April 19, 2018

Redefining What Discovery Means | Peer to Peer Review

Barbara FisterA recent Ithaka report by Roger Schonfeld asks, “Does Discovery Still Happen in the Library?” My immediate thought was, “Did it ever?” quickly followed by, “Why do we assume it should?”

Once upon a time, in a pre-Internet era, libraries were seen as more central to searching for information than they are today, because back then information was scarce. Even so, discovery (which Schonfeld defines as “the process and infrastructure required for a user to find an appropriate item”) was only sometimes facilitated by the library. A large part of discovery for scholars and students—arguably the majority of discovery—was accomplished through recommendations that came mostly in the form of references within the literature, a discovery strategy that librarians then and now frequently overlook.

Stephen Stoan pointed out way back in 1984 that scholars didn’t typically find “appropriate items” using library infrastructure: catalogs, indexes, and abstracts. Instead, scholars used the citation network, recommendations from fellow scholars, their own libraries and files, and other nonlibrary avenues such as the exhibits hall of their annual conference, where it was easier to discover new scholarly books in their field than any other place. (Today, you can easily purchase those books from Amazon, if you know they exist, but discoverability is still not great.) He argued that our methods for teaching students discovery were flawed because they described a process of tool use that bore little relationship to how people actually do research. In particular he chided librarians for overlooking the powerful way in which the literature indexes itself through citations. He also argued that for a beginner, getting a recommendation from an expert for a good place to start (a solid book with a good bibliography) was a better entry point than the library’s less discriminate tools that provided stuff but no context or relevance ranking.

The library was often the place you went to get your hands on the thing you had already found out about elsewhere. Searching the subject headings in a catalog or mining a specialized abstract or taking a call number into the stacks and browsing were also methods of discovery, but even before Google, before Amazon, before having Wikipedia in our pockets at all times, the library’s discovery tools were supplementary, not the only way discovery happened. Schonfeld acknowledges the historical importance of peer networks but believes the library’s previous importance as a place where people could explore and locate known items is being supplanted by online discovery not mediated by the library, and for some that loss of “market share” causes anxiety.

Schonfeld makes the point that when we talk about discovery, we need to bear in mind that the process a first-year student learning the ropes might use is very different from what her teacher does when conducting research. The process for a chemist is very different from a historian’s. What a community college needs is different from what a research university or a residential liberal arts college or a master’s-level state university needs. One discovery solution won’t serve all of these different searchers in different settings, though the narrow range of products tends to be one-size-fits-all.

He also points out a glaring gap in how we conceptualize discovery, a bias that our old information literacy standards betrayed in its first incarnation. It was assumed that research started by “determining an information need.” That may be the case for a student faced with an assignment. What do I need? Five scholarly sources. Search, choose, boom—I’m done. But that’s certainly not how scholars approach research. Discovery is more personal, and its time frame is lengthy. If our tools and instruction are based on the notion that we should be like Google, or as close to it as we can be, we’re using the wrong definition of “discovery.”

The knowledge base that scholars and others draw on is a combination of encountering information that sparks ideas and developing and continually scanning information channels to see what’s new. A literature review, if systematic, can help evaluate whether research is novel and what a new idea will contribute. We could learn more about how encountering and scanning are part of discovery and see whether the library could do more to promote interesting information encounters and individualized channel-surfing. We don’t understand terribly well what triggers the recognition that “oh, that’s perfect!” or how to make it easier to follow leads from one source to another, which many of our discovery systems actually make bizarrely difficult. We could reconsider, as Schonfeld suggests, whether the investments we are making in the latest discovery technologies are the best use of our resources.

Discovery never was exclusively a library responsibility, and there’s no reason why it should be today. Our investments might be better spent supporting open access efforts, turning the library inside out (in Lorcan Demsey’s evocative phrase, meaning making more of our unique material available to the world), and helping students learn how to discover in ways that aren’t tied to specific library websites and its licensed databases. We could even redirect some of our time to studying how discovery actually happens and designing ways to make those processes easier and better—and helping students and faculty create their own best practices and personalized discovery environments.

The new information literacy framework makes an effort to redefine what it means to be information literate by focusing on seeing the context within which knowledge is created and shared, as well as understanding how authority is constructed and why making good choices is such an important part of the process (and more complex than evaluating a source with a checklist, like a shopper making a consumer choice). The spirit of the framework seems to take to heart that discovery is greatly influenced by developing habits that predispose us to be inquisitive and help us navigate a world of information that doesn’t necessarily begin and end with the library. As Sloan pointed out in 1984, discovery isn’t really a technology, an algorithm, or a set of tools, and it certainly isn’t something that the library does. It’s a combination of developing personal curiosity and opportunities to join conversations being held by communities exploring the world in a variety of ways. Can librarians help with that? I would argue that’s one of our most important jobs.

Barbara Fister About Barbara Fister

Barbara Fister is a librarian at Gustavus Adolphus College, St. Peter, MN, a contributor to ACRLog, and an author of crime fiction. Her latest mystery, Through the Cracks (see review), was published in 2010 by Minotaur Books.
Photo by Debora Miller

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  1. This is spot-on, thanks for writing! I am always wary when I hear people reminisce about pre-internet days and the serendipity of going to the stacks and stumbling across great works they hadn’t known about. That might happen in the very early stages of research (or if you’re bumbling around in between projects), but if you conducted your academic research by wandering mindlessly around your call numbers you’d probably be considered crazy. So yes, I agree that there is a false notion these days that users in libraries are losing the act of discovery. During reference question sessions I always try to mention that finding current research specific to the topic at hand will be the greatest tool towards finding additional research.