Web-Scale Discovery: A Library of Babel?

Web-Scale Discovery: A Library of Babel?

William Breitbach (California State University, USA)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-4666-1821-3.ch038
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Abstract

With significant developments in library discovery systems, many libraries are exploring options for improving access to content. Although these new systems appear to be better than what has come before (federated searching), many problems remain. Libraries therefore should consider a number of interrelated issues/challenges before investing. These challenges include: an information glut, devaluation of metadata, disconnection of content from discourse communities, the notion that libraries compete with Google, and the creation of false expectations for users searching for scholarly content.
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Introduction

When it was first proclaimed that the Library contained all books, the first impression was one of extravagant happiness (Borges, 1962, p. 55).

In Jorge Luis Borges’ famous short story The Library of Babel, a universal library exists where every possible book is located. However, its vastness and lack of organization make the library essentially useless. Because of the continued failure of users to understand the library’s organization, many go mad, commit suicide or become paranoid. Although the author of this chapter does not anticipate such calamity as libraries adopt Web-scale discovery systems (WSDS), there are a wide range of potential problems libraries need to consider before we reach the stage of “extravagant happiness.”

There have been significant developments in WSDS over the past few years. Many libraries have adopted or are considering the adoption of such services. WSDS have great potential, but readers should pursue their adoption with a critical eye. Before investing in these expensive systems, libraries should consider the problems they are trying to solve and whether these systems will solve them. To assist in the evaluation of these systems, a discussion of the following interrelated issues/challenges govern the body of this essay: an information glut, devaluation of metadata, disconnection of content from discourse communities, the notion that libraries compete with Google, and the creation of false expectations for users searching for scholarly content.

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Background

The goal of a single search for all library resources has been around for some time. The first glimpse of the presumed future came with federated searching. However, the poor search performance and poorly designed user interfaces left much to be desired. Moreover, most of the studies on federated searching focused on user satisfaction and perception (for examples, see Armstrong, 2009; Williams, Bonnell, & Stoffel, 2009) rather than student outcomes or performance measures of the systems. A few studies of federated searching did indeed attempt to tackle the more essential issue of task performance. These studies used research scenarios to assess user outcomes by counting the number of documents saved, time saved with federated search, and quality of results (Haya, Nygren, & Widmark, 2006; Belliston, Howland, & Roberts, 2007). However, these studies did not show better task performance with federated searching, begging the question of why libraries would invest in systems that make little to no difference in learning/discovery outcomes?

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