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Defining Institutional Boundaries

Academic library systems, such as ILS, proxy, and content management system like LibGuides, are typically selected, managed, and organized on an institutional basis. Even when systems are increasingly cloud-based or hosted elsewhere, there is an institutional logic inherent in them. There are often good reasons for this logic, but I would like to use the example of discovery to raise questions about where this approach is effective and where it poses limitations.

Thinking about the researcher’s discovery starting point, library systems are organized on an institutional basis. Google stays the same when a graduate student moves to another university to takes a faculty job, for example, but the library discovery service changes, definitely in terms of branding but frequently in terms of underlying platform and functionality. Today, wanting to have a single usable inbox and looking ahead to their graduation, many students forward their campus email address to their personal Gmail account. Not wanting to learn a new discovery service upon changing institutional affiliations would be a reasonable rationale for researchers to lean more heavily on Google and Google Scholar than they otherwise might. I believe this has been one of the challenges that libraries face as they have attempted to compete for the discovery starting point role.

Our current crop of library discovery services are all designed around the concept of a single index shared across numerous libraries. What, then, are the advantages of forcing the researcher to navigate to the library homepage in order to use the service box that it provides? Today, so much of the education in how to use the library in grade school, or in one’s public library, is lost once one arrives at college, or makes other similar transition in institutional affiliation. While many library directors express an interest in drawing users to their homepage, would libraries be better off steering researchers to one or a small number of community-managed starting points that could retain their affinity even after they change institutional identity? Today individual libraries wish to customize their discovery experience by controlling the content that can be discovered or how outbound linking operates, but these customizations, even to the extent they are valuable, could be implemented through user accounts at a common starting point.

In this example, choices about brand identity and system design are interlinked, in tension between local identity and community needs. We design systems intended to steer more users to the library homepage – to what end?

Comments on: Defining Institutional Boundaries

  1. In a world without paywalls, this would all be very reasonable. (I often question why we try to compete with Google Scholar if we assume discovery is a different thing than proper disciplinary research.) In the world we must deal with, the library system is a giant list of stuff we’ve paid for on behalf of our researchers. How else would researchers know what their library (thinks) it has paid for? These inventories are imperfect on both sides (I believe they are more frequently incorrect on the publisher side, but that’s my bias) — but they are better than simply clicking through results until a subscribed title or issue is found – on the right platform. We also might want researchers to use a different approach than tf*idf / “Google knows best” and approaches like discipline-specific, intellectual indexing are not free or particularly well-implemented in (most) discovery services. If we don’t think there’s value in this type of research – or can’t demonstrate to our patrons that there is – then your argument becomes stronger still.

  2. In addition to the large technical problems of cross-access platforms plus the Principle of Least Effort is the problem of funding. If a simpler, stable, and more broadly accessible platform could be created and used, who would pay for that? I ask this as an academic librarian in the state of Louisiana, where the public services budget is plagued by ideology and incompetence.

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