Life will find a way

I’ve been following Dave White’s Visitors and Residents work for a while as it fits in well with the discussions around identity provisioning that we’ve had endless debates about in REFEDS and Shibboleth circles. I was really pleased to see his latest piece on the Learning Black Market as it highlighted concerns I have had for some time about the way we are presenting resources to students and expecting them to discover and use them.

I know that finding stuff out there on the scary interweb is a hard hard thing, but isn’t part of a student about embracing the wide wide knowledge of the world and navigating an intelligent way through it? I’m fairly certain that scholars in the Library of Alexandria didn’t ask to be directed to a small subset of the vast knowledge contained within and they had much harder job as Google had not digitised the scrolls for them.

What we are now continually doing is instead trying to contain the internet in to chunks of knowledge, which we then wall and say ‘here good, there bad’. We are defining anything not within that area as illegitimate, and as Dave points out in his article any engagement of this becomes the learning black market. As a person who quoted the lyrics from ‘Kill the Beast‘ in Disney’s Beauty and the Beast in her dissertation this worries me.

I think there are 3 main behaviours at fault here: the reading list problem, library discovery services and access via proxies. Dave has covered the influence of the academics on this, I’d like to talk about the influence of the libraries.

Discovery systems are very popular at the moment and they quite frankly bewilder me – why would anyone want to repeat what Google already does so well in an inevitably smaller and contained way? Yes I know all the arguments about ease for users etc. etc., but I remain concerned. I’m often told that statistics show that use of resource x increases tremendously when a discovery service is used, but I think that is a false metric. If a supermarket decides only to sell oranges as the only fruit, sales of oranges will inevitably increase. This doesn’t mean people don’t want to eat apples or pears, it just means it is the only option you were presenting them with. During periods of rationing during World War II sales of delicacies such as Spam also went up. I’m pretty sure this was not because people preferred it to roast beef, but because this was the only sustenance that was being fed to them. As a process it is both spoon-feeding and walling. I’m really hoping that things like the new JISC Collections KB+ work will address ways to look at how libraries can do more to filter information to aid to discovery and not wall it. It’s looking promising, but will face massive cultural change issues to work.

The next problem is proxies – obviously something quite close to my heart! Proxies route all access to paid for resources to again, one walled place and say the best way to access them is to pretend to be somewhere you are not. Again I hear the arguments ‘its easier this way’ but easier for whom? I fear that their use is often about a need to catalogue and maintain links to things rather than facilitate access on the open web, which is more natural user behaviour. If someone tells me that I have to read an article on Fruit Spot on Jamaican Bananas in Transactions of the British Mycological Society, I am far more likely to Google some combination of those words than think – I’ll go and login to my institutional ezproxy!

I’m just wondering what would happen if we put a bit more time and effort in to supporting discovery on the open web rather than trying to wall and contain knowledge as a subset of ‘legitimate’ resources? Things like the recently announced MDUI work from the uk federation could certainly use a bit more support and championing by librarians in particular, and really does significantly improve the discovery process out there in the scary open world. I’m also concerned that legitimate in this context is simply another word for ‘paid for’ – the self perpetuating story that if a lot of institutional money has been spent on a resource effort must be expended to increase use to justify said expense.

When I think about approaches to containing knowledge, I can’t help but think about Jurassic Park. Dr John Hammond wanted to create a safe and managed environment for people to view his dinosaur collections, so he put in place all the walls that he could to make this happen – electric fences, breeding the dinosaurs as all female and breeding them ‘lysine deficient’ so they could not survive without human intervention. All of these precautions fail – the science doesn’t work. As Dr Ian Malcolm so succinctly puts it, in this exchange:

Henry Wu: You’re implying that a group composed entirely of female animals will… breed?
Dr. Ian Malcolm: No, I’m, I’m simply saying that life, uh… finds a way.

5 thoughts on “Life will find a way

  1. Terry Bucknell

    Nicole, I agree that discovery services can tempt libraries into limiting searches to “just the stuff that we’re sure you’ll be able to get full-text access to”. But we’ve chosen not to do that to ours. In our service there is an option for users to impose such a limit once they’ve run a search, but we don’t impose that limit by default. We think a discovery service should help users find the best things out there, and offer seamless access to full-text where that is available.

