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I Really Wish It Were Easier

Tipping point: reached.

Up until maybe the middle of last year, it was pretty easy not to worry too much about the problems of doing “real” library research on the free web. “The kids are doing it” was a phrase that simultaneously helped us to worry about the state of information literacy in this web-ified era and to dismiss the problem as one that “the kids” would outgrow, like braces or a lisp or chicken pox, as they became better versed in scholarly research practices.

Well, it’s not just the kids any more, folks. Enough journal publishers have opened up their indexing and abstracts to the free web that it’s now possible (especially in some fields) to actually do “real” library research on the web. And so people are doing just that. This year, our new faculty orientation session brought questions about Google-friendly access right to our door-step in a big way, and part of this rather disorganized thread on FriendFeed brought it up again.

And yes, ideally everyone could use one nice, big, easy search mechanism to do everything from the most broad to the most narrow topic and then get instant access to the full text of whatever they find. Too bad that’s impossible.

Google is more familiar and forgiving, it’s faster, and there’s a lot of good stuff in it (particularly if you’re searching for something that hasn’t had any controlled vocabulary assigned to it, yet). But currently, disciplinary databases do a better job of collocating like items based on something more robust than the author’s choice in vocabulary and PageRank. Currently, disciplinary databases do a better job of allowing scholars to leverage their disciplinary vocabulary and a better job of helping novices stumble upon key vocabulary terms. Currently, disciplinary databases are the only things that can offer relief to my students who say that there are just too many false hits in everything from Google to JSTOR (free text search may be what they’re used to, but they’re often relieved to leave it behind as soon as they’re shown controlled vocabulary).

But all that aside, neither option does the “access to full text” piece of the equation very well. Unless your library subscribes to the publisher versions of pretty much every eJournal out there (an expensive proposition) Google can’t actually help you get to whole swaths of full text, and even then you’d have to be on campus or logged in to your library’s proxy server or something. And even if researchers are in a disciplinary database, they’ll still often have to step outside of that database to get the full text, and while a link resolver is a wonderful thing, it’s still a long way from being a perfect solution to this problem. Either way this lands you at the A-Z list figuring out if we have access to the particular issue of the particular journal you want.

I wish it were easier. I wish access issues didn’t make researchers jump to the conclusion that we’re “hiding” stuff from Google, or that we’re being unnecessarily silo-ish, or that indexing is over-rated, or that you have to do “complex” searches in library databases. I also wish that we could bringing together disciplinary databases in ways that allow easy cross-searching without giving up the time-saving specificity of disciplinary focus and vocabulary.

Right now it feels like we’re balanced precariously on that tipping point with a precipice on each side.

7 thoughts on “I Really Wish It Were Easier

  1. You and I both wish it was so. Having to explain to students the intricacies of the link resolver, or why they can’t get that article “off Google” without paying for it is a lot of my existence it seems. It’s not easy, but we persevere.

    Best, and keep on blogging.

  2. Short term: I want to re-design out link resolver interface. Long term: I want to be able to ditch link resolver interfaces altogether. I’ll persevere while smarter people than I figure out how to fix the problem, and not a moment longer.

  3. Iris, I want to re-design our link resolver too, because ours is unbearably ugly and, while usually functional (for values of “usually” substantially less than “100%”), extremely off-putting for our students.

    Care to share notes? One of the frustrations of designing a link-resolver is that you can’t look at what other libraries have done, without having access to their licensed databases.

    Actually, come to think of it, the LSW is the perfect group to ask, “who has a link resolver interface that your students actually like and understand? And can you post screenshots?”

    Hmm. *toddles off to FriendFeed…*

  4. Oh, and also: we’re starting to work with EBSCO to provide direct links in EBSCO databases to full-text content that we have through JSTOR and Project Muse. Since the bulk of our students’ initial searches are in EBSCO databases, this may be a significant improvement over our current setup, but it’s still far from ideal.

    I firmly believe that 10 years from now (maybe as little as 5) we’ll look back at this crazy siloed mess and say, “how the hell did we manage to find anything back then?” Kind of like how we look back at those early modems where you had to put the phone receiver into the audio coupler doohickey…

  5. Catherine, I’d definitely like to compare notes when we start redesigning our SFX menu. I wonder if there should be an SFX menu gallery on the LSW wiki or something…

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