November 16, 2017

Liverpool’s Discovery

It’s the energy at the Sydney Jones Library—the University of Liverpool’s arts and humanities library—that a visitor can’t miss. Throughout the day, waves of students flow through the front doors of this UK institution, fanning out through the building as they claim one of the hundreds of workstations, seek out a study group in one of the private rooms, stop in the well-stocked café, or settle down in one of the many easy chairs to catch up with friends.

ljx110202webkenney1(Original Import)

THE HUB The light-filled main room (top)at the Sydney Jones Library offers self-check services-and plenty of opportunities for socializing or working at the numerous workstations added over
the years. The L-Team (middle row, right, l.-r.): Martin Wolf, liaison librarian, humanities and social sciences; Terry Bucknell, electronic resources manager; Roy McCready, systems manager; Phil Sykes, university librarian; and David Backham, head of e-resources, systems, and bibliographic services. Bottom right, Wolf, teaching a class for new doctoral students on searching. Photos ©2011 Rebecca Lupton

Pausing in just one lounge-like area, I listened in on a spirited debate on the efficacy of America’s stimulus efforts. When I came back 15 minutes later, a different group was complaining about an exam they had just left and reviewing “what’s on” for that night’s entertainment.

If many academic libraries claim to be the heart of campus, then Sydney Jones is the heart halfway into an aerobic ­workout.

Statistics confirm the library’s striking popularity. Visits this year are predicted to exceed 1.5 million, up from a million just three years ago. Phil Sykes, university librarian, is hard-pressed to identify any one factor that is contributing to the library’s success. Certainly a major cause is a renovation—completed four years ago—in which the library expanded its footprint by taking over an adjoining building, creating a brighter and more inviting space, and radically boosting the number of public computers.

One thing is certain: University of Liverpool students act as though they own this library. And why shouldn’t they? In nearly every way imaginable, the Sydney Jones Library and the Harold Cohen Library—the university’s other library, which serves science, engineering, and medical students—support the lives of their users (as opposed to expecting the students to conform to the library). This includes major efforts—such as keeping both library buildings entirely open from 8:30 a.m., Monday through late evening Saturday, with Sunday hours—and small gestures—like setting up an email address for students to ping when a study area is too noisy, summoning roving staff to resolve the situation.

Considering their focus on the users’ experience, it’s no surprise that the Liverpool librarians were among the first—not just in the UK but the world—to investigate using a discovery tool to improve how their user community can get to the library’s content.

In the game

Discovery tools, which include ProQuest’s Summon and EBSCO Discovery Service (EDS), allow the user—through a single search box—to search a base index of metadata as well as many of the library’s digital resources such as proprietary databases, the catalog, and institutional repositories. Mimicking the Google experience, results from both internal and external sources can be served up in a single relevancy-ranked batch.

Each product has its own core index of metadata, which seem to be ever expanding as new agreements are reached between the discovery providers and publishers. Libraries can supplement the discovery experience with other content that the library subscribes to—if the discovery provider has negotiated a relationship with that publisher. For example, ­EDS subscribers who are also customers of ABC-CLIO’s ebook collection can search the ebook collection through EBSCO Discovery and link over to the book itself.

Why are discovery tools necessary? “One of the big changes is in context,” says Sykes. “Libraries have moved from being the monopoly supplier of information to being one of a number of suppliers, although in a scholarly context we believe we have the best of high-quality information. Discovery lets you have it both ways: the best quality and the most convenience.”

Liverpool is a member of the Russell Group, the 20 most research-intensive universities in the UK (for more on the University of Liverpool, see “The Red Brick University,” below). With strong programs throughout the sciences, management, and the humanities—as well as burgeoning online programs—the librarians have invested in robust electronic holdings, and they are eager to see this content get used.

“If [discovery] didn’t exist, it would be necessary to invent it,” says Sykes. “More and more you find people bypassing library systems and going straight to Google. Maybe we would be kept in business for old time’s sake, but we wouldn’t be providing a vital function. Discovery keeps us in the game.”

