A Decade of Discovery

John Hubbard
5 min readApr 11, 2022
Tripiṭaka Koreana, a library of woodblocks in South Korea, founded in the 1200s

“I know you’ve taken it in the teeth out there, but the first guy through the wall, he always gets bloody. Always. It’s the threat of not just the way of doing business, but in their minds it’s threatening the game. But really what it’s threatening is their livelihoods, it’s threatening their jobs, it’s threatening the way that they do things. And every time that happens, whether it’s the government or a way of doing business or whatever it is, the people who are holding the reins, or have their hands on the switch, they go bat-shit crazy. I mean, anybody who’s not tearing their team down right now and rebuilding it using your model, they’re dinosaurs.”
—John W. Henry, owner of the Boston Red Sox, in

Not quite ten years ago, the library I was working at (and still am) began its implementation of Primo, a new-fangled web-scale resource discovery layer. This was a good half-decade since other pioneering institutions had already launched the service, mind you. All these years later, we are continuing to embrace the beta, whether we want to or not. If you told me then that the April 2022 quarterly update to what by now would be a 15-year old product will break all of our interlibrary loan links (repeatedly, causing the release notes to read like the Holy Grail intro), I’m not sure I’d have believed you.

Yet as optimistic as I was at the time about the new system, I learned right from the get go that it sure isn’t without fault. Our consortial set-up was new territory for the vendor, and this caused a substantial delay in our already protracted go-live calendar. Meanwhile, the internal issue tracker we use is at present up to literally thousands of problems logged.

When we finally pulled the plug on our traditional catalog in 2015, I penned a short piece—which remains one of my favorites—titled “Let’s Not Call the Whole Thing Off: Coping with Imperfection in the Library World.” Betsy Friesen, a colleague in neighboring Minnesota, where they had already made the transition, wrote me to say, “Keep this handy as you may need to bring it back out in a year.”

To this day, there are indeed major imperfections remaining in Primo. Aside from there being plenty of bugs, there are several missing and oddly configured features which, to state it formally, negatively impact the user experience. Library discovery layers have also proven not to be immune to the specter of algorithmic bias. Errors with linked data are becoming more prevalent. The relevancy ranking ain’t always the best. And continued user confusion over the index’s records for items in different formats has caused me to reconsider my stance on presenting “bento box” results, which is something Primo doesn’t yet offer.

A pair of interface upgrades, one focusing on the front-end skin and the other on the back-end administration side of things, have been rocky but also brought overall improvements. That’s really what it’s about to me: warts and all, discovery layers, although they’re not quite always the best tool for the job, have in general improved the research process. I can’t imagine still using an OPAC. Compared to what a properly-configured discovery layer offers, that is undeniably hostile to the average library patron nowadays.

During the Covid lockdown, I bundled up some of my writings into a book. That essay I mentioned earlier is the first entry. The last one is “Discovery’s End,” another brief post about how we should always be looking for better ways of doing things, without being unduly tied to particular methods. Change requires change. We’re always, at least potentially, at a crossroads.

A former coworker of mine infamously approved the purchase of a $70,000 database based on a request from a single faculty member. My point in sharing this is that making practical, data-driven decisions doesn’t always come easy in our profession. Accepting novel ideas is likewise challenging for many a librarian. We see that in the field’s slow adoption of new technologies, and a disrespect, frankly, for the people who work with them. As a librarian dealing with web and discovery services, I’ve encountered a good deal of resistance over the years to the evolving ways in which we do things.

These types of services have, in libraries, or at least where I find myself, a rather muddled designation of authority and responsibility, doubly so in a consortial environment. I mean, it seems downright silly to think about someone using Windows XP in this day and age, but do me a favor and dig out your org chart from ten or fifteen years ago, and see how much of it has actually transformed in the light of all we’ve been through. Discovery layers, institutional repositories, virtual reference, digitization, and even web services as a whole still seem to be an afterthought in many institutional hierarchies.

Maybe that’s why, even more than its persistent flaws, I’ve found supporting a discovery layer to be such a humbling experience. I work at a large research library as the technical lead on several of its core functions: managing our website, LibGuides, LibAnswers, and room reservations sites, setting up our databases, Primo, and remote authentication system, and so on. Those sorts of things. That’s me. Now obviously, I’m not a one person show; reference, cataloging, and access services librarians do what they do. We also have a half-dozen full-time staff working in our renowned map collection. And they too do work, of course, but let’s just say, from where I stand, whether or not this is a proper allocation of labor remains an open question.

Further Reading

John Hubbard

Librarian at Washington University in St. Louis