This isn’t what I thought it was

In a previous post, I mentioned that I am a member of the Discovery Task Force. How our committee got that unfortunate name is a mystery. I like to imagine that the former writers of The X-Files had a hand in it; they probably need the work. The Discovery Task Force is comprised of academic and state librarians, working together toward the possible implementation of a shared web-scale discovery tool, to benefit all members of the newly minted Connecticut State Colleges and Universities system (ConnScu). We’re currently in an information-gathering stage.

As part of this process, a colleague and I recently facilitated a web discovery brainstorming session at a statewide meeting of academic librarians. My colleague and I reluctantly led the session, which was scheduled at 2:20pm on Friday afternoon, following a full day of presentations and lunch. Furthermore, neither of us fully believe in the miracles promised by a conversion to web-scale discovery. We haven’t drunk the Kool-Aid. When I look at a web discovery tool, I do see user-friendly features, I do see Google, but I also see what amounts to another empty box. I was not eager to brainstorm ways to use and improve upon box searching.

Is box searching the research equivalent of a box store? Do we care?

Taking inspiration from Brian Matthews’ recent white paper on the future of libraries in higher ed, my colleague and I decided to develop a session that would “get beyond what’s familiar,” in order to solve research problems in the way a startup might. We chose not to discuss web discovery tools, even though the session was billed as such and included registered attendees. Instead, we began the session by dividing attendees into groups of three, distributing big sheets of paper, and, without introduction, asking each group to respond to the following:

You’ve just discovered that there is a need for scholarly information. What if you were responsible for creating a research environment from scratch, under new and uncertain conditions? What would it look like? Act like? Be like? What problems would it solve? What would it accomplish? How would it be evaluated? What impact would it have?

There were no rules, no parameters, and no details.

Needless to say, attendees got mad. One participant lamented, “This isn’t what I thought it was.” Another wondered aloud, “Am I in the right room?” Participants were uncomfortable. They wanted to hear things, not create them, which is totally understandable. Begrudgingly they began to work. After ten minutes, my colleague and I began to feel relief.

30 minutes passed. The attendees were fired-up, each group recreating the entire library experience based on needs and obstacles that they’ve observed during their careers. Librarians smiled, laughed, and ultimately generated good ideas. Here’s a sample:

  • Group 1 designed a information environment with artificial intelligence as its core. AI would assist users with their word choices; help them to interpret results and sources; format correct citation in multiple languages; and would help librarians to conduct learning assessments. AI would also help students write their term papers instantly (good for students, not for faculty).
  • Group 2 envisioned a highly interactive physical/digital environment, comparable to the science museum experience, where users make choices in an adaptive space. Touch screens act as the first point of access to information, and quickly lead users to discipline-based collections of information. No keywords. Apps included.

My colleague and I took notes on all ideas, big and small, with the intention of bringing them to the attention of the Discovery Task Force, a group that can influence the way that vendors design search tools. And, I know that we’re not the only librarians making big ticket purchases. When vendors knock on our doors to sell products, why shouldn’t we share our vision of the future? There’s only one excuse that I can think of: We don’t have one.

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