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Christina's LIS Rant
Friday, December 17, 2004
  The dumbing down of the library tools
While others seem to be celebrating the googlizing of the OPACs and databases, I have some strong reservations.

According to the database providers, end users want to find a box wherever they are (in e-mail, in word processing software, on the desktop, in a browser), put in a maximum of two words and have exactly what they need from all collections of information (the web, ejournals, books, etc.). CSA's upcoming release is a step in that direction, but what you get is more like mystery meat than the best answers from the correct source selected for you. Slight disclaimer here: it's not actually been demonstrated for me, these are my observations from playing around. For the trial it starts you on the easy search. We have the choice of subject areas: "Natural Sciences" or "Technology." Hmm. Those are real specific. It's yet another click to select which database you want.

Let's try a real world search. hypersonic AND isolator*. I know that this is in A&HT. 0 results under technology. 0 results under natural sciences -- wait , wait -- don't tell me that oceanic abstracts is the default database for technology?! Ok, I get 22 results when I select A&HT (and I get 17 in the old interface?).... ok, so now I got out of the database and got back in and now "technology" gives me the same 22? Operator error? Don't get me wrong, once you get the results the suggested terms are really cool. I also like being able to add them to the search with either AND or OR.

We also were just shown the Jan 2005 release of EV2/Compendex and it has a new easy search, too. With EV2 the library can decide what search screen the users will start with so tentatively we can just ignore the easy search like we do with Ebsco. This might be the case with the CSA product- I don't know. Another potential difference is that EV2 recommends limiters based on your search. I can see a customer actually using this as a shortcut instead of playing with the thesaurus. In general, though, my customers are very savvy information consumers and I don't think it's fair to assume they can't grasp more complicated search screens.

That really sums up my problem: web searches get hundreds of thousands of results and we know that users will seldom go past the first page or so of results. When databases have just this one block-every field in the database search and then sort by relevance... what confidence do we have that the user will find anything of interest? What if it sorts by date? You might have something completely bizarre come up first. What if you're an electronics engineer searching in the CSA easy search for "translator" and all you get are things from the polisci and literature databases when all you wanted were frequency converters! Do you call the library or just assume that there's nothing there for you? (and then go around grumbling about how the library doesn't serve engineers).

Ok, so what's my point? In a research setting like a university or research lab, offering the easy search might be attractive, but doesn't in the end serve the customers well. They will be tempted to use it and will not get the best results out of the databases. IMHO.
 
Comments:
Not to sound like a plant for CSA or anything, but my library recently had training/demo for the new Illumina product. I enjoy command line searching just as much as the next librarian, but the old interface left a lot to be desired. We were specifically told that the trial only included a backfile of 5 years which may/may not account for the results weirdness experience. I think that was to be rectified sometime this week when the admin module went live. You can do boolean at the simple search screen and yes the advanced screen is no longer the first thing you see but it is still there in all it's glory and seems to be streamlined both in look and functionality. The searching codes are still the same (DE,AU, etc.) I'll still guide users toward the advanced search (and continue to use command line searching personally), but I think the first screen will probably be a little less daunting to beginning college users which is a good thing. Just my two cents.

Beatrice Pulliam
Reference Librarian & Assistant Professor
Providence College
 
One of the new features that we'll be introducing with the Easy Search (beta) option is faceted searching. I'll be very glad to provide you a user/pass for EV2 to see our implementation and get your feedback.

Regards

Rafael Sidi
VP, Publishing, Engineering
+1 201 356 6845
www.engineeringvillage2.org
www.ei.org
 
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This is my blog on library and information science. I'm into Sci/Tech libraries, special libraries, personal information management, sci/tech scholarly comms.... My name is Christina Pikas and I'm a librarian in a physics, astronomy, math, computer science, and engineering library. I'm also a doctoral student at Maryland. Any opinions expressed here are strictly my own and do not necessarily reflect those of my employer or CLIS. You may reach me via e-mail at cpikas {at} gmail {dot} com.

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Christina Kirk Pikas

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