Tuesday, August 20, 2013

On discovery and the issue with content neutrality

At the ALA annual conference in Chicago I attended a public panel session titled “Hiding in Plain Cite: The Growing Importance of Content Neutrality in Library Discovery Services,” organized by Ex Libris and led by Roger Schonfeld from Ithaka S+R. The panellists were Amira Aaron (Northeastern University), Wally Grotophorst (George Mason University Libraries), Lisa O'Hara (University of Manitoba), and Todd Carpenter (NISO).

The panel discussed a burning issue that actually should be a non-issue. Libraries pay a lot of money to different providers for their content (such as books, journals, and articles). Users want to find everything through one user interface. The solution: a discovery system that indexes all the content and is integrated with the library services. Such a solution should be an achievable goal but here is where it becomes problematic.

Lisa O’Hara comments: “I think the biggest issue is that we can’t always include all our resources in our discovery systems.  We started using a discovery system because we wanted everything available to our patrons in one search.  We liked that the search encompassed all the metadata for all our resources so ranking would be done across the entire data set and thus our patrons would find useful results.” And, referring to using an API for remote search instead of indexing the data in a central index, she adds: “We don’t want to go backwards and use an API which creates problems with ranking and display.”

Most libraries buy content from multiple providers. But if these providers also supply a discovery system, there is a potential conflict of interest, especially if their content business is bigger than the discovery side. The problem is very apparent when users do not find relevant information in their institution’s discovery system of choice, because that information is offered by a content provider who also provides a competitive discovery solution. An example is described in Wally Grotophorst’s blog post. Basically, licensed content – paid for by the library – is withheld from competing discovery systems. Carl Grant asks in his blog post:How many Discovery systems does a library need to buy and use, in order to discover the content to which they subscribe?

Institutions have reasons why they choose one discovery system over the other. Usability, access to full text, and integration with library services such as OPAC functionality are important criteria as is the coverage of content in the system’s central index. De-coupling the content and technology businesses means that libraries have control over the way in which content is included, displayed and ranked according to their patrons’ needs.

The NISO Open Discovery Initiative (ODI) addresses the representation of content in discovery services and the interaction between the stakeholders. This initiative targets some of the ambiguities around the format and depth of metadata that publishers sometimes face when providing their data to discovery systems. However, the success of such an initiative largely depends on vendors resolving conflicts between their content and their discovery system business. Libraries are important stakeholders in the discovery domain and they are not powerless. One of the most viable suggestions I heard in the ALA panel discussion was to add clear language to content contracts that requires metadata delivery by the content provider to any discovery system of the library’s choice. At the end of the day everyone will benefit: the content vendor gets the usage they need to maintain and expand their business, libraries renew their contracts, and discovery systems can continue to evolve and focus on the services that libraries and users value.  

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