April 19, 2018

Resolving the Link Resolver Problem | From the Bell Tower

Steven BellLink resolvers have made a huge difference in allowing researchers to get to the full text articles they want. When it works. It’s easy to be critical of most link resolver technology, but the truth is that without this technology, the vast majority of electronic full-text content to which academic libraries subscribe would be far less useful and accessible. We’ve now been using link resolvers for over ten years, and I think it would not be misguided to say that user experience still falls short. That may be because librarians mostly ignore link resolvers, adapting to their idiosyncrasies and learning to live with them. When resolvers fail to do the job, we are annoyed, but we resign ourselves that there is little that can be done other than wondering when the companies that make link resolvers are going to make them work better. You can only imagine what our community members think of them.

A number one complaint

I coordinate my library’s student advisory board, and we always ask them what we could be doing better. From year to year, no matter how the composition of the board changes, there is always a complaint about our link resolver. Students appreciate having access to a vast selection of full-text content, but when our link resolver takes them to an intermediary screen—between the database and content—they find it extremely confusing, presenting them with too many unclear options.

Academic librarians have researched the effectiveness of link resolvers since 2004.  One not-so-surprising finding is that a high percentage of users never make it past that screen. Even if they are able to figure out what that intermediary screen is, there’s no guarantee the links will even do the job and jump to a full-text article. Our student advisors have a simple request. Make it easy to use. They are right. No doubt every company that produces and sells link resolvers to libraries wants this too. I suspect that making it simple involves some complexity, otherwise we would already see the results. Is there any hope that link resolvers will ever get better?

A Bad Experience

Like most librarians, I generally ignore link resolvers and just curse them when they lead me on in hope of getting to the full text I want. When it becomes obvious that the link information is not going to work I feel like Charlie Brown right after Lucy pulls away the football before I can kick it. So close but yet so far. In 2009 OCLC issued a report titled “Online Catalogs: What Users and Librarians Want.” On page 43 a chart indicates that the number one thing users say they want are more links to online full-text content. In the executive summary it states “The end user’s experience of the delivery of wanted items is as important, if not more important, than his or her discovery experience.” No matter how wonderfully we may enhance the search piece, if we are unable to get the user to the desired item—most often full text—the entire search, including the discovery portion, will leave the user disappointed. That’s the crux of the problem. Do we have a solution?

Assessing the Problem

After reading two blogs posts by Eddie Neuwirth, Senior Product Manager of Discovery Services at Proquest, I am at least reassured that someone working for a company that makes a link resolver is looking for that solution. In part one of a two-part post titled “Focusing on Discovery and Delivery” Neuwirth acknowledges that link resolvers fail up to 30% of the time, and reveals, as I have learned firsthand, that “linking issues are still the most frequent complaint of library end-users.”

Here’s what I think needs to happen: First, eliminate intermediary screens and get people right to the full-text. If multiple sources are available, allow the technology to pick the one that actually works. Second, if the link does fail, take the user right back to the point of origin. Don’t leave them in some no man’s land wondering what they are supposed to do next. Third, meet user expectations for a seamless, intuitive discovery and delivery experience. In part two Neuwirth offers a rundown of the multiple reasons why link resolvers fail. Even if the technology worked flawlessly, the challenge of updating links to work for thousands of constantly changing databases is daunting. Neuwirth ends part two with a ray of hope. Enhancements are coming that will eliminate the most common barriers in using link resolvers. I am eagerly anticipating the announcement.

Bad Links Equal Less Users

While he may slightly overstate the case, I think Neuwirth makes a good point when he reflects on what’s really at stake when link resolvers fail. As academic librarians we may find it annoying and possibly even embarrassing when these links don’t do their job (“Gosh, they almost always work”). For a hurried, stressed community member it could lead to total “I’m not doing this again” frustration with the academic library. Our students and faculty members already start their research with non-library, free Internet resources. Do we really need to give them any more reasons to forget about the library altogether? I’m hoping we will see some improvements soon that make using link resolvers more intutive. Losing those intermediary landing pages would be a great start. Eliminating the kinks that cause links to fail would be an even better finish. Until then, it looks like another fall semester explaining link resolvers to community members.

Steven Bell About Steven Bell

Steven Bell, Associate University Librarian, Temple University, Philadelphia, PA, is the current vice president/president-elect of ACRL. For more from Steven visit his blogs, Kept-Up Academic Librarian, ACRLog and Designing Better Libraries or visit his website.

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  1. Rob Cagna says:

    Steven, you wrote an excellent article. There is light at the end of the tunnel. Thanks much.