The Holy Grail?

Like many research institutions, Liverpool has been trying to simplify search for over a decade. For years, it had employed MetaLib, a federated searching tool that queries databases separately, providing the results as they are returned by each ­provider.

“It was like watching paint dry,” says Emma Thompson, liaison librarian for the Management School. “People are used to things online looking good, and MetaLib didn’t impress people. If you are going to tell people to use this instead of Google, then you need to impress them.”

Nevertheless, like librarians everywhere, Liverpool’s staff are encountering a generation that is quite tech-savvy, “but doesn’t realize that there is a whole part of the web they haven’t searched. Using Google got them through their A levels. Why do they need to change?” says Thompson.

So when the Sydney Jones Library first viewed Summon in early 2009, “We were really impressed,” says Terry Bucknell, electronic resources manager. “It offered the speed of Google combined with our reliable resources.”

“I was blown away,” says Roy McCready, systems manager. “I was less concerned with the whistles and bells. All we ­really wanted to do was bring together print and electronic with a clear interface and optimize the search process with an engine that is quick and with all of our resources ranked by relevancy.”

Could this be the Holy Grail that librarians have been searching for?

The library quickly became a beta partner on Summon with ProQuest. Later in 2009, the library made the unusual decision to become a beta partner with EBSCO when the EDS product became available.

A double beta? “I’m not sure I’d do that again,” McCready concedes with a laugh, although since both services are hosted, the library’s primary work was in testing them, identifying bugs, and providing feedback.

One thing both companies shared “was a tremendous responsiveness,” McCready says. “They were keen to move quickly, they both had assembled really talented teams. They were very agile. I was impressed.”

While the move to discovery was initially generated by the electronic resources and systems departments, the liaison librarians, with their subject expertise, as well as the reference librarians soon joined in evaluating the two products. As the services went live on the library’s website, mechanisms were put in place to capture user feedback.

Interface vs. content

After months of investigating both products, the Liverpool librarians chose EDS, beginning the 2010 academic calendar with the EDS search box prominent on its homepage, right beneath the library catalog. Three factors were key to the decision: the interface, the content, and customization.

It is clear that the Liverpool librarians—across the board—loved the Summon interface out of the box. “It felt clean and modern,” says Thompson. “Sometimes I have as little as ten minutes with the students. Here was something that I could show to students quickly and they could get something from.” And, the EBSCO interface? It felt old and cluttered, according to Bucknell, when people were looking for new and simple.

“But the interface is something that is relatively easy to fix,” McCready says. The library mocked up their ideas for a better design, grouping functions in a clearer way, changing fonts. “It was clear that EBSCO was thinking along those lines. It quickly came back with several solutions.” Today, most librarians are happy with the EDS look and feel, although Martin Wolf, humanities and social sciences liaison, would still like to see some tweaking done to make the results even more ­prominent.

Part of what makes the EBSCO results page potentially more complex is that EBSCO gives libraries the option of adding federated searching. In the center of the page are the results and on the left—as with Summon—are options to limit the results. However, on the right a library can opt to present other resources—from publishers and vendors that haven’t agreed to let EBSCO pre-index their content. A user can check off any or all of these resources and have a federated search performed against them, with the results added to the set in the center.

Choosing to add federated searching might seem to complicate the page, but it can also be argued that it makes discovery more powerful. “Ultimately, I believe that discovery will live and die by the content it can supply,” says McCready. While there was skepticism at first about including federated searching, most librarians now believe it makes EDS more robust.

“I really like that with EDS it is very clear about what is being searched,” says Thompson, referring to the “Content Provider” facet on the left of the results page, which lists every resource queried and the number of hits received. This fits into the library’s information literacy mission, several librarians explained, in which EDS is a jumping off point to further ­research.

