Discovery’s End

Card catalogs, OPACs, and discovery layers are all a means to an end. I currently work with the latter. Although I can’t agree with the level of subterfuge committed by prejudiced librarians unwilling to give them a fair shake (as in, “don’t ever use that search box on the homepage!”), many legitimate criticisms can be levied against discovery layers, particularly regarding how the vendors of these products have put them through a fairly haphazard development cycle, resulting in their understandably slow adoption.

Discovery layers are essentially the F-35 of our profession. We’ve had one for over five years now, and it still seems like we’re in the implementation phase. That said, and as many questions as could be raised over the value and benefits of maintaining such a system, I still feel that it’s undeniably the case of our present technology being, overall and for the average user, better than its predecessor, in terms of convenience, efficiency, accuracy, usability, or however else you would want to measure it.

A time will come when the next generation of library research tools, perhaps with a predictive neural interface and all, provides a more effective method for searching and finding information. Libraries may not even be involved in this process, and that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Compare this to how the universal success of the open access movement would entail that a library’s role as a community buying club become unnecessary.

When you deal with, day in and day out, the at times minutia of intricate configuration settings, not to mention a persistent barrage of end user issues and product defects, it’s easy to lose sight of our true purpose in the information landscape. Libraries are themselves, by and large, a means to an end. When faced with potential improvements over how those means are provided, it can be tempting to value consistency over innovation. Our field has no shortage of practitioners with change-averse mindsets, after all.

Rather than viewing the technologies we work with as requiring a level of quality as if they were built for the ages, we should strive to hasten the demise of the status quo by creating new methods and models for fulfilling our mission. The only way to maintain relevance and have a lasting impact, oddly enough, is by striving to make existing systems obsolete.

It’s going to happen one way or another. As explained by Margaret Gould Stewart, “Because these products are always changing, everything that I’ve designed in my career is pretty much gone, and everything that I will design will fade away.” Given that reality, we can either choose to keep up with current trends in order to provide the best available user experience, or instead maintain the pathosis of insisting how, “they don’t make them like they used to” is some sort of insurmountable problem.

I sure don’t miss Dialog or MetaLib, and experience more dread than nostalgia when I have to retrieve something we only have on microfilm. I certainly hope that librarians in the future will eventually feel the same way about discovery layers. There’s bound to be some missteps along the way, working for a better tomorrow, but it’s worth remembering the words of Elton Trueblood: “A man has made at least a start on discovering the meaning of human life when he plants shade trees under which he knows full well he will never sit.”



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John Hubbard

John Hubbard

Librarian at Washington University in St. Louis