2014: Discoverability: New Methods (and Experiences) of Scholarly “Wild Surmise”

8:30 to 9:45 a.m. on January 12, 2014 in Parlor C, Sheraton Chicago

Discoverability is something’s (for example, the text of letter to Hawthorne) or someone’s (for example, you) vulnerability to being known to someone or something else. All things are potentially vulnerable to discovery. What is needed to exploit this fact are the will to know, the right tools, and, not least of all, sufficient resources.

Libraries and archives have long been in the business of fashioning discovery tools of one kind or another to make their collections vulnerable to discovery. Indeed, a library is one big discovery tool composed of many other discovery tools, as, for example, the catalog. Without some kind of catalog or classification scheme, the knowledge contained in a million books or manuscripts is essentially invulnerable to discovery. We even use these tools–and perhaps best use them–when we are least aware of them. For instance, people often comment that they have made their best discoveries in libraries, serendipitously browsing the shelves. This is doubtless true. Yet what feels like random browsing is the creative use of a discovery tool. The shelf classification system is a works of the bibliographic imagination, grouping similar materials together and, in doing so, making them vulnerable, susceptible, accessible to a browser’s attention.

Access to materials is a key concept–perhaps the key concept–of librarianship. Access encompasses the mundane (building hours) to the arcane (the ins and outs of Unix administration). Discoverability of materials is one of the key ways of providing that access. How does a library or archive make an item in its collections available to, susceptible to discovery? The concept really spans spectrum of user tasks, “find, identify, select, obtain,” associated with the “functional requirements for bibliographic records (FRBR) which now shape catalogs. That access is dependent on a full complement of back-end descriptive tasks, including cataloging, classification, indexing etc. The success of libraries at creating the conditions for discoverability is undeniable. Every new book published with the aid of a library or archive is a testament to this.

Libraries and their discovery tools are necessary and useful, but not perfect. The sometimes conflicting idiosyncrasies (different schemes, indexing weights, fullness of access points) of discovery tools themselves can actually make materials less easy to access and, so, vulnerable not to discovery but, rather, to oblivion. To mitigate this information professionals strive to apply stringent standards and to formulate policies based on the documented needs of our user communities. Keeping those standards and policies current as the information needs of our user base change is the challenge we are faced with every day. Furthermore, libraries as institutions are vulnerable to volatile budgets, institutional politics, cultural bias, selection and preservation priorities and so on. All of this means library materials and the knowledge and information they carry are inherently vulnerable to undiscoverability because their discoverability depends on inevitably imperfect decisions and less than perfect conditions.

Yet this very fact–that the business of discoverability is unfinished and imperfect–that occasions this panel. Progress is needed and progress is what is being made. Our two speakers will discuss how they are making the collections at their institutions more discoverable.

Bradley Daigle will speak about the ways the University of Virginia is trying to overcome the problem. He writes, “Archival materials often have separate search interfaces. The effect of this practice is that primary source research is often seen as an add-on, something to be done in addition to searching for books and articles (if at all). By integrating archival materials into basic searches, the Library hopes to level the playing field. Our plan is to provide search results that are the direct reflection of a user’s search–then break those results down in various ways–format, date, copyright, etc. This will benefit both researchers and libraries in that it will be build on a scalable, nuanced infrastructure that can manipulate, manage, and deliver any kind of content.

Dan Santamaria will discuss how Princeton is addressing a related problem: Traditional finding aids were not created with the idea that they would, or should, be remotely machine searchable. The machine that was imagined to search them was, plainly speaking, a human like us, working in the archive itself, with an archivist not far off. Finding aids worked well in the environment they were created for. But when moved online—finding aids often didn’t work as well as archives and libraries would like. Santamaria writes, “Archival literature is filled with calls for rethinking archival finding aids. Elizabeth Yakel has written that the recreation of analog finding aids in online environments “inhibits creative use of networked information…and the emergence of new digital representational forms for the representation of primary sources” and thus, inhibits access to material itself. Archives and special collections library also frequently struggle with large backlogs of unprescribed or uncatalogued material. In late 2012 the Princeton University Library implemented a revolutionary archival access system designed to address these issues. The new system includes features based on often-discussed concepts such as delivery of digital content, on-demand digitization, user commenting, and linked open data. This talk will demonstrate how repositories can efficiently create and leverage structured, standards-compliant data to fulfill our ethical obligations to provide open and equitable access to the material in our care. The speaker, himself an archivist, will discuss the delivery system’s theoretical underpinnings and implications users of archival material.”

Bradley Daigle (speaker) is Director of Digital Curation Services and Digital Strategist for Special Collections at the University of Virginia Library.

Regine Heberlein (moderator) is an Archivist at Princeton University.

Dan Santamaria (speaker) is Assistant University Archivist for Technical Services Mudd Library, Princeton University.

William Thompson (moderator) is a Reference Librarian at Western Illinois University

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