“With EDS, we can begin to guide people to the targeted database. If students find that Medline keeps appearing at the top of their results, we can show them Medline and the tutorials we have on using it,” says McCready. Or, users can stay in EDS and just limit their searching to that one resource.

“It was clear that EBSCO had done a good job on the database, full-text retrieval, and the search engine,” says ­McCready. Both currency of content and quality of the relevancy ranking were mentioned as factors in EDS’s favor.

Liverpool also subscribes to several EBSCOhost databases, which can make EDS more appealing. “EDS works very well for management students because of the integration with [­EBSCO product] Business Source Premier, our key database for management,” says Thompson. This means that searchers are likely to find more PDFs or HTML of full-text articles in their result sets—a sure crowd-pleaser.

Finally, some issues around customization made EDS a better fit for their university. With EDS, the library can create multiple profiles, subject-oriented subsets of discovery resources that can help users not feel overwhelmed. For example, Thompson’s LibGuide page for the Management School, in addition to providing access to specific business databases, offers users the choice to search “Discover: Social Sciences.” As one librarian said, the library is able to make the haystack smaller, while being fairly sure it still contains the needle.

EDS also allows you to control whether or not you search full text, which is important since not all the Liverpool librarians are convinced that including full-text hits is, in and of itself, a good thing. It’s valuable as a choice, but it can generate too much “noise,” or inappropriate hits, pushing better quality results onto later screens where users don’t bother to look.

McCready was quick to make two caveats about the library’s decision to go with EDS. The decision, he says, isn’t about one product being better than another so much as it’s “about what is right for your situation. You need to look at your user community, your collection, and your mission. Every institution needs to come to its own decision.” Finally, McCready cautions that this is a new and rapidly evolving area of the library market, and librarians need to stay abreast of the changes. Metadata is being regularly added to the core indexes, the search engines themselves are being continually tweaked, and relevancy is improving.

Data: still cooking

With only a few months of data to work with, it’s hard to make any conclusive claims about the impact of EDS on use. Certainly usage of digital content is on the rise. But there are other factors that complicate the situation, like the continued expansion in postgraduate online learning. And around the same time they implemented EDS, the liaison librarians also put in place LibGuides, which has proven to be popular.

However, looking at the number of abstracts viewed by searchers in several databases for October through November 2010 is encouraging. In Business Source Premier, 11,000 abstracts were viewed through EBSCOhost and over 32,000 viewed through EDS. With CINAHL, 1400 abstracts were viewed through EBSCOhost and 6500 through EDS. Even with a more niche product like Historical Abstracts, the increase holds: 120 abstracts viewed in EBSCOhost and 800 in EDS.

Would many of these searches have been conducted within ­EBSCOhost if EDS wasn’t available? Hard to say, although with EDS improving the number of abstracts viewed several times over, it would seem that many searchers were finding meaningful results they would never have encountered ­otherwise.

The big picture

In many ways, the energy exhibited by the library users is mirrored in the librarians. They are an engaged lot, not afraid of experimentation. What’s made Liverpool a hotbed of ­creativity?

“I would say it starts right at the top: Phil Sykes,” says Thompson, echoing an opinion shared by her colleagues. “He’s very highly respected, both inside and outside of the university, and that affects the whole culture of the library. And we have a good management team.”

Sykes, who currently chairs Research Libraries UK, is quick to shrug off credit. “I wish I could say it was a management strategy,” he says with a laugh. “But at the same time, we certainly don’t have a blame culture.”

Ironically, in some ways it helps that Liverpool’s libraries were the worse funded in the Russell Group, “so we were used to doing what had to be done on a shoestring,” Sykes explains.

When the library’s funding began to improve in 2004, “we used it to do new things. The deal with the senior university management was that if they gave me extra money, something new and additional would happen. It wouldn’t get absorbed into running costs.”

