The Best Habit is Being Adaptive

John Hubbard
5 min readAug 28, 2022

“We’re all living in a prequel.”
—Tony Gilroy

A library discovery layer, in concept and execution, is many things to many people. It presents integrated results from a variety of sources, publication types, and material formats. These are complicated systems, with more moving parts than can usually all be running error-free at any given time. Their reliance on post-search limits, along with a fuzzy interpretation of search terms, also make for a fundamentally different experience than using previous generations of library catalog systems.

In this regard, discovery layers constitute a bigger paradigm shift than when we ditched the card catalog. Early OPACs didn’t do a whole lot more than replicate the methods employed when using a physical index. Discovery layers can’t go out of their way to preserve continuity with the past in this fashion. Nor should they. All in all, as long as you don’t fight them, they simply do a better job.

Long story short, a discovery layer works more like a general-purpose search engine than does its predecessors. Convoluted, bad faith arguments aside, this makes it on average more accessible and usable than an OPAC. Which is a good thing, of course. We owe it to our descendants to prioritize evolution over tradition. Future generations shouldn’t have to face the same obstacles that we do, after all.

Even so, it’s messy. And librarians just don’t do messy very well. The main index behind my library’s discovery layer (Primo) contains upwards of five billion records. If I started spot checking them right now, spending a few minutes on each one, it would take me over two hundred years to finish. With previous systems, we updated software clients on the order of once every few years. Primo has quarterly product updates.

“Nothing endures but change.”

My point is that there are always going to be a few bad records, bad links, you name it, in Primo. As the product is continually upgraded, many of its more experimental features are likewise a little rough around the edges. It’s a work in progress. Primo’s development path has been filled with the kind of partial and incremental successes that most of us have a tendency to undervalue.

Primo breaks down silos, although it’s definitely not “one size fits all.” If you need to obtain results by chemical reactant, docket number, SEC code, etc., a discovery layer ain’t gonna cut it. Still, you don’t always have to search a thousand different databases anymore. This is obviously appealing, at least to non-librarians. It’s also capable of reducing many of the inefficient workarounds necessitated by using systems that predate the existence of electronic collections.

There are a bunch of variables in play here, and it’s easy to get hung up on nitpicking the imperfections with newer technologies, but to me the gist of the issue is this: discovery layers are nothing more than an improved means to an end. Considering how all these tools of the trade are incidental, making such revisions to the way we do things therefore shouldn’t be a controversial goal—even if it does hasten the demise of established yet inferior methods in the process. Ignoring those opportunities is a surefire path to becoming obsolete. Oddly enough, I think there’s a fear of obsolescence in play as to why some librarians carry an artificial reverence for historical practices.

I recently dropped off my daughter to start her first year at college. As any parent who’s been through this can tell you, it’s a distressing experience. My own concerns are secondary, however, compared to the greater benefits for my daughter of going to college. I can’t be unwilling to withstand some collateral emotional damage for mostly selfish reasons. Similarly, we shouldn’t seek out meaning in our lives by focusing on what are largely irrelevant aspects of things which are subordinate to their true purpose.

“You’ll get used to it. Or you’ll have a psychotic episode.”
Men in Black

Not everyone in my profession is so enamored by or even accepting of the advances that discovery layers represent. In my mind, their behavior is analogous to how some contemptuous gasoline-powered truck drivers have taken to deliberately blocking electric car charging stations.

Case in point: I work in a library, believe it or not, with an OPAC as the default search form on its homepage. I am not responsible, as you might guess, for influencing other people’s attitudes within the organization about this choice. At some point, as we’re already one of the last research libraries in the country with such a set-up, it will have to change.

A lot of the work I’m doing now is configuring our Primo instance to work, as well as it can, with this OPAC. I look forward to most of what that effort has and will produce becoming unnecessary, thanks to our eventual migration to a new system. In a larger sense, everything I do will one day be upgraded and inevitably replaced.

It’s important to cope with this reality in a way that doesn’t sabotage our progress. As rough as it seems on the surface to acknowledge that we’re all here on borrowed time, it doesn’t diminish the lasting reverberations from the choices we make, particularly about moving forward. We can quibble over the details, but just imagine how stagnant the human condition would be if those participants voicing an attitude of, “that’s not the way it used to work” weren’t occasionally overruled.

Further Reading

John Hubbard

Librarian at Washington University in St. Louis