Archives for posts with tag: federated search

Thus far we’ve tried to explain the general idea behind modern resource discovery products like Summon, as well as why we chose Summon here at City. But what benefits does Summon bring to library users, above and beyond the various ways of finding information already available?

The answer to the question above lies in my use of the phrase “various ways of finding information” above. The problem for library users is that, up until recently, there was no way of searching across everything the library provides access to. “Everything the library provides” in this context can include (but is not limited to):

  • The contents of the library catalogue (hard copy books of course, but also potentially all sorts of other media e.g. musical scores, theses, DVDs, LPs, CDs etc. etc.) 
  • Journal articles
  • E-books
  • Abstracting & Indexing databases (e.g. Scopus, Web of Science)
  • The contents of the institutional repository
  • Archives catalogues
  • Databases of newspaper articles

Summon tries to solve this problem by building a single index of the library’s holding, and then crucially allowing library users to search across that index in a single place. So, instead of having to first go to the library catalogue to find books, e-books and e-journals at the title level then (say) Scopus to find individual articles, then (say) to the Archives Catalogue to find relevant archival material, users can run a single search that will find relevant material from all these sources of information.

Furthermore, Summon is set up to provide good results from the prevalent “Google search style”. The idea here is that (for better or worse) users are used to searching Google by plugging in a few key words then hitting go and seeing what comes up, then modifying the search to refine the results. This is certainly the way I search when I use web search engines, at any rate, and studies have shown that this is how the so-called Google Generation goes about things too! Summon’s relevance ranking and the ability to “facet” your search results are crucial here, and we will write more on this at a later date once we’ve had a chance to analyse it further.

So there are in our view two main advantages to Summon:

  1. Search in one place for everything; get useful results back.
  2. Use simple keyword searches as you are used to doing with web search engines; get useful results back.

Of course, in reality it’s arguably not as unproblematic as we have perhaps made things seem. In particular, when we say “search everything”, does Summon really allow us to search “everything”? Or is it actually some sub-set of “everything”? And is simple keyword searching actually the best way of finding scholarly material? And given the simplicity of searching for material using Summon, what then for users’ information literacy? These are all questions that bear further examination, and we will look at them (as well as some other perceived weaknesses with web-scale discovery) in later posts.

The library has recently chosen to implement the Summon web-scale discovery service. In this first blog I’ll talk about what Summon is and a bit of the history behind its creation.

One of the problems libraries have been trying to solve for some time is how to make it easier for their users to find information. A university library will usually subscribe to a large number of web based resources including  reference databases, abstract and indexing resources, journal bundles and individual e-journals and ebooks. This provides library members with an enormous wealth of information but the sheer number of resources can make the task of finding information incredibly confusing. Where do they start looking?

The first technology created to try and solve this problem was federated (or broadcast) search. A federated search builds connectors to each individual database the library subscribes to and will simultaneously search every database and return results. In theory this sounded great, exactly what we needed. Unfortunately the reality of federated search products did not live up to expectations. Problems with federated searching are well documented. These include slow response times from databases; lack of relevancy of results; clunky interfaces; results are not interfiled, so to view results from all databases search you need to scroll through several pages; the need for constant maintenance to fix broken connectors- I could go on.

In 2009 Serials Solutions decided to try a different approach to this problem and started work on Summon. Instead of using broadcast search to send your search to multiple different databases then try to make sense of the results returned, they decided to pre-index as much information as they could and build one huge central index containing fully indexed articles, abstracts, ebooks etc. This approach has a number of advantages. Searching is much faster. It allows for much better relevance ranking. Summon knows what subscriptions your library has so it can return only results which will result in the full text.

Does Summon deliver on this promise? It certainly has some enthusiastic supporters. We will soon be able to put it to the test.