Database vs. Database vs. Web-Scale Discovery Service: further thoughts on search failure (or: more clicks than necessary?) (or: info-pushers vs. pedagogical partners)

August 21, 2013, 3:43 pm

Yesterday’s post resonated with people. There seems to be a lot of focus on the importance of the “proper” way to do research—and the proper tools.  That’s how much of our current value is delivered so I completely understand the concern and passion.

Obviously the case I described is just one example and things may be different for you, but in this instance the interfaces we offer were not effective for simple keyword searching.

Here is an example. Forget about limiters, options, date ranges, licensing, access, etc. I know those are important and distinguishing features, but let’s leave those out of the conversation.  Right now I’m interested purely in keyword-based results. Let’s test some algorithms!

Let’s say you’re researching Woodstock and that you need to find articles from the New York Times that were published while the concert what happening. You use a very simple search:

New York Times Woodstock August 17 1969



 Which one works? Which one provides info from August 1969?

Oversimplified? Perhaps. Obviously the library tools offer more powerful capabilities—no denying that. But you have to admit for this particular example they failed to provide (via a basic keyword search) what I needed.

The NYT handles this search perfectly though—and that’s my point. If we think like users (instead of as librarians) it is easy to understand the frustration. Our tools must seem broken or outdated to them— our interfaces can’t even handle a basic search. It’s many more clicks than necessary.

But in all honesty, these two posts are not about databases at all. It is simply about a situation in which a faculty member (library user) asks: this tool doesn’t work for my needs, what else can we do? This isn’t really about to-search-or-not-to search. It’s about the fact that faculty (not just students) are getting fed up with the search tools that we provide and are seeking new solutions. This might be a minority view right now but what happens if this becomes more mainstream? Why can’t EBSCO or ProQuest work like NYT and still have the super searcher options too? Why does it have to be so complicated– all the time?

What I’m trying to document is a shift from being info-pushers or info-providers to pedagogical partners. Are we in the business of promoting library databases or the business of helping users accomplish their tasks? Our current tools are a barrier for this particular course. That is the point I am trying to make. It isn’t an issue of teaching better but about listening better to the needs of our users. In my world, faculty are starting to make a statement: I have info needs and I’m looking for something different than what you currently provide– can you help me or should I go to someone else? Ah, disruption!


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