Stop Thinking So Much Like a Damn Librarian (or how I started liking discovery layers)

Search@UW

My library just implemented a discovery layer – Primo from Ex Libris (branded as Search@UW since most campuses in the University of Wisconsin System are using it) – to combine catalog records, plus articles and other resources from our databases. Frankly, I wasn’t excited about it at first. It had nothing to do with the product itself. It just seemed like we were getting something that we weren’t asking for.

As an instruction librarian, I approach things from a pedagogical standpoint: How will students use it? What will it do for them? I ask a lot of “what ifs.”

While the discovery layer was being tested, I happened to be teaching a semester-long senior-level information science class. As one of our projects, we did some usability testing on Primo. Guess what? The students loved the discovery layer.

We compared finding information it in versus searching the online catalog and databases separately. The discovery layer won hands down in terms of speed and ease of use. My biggest worry: “Were students finding relevant information?” was assuaged.

And this is when I had to teach myself to STOP THINKING SO MUCH LIKE A DAMN LIBRARIAN!

The discovery layer makes perfect sense to students:

  • A seamless experience for finding information.
  • A simple search interface, a la Google.
  • Start with a broad search and then narrow it to particular types of items (books, articles, etc.).
  • An element of exploration.

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Don’t Box Me In!

Silo-ing information – which libraries are REALLY good at (…and which is NOT a compliment by the way) – does not make sense to students. A catalog to search for books? The databases to search for articles? It’s a holdover from the olden days of libraries: “real” card catalogs with endless drawers of records to locate books in the stacks, and volume after volume of print indexes to find articles in a periodical.

While we were testing the discovery layer, there were a few things I didn’t like. Case in point: In our “old” catalog, I had a drop down box to limit my searching to our Reference Collection. The discovery layer did not have that option from the main menu. But there I went again: thinking like a librarian! Stop. Examine what your users need to do with the tool at hand. Do my students need an option on the main menu to search for reference books? The answer is a resounding NO! Searching for reference books is simply NOT a priority. It’s OK to re-evaluate those sacred cows.

At the same time, I recognize that if you’re doing heavy duty research in a particular subject area, then a subject-specific database is your best bet. So, I created a guide for students: What Tool Should I Use to Find Information? to direct them to the appropriate tools.

Permanent Beta is OK

We rolled out our discovery layer in a not-quite-perfected state. Each class and group I’ve shown it to has loved it. Librarians get too pre-occupied with perfecting everything before rolling it out. This causes delays for your users and dwindling interest as well. Seize your patrons’ needs and desires and then deliver in a timely manner. Get feedback, re-tool, adapt, and grow from there.

The User is #1

So I came around on the discovery layer. While I always like to think I have my patrons’ needs in mind, you really need to step out of those librarian loafers and examine them. There are services that patrons would like, and probably some that they couldn’t even imagine. Harness this information and then deliver it for your patrons.