Monday, July 10, 2006

No more magic bullets

This week OCLC announced, a freely-available site for searching WorldCat data, which will be released in August 2006. Here’s their one-sentence explanation of its purpose:

Where Open WorldCat inserts "Find in a Library" results within regular search engine results, provides a permanent destination page and search box that lets a broader range of people discover the riches of library-held materials cataloged in the WorldCat database.

I’m a huge fan of this addition to the OCLC arsenal. I’m also a fan of Open WorldCat, however. I think these two tools need to work together (and along with many others) to provide the full set of services our users need. Like others, I use various tricks to limit search engine results to Open WorldCat items when I’m looking for basic information about a book I know exists, and, like others, I’ve never seen an Open WorldCat item appear in a Google search result set that wasn’t intentionally limited to Open WorldCat results. While Open WorldCat has its benefits, it can’t be all things to all users.

And there’s the rub: in libraries (and, to be fair, in many other fields as well) we tend to think there’s a magic solution. We just need to be more like Google. Federated searching is the answer. If we had Endeca, like NCSU, everything would be fine. Shelf-ready cataloging will make all of this affordable. Put like this, it sounds absurd. Yet the magic bullet theory drives all too many library decision-making processes. Of course, only by combining these and many other technologies in innovative ways will we make the substantive changes needed in the discovery systems libraries provide to our users. Systems of different scope need different means of presenting search results. A system with a tightly-controlled scope may be able to present search results in a simple list (note: these are few and far between!). The wider the scope of the system, with regards to format, genre, and subject, the more sophisticated we need to get in presenting the search results. Grouping, drilling down, dynamic expanding and refining of results all need to be incorporated into our next-generation systems. Single books in Google results aren’t going to cut it – we need to find ways to represent groups of our materials in aggregated resources.

For many user needs, sophisticated searching options for a specific genre or format of resource are absolutely essential. For others, more generic access to a variety of resources is the appropriate approach. Flexibility is the key, and the data we’re talking about here will never live in a single location. Mashups of data from multiple sources, presented with a variety of interfaces and search systems, can provide the advanced access envisioned here. We need to stop accepting the quick fix; instead, we must broaden our expectations, and move forward evaluating every option as to its place in the grand vision.