Views from the SCONUL Fringe

June 16, 2012

Views from the

SCONUL fringe

14 June, 2012

It’s a year and a few days since the JISC-funded Discovery initiative launched the Discovery principles. Since then Discovery has been working closely with membership organisations, such as M25, RLUK and SCONUL in the academic library space, to understand how those principles fit with the realities of service management and delivery.

Through two recent workshops involving library leaders from the SCONUL community, we have been able to capture real voices on where we are with Discovery services in academic libraries and the perceived direction of travel. We’ve tried to draw these opinions and insights together in a short paper that is faithful to the opinions of the participants, ‘Making resources more discoverable – a business imperative?’, which was published for the SCONUL conference in Liverpool (June 2012).

This post highlights headlines from that paper that were discussed at the SCONUL Fringe event.

Our thanks go to the library leaders from 31 universities listed here who attended the workshops and to others who we met at the SCONUL Fringe: Anglia Ruskin, Birkbeck, Bournemouth, Bradford, Brunel, Buckingham, City, East Anglia, East London, Edinburgh, Hertfordshire, Kent, Kings College London, Leeds Met, Leicester, Lincoln, LSE, Manchester, Open University, Portsmouth, Royal Holloway, SOAS, Southampton, Stirling, Sussex, Swansea, University of the Creative Arts, West of England, Warwick, Westminster, and Wolverhampton.

The Discovery Problem Space

  • The student and researcher experience is a crucial business focus.
  • Academic libraries have therefore invested recently in ‘Discovery Layer’ products to lift resource discovery beyond the bounds of the local OPAC and to cohere access to resources within and beyond the institution.
  • The Discovery initiative looks ahead of that point. It highlights the imperative for highly flexible services based on open data and cost-effective aggregation, not limited by traditional boundaries between libraries, archives, museums and repositories and potentially extending to domains such as teaching and learning resources and research data.
  • Discovery thinking is very much aligned with a significant “dot gov” response to the data and service challenge at the National Digital conference (May 2012): “ Do Less – Government should only do what government can do. If someone else is doing it – link to it. If we can provide resources (like APIs) that will help other people build things – do that. We should concentrate on the irreducible core.”

So … what is the ‘irreducible core’, not just for the academic library as currently defined but for the institution and the breadth of its scholarly resources?

Discovery is core business, underscored by student facing imperatives

  • User satisfaction is the major driver, so tracking and analysis will be crucial
  • Students and researchers display different discovery patterns and entry points (e.g. Google, reading lists, VLE for students) and what they expect to ‘discover’ varies across levels and subjects, raising the challenge of personalisation
  • Being in sync with global search engines is crucial; Google brings in most traffic to those who have exposed their records
  • However, there is tension between comprehensiveness and the specificity required to enable learning and research and therefore between one stop shop and niche interfaces
  • Our strategy should therefore be that there is “no wrong door”, ensuring that resources are discoverable through the prevalent range of channels; e.g. the local discovery layer, the VLE, Google search and relevant aggregations
  • Consequently current ‘first generation’ discovery layer services need to be placed in perspective – as stepping stones or holding points as we seek more complete solutions, genuinely independent of the vendor LMS and perhaps involving such as full text mining

Possible Game Changers … Surf’s up or Tsunami warning?

  • The large scale take-on of e-books and associated acquisition models present a key opportunity to review discovery services and how they support user workflows
  • The bigger scholarly picture covering repositories and research data management is institutionally challenging and cannot be ignored by libraries
  • Increasing pressures to support cross-institutional collaboration and inter-disciplinary requirements have a bearing on resource discovery and delivery
  • Open access and user generated content have their parts to play – but where does co-creation sit with reputational and quality focus
  • The potential of aggregations (perhaps revisiting such as the National Union Catalogue and the National Digital Library) and other forms of collaboration should be reviewed in the context of emerging discovery models
  • Analytics is expected to grow as an institutional requirement driven by both Effectiveness and Economy – and analysis limited to ‘bought’ resources may fail
  • Linked data or some such tidal wave could change everything, but not so quickly as to negate the former priorities

Strategic Institutional Challenges … Opportunity or Threat?

There are without doubt serious questions to be answered about the curation, discoverability and preservation of a wide range of content of interest to teaching, learning and research, which is often subject special systems and requirements; for example:

  • VLE content – resources are often hidden inside proprietary VLEs
  • Lecture recordings – need to be discoverable, notwithstanding strict controls in some cases
  • Research Data – whether metadata or the data itself, this a hot topic
  • External resources – it may be time for new technological approaches to such challenges

However, whilst we should, like Google, be aspiring to a boundless service, there are significant cultural, professional and operational challenges:

  • Who should define the scope of a library? A question facing any move to redraw service boundaries (e.g. to encompass learning and research content)
  • Do you value your life? The big institutional resource discovery picture is potentially a minefield, apples & oranges, raising both territorial and user perception issues
  • Where should you dedicate available effort to get most return? We operate in a time of austerity
  • Where do you develop and locate the skills to operate in a wider landscape, involving such as research data? Libraries have unique expertise but new skills are crucial – do they fit in the library or elsewhere, such as IT services?
  • How can we benchmark plans and services in this volatile space? There is a dynamic and iterative requirement to develop use cases and associated metrics
  • What about reputation? New boundaries raise the uncontrollable nature of innovation with its potential to tarnish the institutional or library brand

Postscript – There was general agreement that these issues are too ‘big’ to resolve institution by institution … and therefore the community needs to work together (almost certainly with vendors), to identify critical use cases and associated services and skills, to define impact measures and promote analysis methods. Cue RLUK, SCONUL, the JISC Library programme and Discovery partnership …