Oxford University Press's
Academic Insights for the Thinking World

Library discovery: past, present, and future

Librarians have been rising to the challenge of helping users discover content as long as libraries have existed, and evolving discovery solutions are an interesting byproduct of the information dissemination challenges of the time. Before the printing press, medieval libraries were typically geographically isolated with a small number of hand-copied texts. Discovery tools included handwritten omnibus catalogs listing collections from the libraries of other nearby cloisters or monasteries, so the limited number of books could be more widely discoverable. The medieval library itself could also double as a discovery tool via stained glass windows and paintings, which were arranged to correlate with the subjects of the books found around them.

Fast forward several hundred years to the era of the physical card catalog, and handwritten discovery tools were still in use. Library school curricula included training on how to hand-write catalog cards in a special library script before typewriters were widely available. The era of the card catalog lasted more than 150 years—OCLC printed its last catalog cards less than three years ago in 2015. Card catalogs began to cede their role in primary discovery functionality when MARC records started to gain traction in the 1970s. Although MARC still has a stronghold in library workflows, we are now well into the era of web scale discovery services. While it is difficult to determine actual numbers, a 2016 Library Technology Report states, “EBSCO, OCLC, and ProQuest—reported a combined 11,700 libraries using products that rely on their knowledge bases. Ex Libris’s corporate website lists another 5,600 total customers.”

Strong relationships between discovery services and publishers are crucial to facilitate end-user discovery in this content-abundant era, and my role as Discoverability Associate at Oxford University Press is devoted to managing these relationships and ensuring OUP is meeting industry standards for discovery. I have regular conversations to discuss mutual customer questions, new products, and industry trends with discovery vendors including EBSCO, ExLibris, OCLC, and ProQuest. Along with discovery services, content is indexed across a wide range of discovery tools, including academic search engines like Google Scholar and more subject-specific abstracting & indexing services. OUP is also committed to providing high-quality, industry-standard metadata to facilitate discovery and access. A fuller picture of core metadata elements provided, how metadata is delivered to discovery partners, and a list of all discovery partners indexing OUP content is available in the NISO Open Discovery Initiative checklist posted on the Journals and Online Products Librarian Resource Center pages, along with the most current KBART files.

Strong relationships between discovery services and publishers are crucial to facilitate end-user discovery in this content-abundant era…

Before the card catalog was readily available as a library discovery tool, finding titles in the library was often dependent on the memory of the librarian. Unfortunately, this is still the case in many ways. One of the main limitations with current web scale discovery tools is the difficulty tracking institutional holdings in the discovery knowledgebase. This work is typically left to the individual librarians who must manually track different collection packages across all content providers with whom they have agreements.

To begin conversation on how to address this industry need, in 2017 NISO formed a KBART Automation Working Group to expand on the 2014 KBART Phase II recommendations. The group was comprised of industry stakeholders from content provider, discovery service, and library backgrounds, and the output of a year of bi-monthly meetings including an overview of the current landscape, use case examples where automation will solve current problems, and a prototype for automated delivery will be available for public comment in the coming months. It is clear where the industry is heading, and OUP will continue to invest in our KBART capabilities in the years ahead.

It is not surprising that the discovery tools that have risen to prevalence in the Information Age carry with them many of the same challenges inherent to the unprecedented volume of content library users must comb through to discover the information they need. As many have pointed out before, we are still at the beginning of the Information Age. There is a lot of work to be done to make present-day discovery more encompassing and efficient to enable the library user to find the information that they need. If catalog cards can stay relevant for 150 years, KBART and other contemporary discovery tools inevitably face extensive evolution in the years ahead.

Featured image credit: “network-3213667_1280” by geralt. CC0 via Pixabay.

Recent Comments

There are currently no comments.