Discovery services should provide Sykes with “statistic buttressing. It should provide real value for the money and allow us to show that where there is any decline in usage of print books—and there has been very little, actually—it’s more than matched by an upsurge in electronic use.”

Funding for higher education in the UK is undergoing a transformation, as government funding for teaching over the next four years will decline as much as 80 percent and annual student fees (which will range from the U.S. equivalent of $9000 to $14,000) will be phased in. It’s a controversial shift in policy; witness the rioting in London this past fall.

It also means that universities will be setting different fees—the Russell Group will be at the higher end—and vying to attract students.

“So we as libraries need to be delivering a really excellent student experience, which is where Summon and EDS come into play,” Sykes says. “We need to contribute to the overall student experience, so that universities will continue to invest in us.”

The road ahead

Already, some users, including faculty, are reporting that EDS isn’t just making research easier, it’s making it better. This is because discovery searches can expose even experienced searchers to content they might never have stumbled across; this is a boon in fields where interdisciplinary research is increasingly valued.

McCready can also see a day when EDS isn’t just one point of access to the catalog but the front-end for the catalog. “Already EDS relevance ranking is really hot on the heels of the catalog, and it’s starting to get quite good with known item searching.” This means that when a student searches for a book on a reading list, say Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, the book appears near the top of the results list—and not crowded out by all the critical sources.

There also need to be improvements between EDS and the integrated library system. While EDS offers real-time circulation status, it would require the addition of other services, like renewals and reserves. “These should all be possible with APIs [application programming interfaces],” McCready adds.

Over time, McCready can imagine EDS becoming powerful and comprehensive enough that it can provide meaningful results for both the expert searcher and the novice—offering the level of refinement found in specialized databases.

“It would be quite a trick to pull off, but it’s not beyond the realm of possibility. I would hope that the search engine would take the strain, providing extremely meaningful results for a targeted search,” McCready says. “Without, of course, complicating the interface.”

For librarians—trying to balance professional concerns about the quality and appropriateness of content with the need to provide a simple interface—discovery services raise myriad questions. Shouldn’t we be teaching users to find the best possible source? Is this the dumbing down of search? Or are we finally providing users with the search experience they want, confident that through discovery they will locate meaningful results?

We can—and will—continue to debate these questions. But it’s likely that the discovery story will be written by our users, who share few of our concerns.

In a literature searching class for new doctoral students in the humanities, Wolf discusses searching in broad terms, focusing on the need to conduct authoritative literature searches in their dissertation topics. He briefly comes to EDS and asks the dozen or so students if any had tried it. About a third of the room raise their hands.

“What did you think of it?” Wolf asks.

An older gentleman, a historian, raises his hand, and says, “I think it’s absolutely brilliant.”


ljx110202webkenneyside(Original Import)The Red Brick University

The University of Liverpool was founded in 1881, one of England’s six “red brick” universities, or civic universities, along with Manchester and Birmingham. The term red brick was supposedly inspired by the university’s Victoria Building (1892, photo at left, photo ©2011 Rebecca Lupton.)

Today the university has over 18,000 students (about 10,000 undergrads) pursuing more than 400 programs spanning 54 subject areas. Professional schools include a large medical school as well as schools in dentistry, veterinary science, management, and engineering.

In the last decade, the university has launched an ambitious online learning program, including master’s degree courses across health, law, psychology, and especially management, as well as doctorates in education and business administration. Many of the postgraduate programs, and especially the online degrees, attract an international student body—residents of non–European Union countries.

The school has the sixth largest financial endowment of any university in the UK. Increasingly serious about its role as a research center, it’s committed to doubling its £123 million research budget by 2015.


LJ Explores the Big Tools

This is the first in a series of articles coming this spring devoted to new developments in major tools for libraries. Get up to speed on the state of ERMSs in the March 1 issue, delve further into discovery tools with Judy Luther as she explores them in depth in the March 15 issue, and read all about the many trends in ILS development in the April 1 Issue of LJ.

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