    I’d hope a user would use our discovery service to search for “Fruit Spot on Jamaican Bananas in Transactions of the British Mycological Society”. The problem with Googling it is that we might have access to it through something that is not indexed by Google. So Google might lead our user to a site where they would have to pay for the article online, or might lead them to conclude that the article (or journal) only exists in print.

    I think authentication is a separate issue from discovery. When our user searches our discovery service for “Fruit Spot on Jamaican Bananas in Transactions of the British Mycological Society” they will be prompted to login with their university account (at our EZproxy server, but they don’t need to worry about the details). Links from our discovery service are also routed via EZproxy, so the user will get seamless access to the full-text.

    Instead we could have configured our discovery service, link resolver etc to use Shibboleth. Again, the user would have to login at the point of search with the same institutional account, and would then get seamless access to full-text.

    Why do we choose to use EZproxy over Shibboleth? Well one key reason is that many more sites offer IP authentication than Shibboleth so we can offer access to almost everything through the same authentication system. That does make life easier for our users, and that means we reduce the number of users who need to ask for help. And you think that’s a bad thing? Often we have to sacrifice what is better in theory with what works more easily in practice at the moment. We need to be pragmatic.

    At the same time we do set up Shibboleth authentication too, so any velociraptors who blunder through our carefully constructed fences can still find their own way to all the delicious herbivores of their choice. We try to cover all the bases.

    Finally, I agree with you that claims of surges in usage following the deployment of a discovery service need a lot more investigating. WHICH resources are seeing growth (and which decline) is indeed the key…

  2. Nicole Harris

    Hi Terry – thanks, that’s a helpful summary. I like the approach you suggest very much as it sounds more like a filtering layer over content and not siloing content, which is my chief concern.

    My primary worry is that students DO google for this information. We can’t just say, ‘that’s not correct behaviour, come over to OUR search engine instead’ – we need to improve discovery through open routes as well…and those of us looking at those challenges could really use some help!

    I’d really like to see some library action championing improving open web search approaches in line with the energy I see put into commercial discovery services.

  3. simonfj

    Hey Nichole,

    Just reading through your posts. Very nice, especially this one thanks. Talking about discovery, I do wish you’d put a link to this blog (and other members) on the & shib front pages. Most of my time is spent, not looking for info, but reading the communications of disciplinary centric groups so I can understand their jargon and parameters of their art. I don’t think I’m much different than most students.

    Rather than spending time talking, can I just say yep, especially to “the pragmatic’ approach and ask some advice. I”m interested in one thing -the development of a lifelong learning account and the services it may enable access to. So my quest begins not in edu instiutions but gov ones. The change in one is affecting the policies (and funding) of the other.

    In Australia we have this approach. (Register!) You’ll understand what is going on behind the scenes better than I. But you’ll see it doesn’t give me what I want, which is an account I can use to access any public institution’s services – some will be (open access) info services, some wll be comms services – and maybe demand/contribute services which don’t yet exist.

    This has been attempted in the past. I just couldn’t get the content people to talk to their network operators. But that’s only because they think from the inside of an institution. And we all know THEY are dinosaurs.

    Re, the surveys. I’ve been pointing a few people at it, both librarians and “users”. But it closes down any discussion about developing a user-centic focus and only talks about services as (static) “repositories” from an (inter-) institutional perspective. There’s no mention of comms services which create media that centers around groups from between institutions.

    My question is this. If all researchers get together online and talk (in disciplinary groups like refed and shib), video conference, & then run F2F conferences where they present papers, which are in turn peer-reviewed (and package by publishers who sell them back to institutions), why do they scatter all the resulting media around institutional repositores (urls)? Why don’t they just ask their librarians for a fixed inter-institutional space which becomes their shared repository? (and online conference point = radio and TV station)

  4. nicole Post author

    Hi Simon

    Thanks for the comments! We are actually looking at launching a refeds blog very soon both with fresh stuff and aggregated posts from refeders who blog…it’s just taking a bit of time to get there. Hopefully coming soon though!


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