The content that a library owns or subscribes to should be discoverable in the way librarians want. However, this is not always the case when it comes to web-scale discovery systems.
Two of the largest competing vendors—EBSCO and ProQuest (the parent of Serials Solutions)—provide both content and a discovery system, but neither helps the other populate the central index that underpins their respective discovery products. As a result, a library may subscribe to EBSCOhost content, for example, but if it chooses Serials Solutions’ Summon or Ex Libris’s Primo as its discovery layer, then the discoverability of that EBSCO content is going to be complicated to some degree.
At the Electronic Resources & Libraries conference held March 17–20 in Austin, TX, web-scale discovery was a big topic. One particularly interesting panel, Truth or Dare: Discovery Systems Secrets Unveiled, moderated by consultant Dan Tonkery of Content Strategies, covered familiar territory and featured some heavy-hitters: Susan Stearns (Ex Libris), John Law (Serials Solutions), Brian Duncan (EBSCO), Roger Schonfeld (ITHAKA S+R), and Amira Aaron (Northeastern University, Boston), the lone librarian. But it was Aaron who garnered the only applause when she articulated the frustration many academic and research librarians feel at the failure of discovery vendors to play nice with one another:
One of the really troubling aspects of the development of discovery systems right now is the fact that the players, the content providers, the aggregators, are not playing with each other’s discovery systems, and my feeling as a librarian is if I’m purchasing metadata or a database or content, if I’m purchasing it or leasing it, I have the right to display it to my patrons in whatever system I choose to display it. [The present situation] is a real detriment, and we are one of those libraries going to [Ex Libris’s] Alma and we will not have an online catalog so this will be our public interface, the discovery system. And if I can’t display content to my users then I may not purchase that content or lease it. I think that the usage stats will go down on that content…. If one provider has a similar database and is providing that to whatever discovery system I choose, then I will be very happy to switch over my leasing of the database to another vendor. I’m looking for everyone to play well. If you care about the user and you care about libraries, then start playing with each other.
Despite frequent conversations about content providers possibly being biased in search results toward their own content, vendors like EBSCO and ProQuest obviously understand that failing to surface relevant third-party content in the first page of results is the best way to guarantee the failure of their discovery product. In a different panel, for example, Liane Taylor of Texas State University–San Marcos described how the library has selected 146 collections to be included in EBSCO Discovery Service (EDS) and 46 percent of those are from EBSCO. Nevertheless, despite this preponderance of EBSCO content, the library consistently sees third-party content, including the catalog, within the first 50 results. For example, a search for “Obama” returned 27 results from the catalog, 22 from ArtStor, and one from EBSCO.
But this catholicity withers when the content is ProQuest’s and vice versa (and this is one of the factors driving the NISO Open Discovery Initiative, which is bringing together many of these stakeholders to devise best practices).
The discovery vendors are providing a crucial service to librarians by presenting them with a robust research tool that goes beyond federated search and offers hope of competing with Google and Google Scholar. There are indications that web-scale discovery is having a significant, positive effect on full-text downloads, as demonstrated at the conference by Alice Eng of the University of North Florida, Jacksonville, an EBSCO customer.
Still, even though the stakes are very high, vendors would do well to pause, look up from their competitive clinch, and ease as best they can the pain point that Aaron and other librarians are experiencing.
Michael Kelley, Editor-in-Chief