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How effective are discovery systems with specialized disciplines?

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I often receive e-mail queries regarding various library automation products or technologies. I recently received the following question about discovery services, which I provide with the permission of its author and my response.

I was hoping that you might be able to answer a few questions for me regarding discovery systems. I am a health sciences librarian who works at a satellite campus of an academic university. We are currently looking into discovery systems and are trying to find one that will accommodate both academic and health science resources, as well as undergraduate and graduate level researchers. However from a health sciences perspective, I have been very disappointed with just about everything we have investigated. In my opinion, the only system that seems to be able to handle more complex medical searches is Summon; however, by simply testing it using demos, it is hard to know exactly what it is doing and how well it works with a particular libraryís holdings. (Shelly Burns, MLIS -- Health Sciences Librarian, Texas Woman's University)

My general view is that this new genre of discovery systems performs better for generalized searching than for specialized disciplines, such as health sciences or legal research. A product such as Summon that you mention, for example, might be great at allowing an undergraduate or non-specialist researcher find materials throughout the library's collections on topics related to medicine, but a medical researcher might not find it quite as satisfying in performing comprehensive literature searching for research or case reviews, and the like.

I think that the discovery systems that rely on large aggregated indexes such as Summon, Primo Central, EBSCO Discovery Service, and WorldCat Local each have a strong representation of articles and other resources in your field, but may lack some of the sophisticated tools for precise searching that you are used to in the native interfaces of specialized products like PubMed. They should help drive increased use of discipline-specific materials by the general university community. Even for experts, the ability to search across all the libraryís resources can be a real time-saver. I suspect, however, that even within universities that have implemented discovery services, many of the researchers in specialized disciplines, such as medicine and law, continue to make extensive use of the native interfaces of the relevant resources.

Overall, I think that the new discovery services greatly improve the way that libraries provide access to their collections. They are well suited for allowing users to find materials across books, articles, digital collections, institutional repositories, and the like. But they arenít quite as effective for deep research and for expert searchers. I think that each of the discovery services will continue to improve in this respect over time as the products mature. In the meantime, itís important to keep a realistic perspective on the relative capabilities of the discovery systems and judge accordingly when to guide users toward the native interfaces of specialized products.

Marshall Breeding Nov 29, 2010 11:58:15 Link to this thread


We use WorldCat Local exclusively for almost all of our searching. There are some databases that don't connect but these tend to be very specialized. We have found that imaginative keyword searching can largely duplicate the limiters found in many full-text databases. I suspect legal materials will continue to be an exception.

Mark Vargas Dec 9, 2010 08:23:45

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