how students will be ‘paying’ even more for the services we offer, and it struck me that improved access to our e-resources becomes more important for those who are already digging deep.

image credit : Matt_Baldry

It’s important we get this stuff right. There is often a ‘dislocate’ between theory and practice when we talk about access to e-resources  and in my view we need to draw attention to this contradiction, when we draw up our strategies. In a nutshell, if the library ignores the student, they have already walked away.

1.One number on the card that is the same as their student number,their library id,their network id,their printing id.Why should they have to remember different password formats?

2.One library place for searching for stuff,not several places. If you have to have several places/portals,then make them look the same as possible by using similar widgets or html.

3.Avoid AtoZ lists that you scroll down,make them searchable because new students will not know what each resource is.

4.Avoid using publisher names and acronyms or technical jargon that mean nothing to the student.(,what’s an ‘proxy’? What does ZETOC mean?)

5.If you use subject headings on your web pages make them relevant to courses taught or don’t use them at all.

6.If you have cataloguers, use them to index your online presence,make sure what they add to your catalogue record is actually useful to the student.

7.If you can control your web presence,don’t make it blocky or overcrowded. Distractions in the form of different fonts,colours that don’t match give a clear message that you haven’t taken the effort to discipline your design enough.

8.Most students have a mobile phone,& many will have smartphones, if not now when? At the very least,communicate library notices using text, & get a mobile friendly site.

9.Your subscribed content has to be ‘quotable/tweetable/bloggable so that academics can easily link to it on their VLE,MLE. Use stable URLs : if not, students will be left at the ‘front-door’ of the resource and will come back to the library to help them find that article again.

10.Use images to make your information engaging – not just lines and lines of text. That’s a throwback to the days of ‘hypertext’ linked page after page – when we librarians thought we owned the web and were the only publishers of content. Students learn differently now. It’s a web platform, not a novel.

11.Students and paywalls don’t mix. They are getting quality subscription e-resources for ‘free’ by paying to study so they don’t expect to run up against a publisher asking for money. If its possible minimize how the student login is seen to the publisher by using a proxy so that the right screens are returned back,to them.

12.Publicise downtimes and interface changes whenever possible. If you not given enough notice routine for scheduled downtime,as opposed to server fail,complain loudly.

13. If you subscribe to a journal that can only manage a username and password login based on a single ccuser,don’t use it. At the very least, they should be offering you IP-checked access.

14. Use a proxy service which you manage yourself to give you access off-campus via IP if your publisher doesn’t support Athens or Shibboleth.

15. CD-ROMs are for loaning out to the student,not for hosting on a network. If the publisher can’t scale up to a web product don’t buy them.

16.Use anything open like DOAJ, they don’t need a password. If its stuff you own the rights to, don’t bury it in a system that is not interoperable and uses an arcane method of access.

17. If your institution hires a consultant to write a report on your identity management, or how poor your business processes are, listen to them. Don’t forget the student has paid for their course, and will expect a minimum level of things to work together. Shout if they don’t.

18. If people aren’t using a resource, bin it. If there is any money next year you can always bring it back. Don’t hang on to it because one member of academic staff publishes in that journal and we can’t annoy them. Or because we think it only might be useful to us librarians for professional developement. Don’t be a squirrel.

19. Your front-line desk staff and your teaching librarians will take the brunt of the system failures, identity mismanagements, and general unfriendliness of the systems you put in place. If it’s hard to explain, then it usually means we or the publisher have made it difficult to access.

20.Students will go to Google or Wikipedia for information because they are comprehensive, easy and quick. They are prepared to sacrifice some of this ease of use when they try and get through to an e-journal article or chapter of an e-book but only just : they will quickly walk away.

21. If you put up information about anything, be prepared to take it down,edit it almost immediately. Don’t own or feel precious about anything you put up there – or get involved in debates about content/syntax/ownership. Remove it and/or put it back up tommorrow.

22. Work out what your core usergroups are : if you have to spend your energies on groups of students that are not fully registered, do so sparingly. When resources are tight, know your audience.

23. Make your resources discoverable – if the student can’t search across them, they will lose the will to live in navigating across native interfaces. Each publisher thinks they have the answer,and even if more and more are becoming ‘googlized’ and have the obligatory ‘Web 2.0 add-ons’ – the big ones still hide their content away in silos that are hard to reach.