The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

Immediate disclaimer:  The title of this post in no way refers to any of the speakers or attendees at this morning’s Sci-Tech Division program!  It refers to Federated Searching.

Shown above are the speakers (L-R):  Susan Fingerman, Library, Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory; Doris Small Helfer, California State University, Northridge; and Jina Choi Wakimoto, University of Colorado, Boulder; with Carol Lucke (Moderator), Naval Research Laboratory Library.

Jina Wakimoto and Doris Helfer led off with a presentation based on their article in the February 2005 issue of Searcher.  The library at CSU Northridge uses Metalib and ExLibris, and after a few years’ experience, hey have found:

The Good:

  • Simultaneous searching on multiple databases
  • User attributes and access permissions can be controlled by groups
  • Integration with OpenURL
  • The system functions as a "personal portal", allowing users to define their own favorite databases and e-journal lists

The Bad:

  • In a cross-database search, metasearchable results are mixed with non-metasearchable ones which must be accessed in a native interface.  Searchers must therefore be very knowledgeable.
  • Searching capability is limited and "dumbed down".
  • There are differences in thesauri and indexing between databases.
  • The de-duping feature needs much work because duplicate records are not always recognized, and all versions of a record appear in the results list.

The Ugly:

  • The system runs extremely slowly and frequently times out.
  • The interface is too complex, even for experienced users, and requires many steps before results are received.
  • The intterface is not intuitive, and there is no help.

Despite its drawbacks, hopeful signs do exist for the system.  Wakimoto named two "ideal" metasearch systems that could serve as models:  Google’s Universal Search and

Helfer followed with a report on user assessment of the Metalib system at CSU.  In general, students were more positive about the system than librarians.  The survey showed:

  • Students want the one-stop-shopping experience they get with Google and are not inclined to use one with a more complex interface, even if it provides access to better information.
  • The  Metalib software has a long way to go before it becomes competitive; Google has the advantage of speed and simplicity.
  • Although federated searching systems offer access to deeper scholarly information, students probably will not know or care about that, especially if they are looking for "just a few good references".

Susan Fingerman was active in sci-tech online searching up until 1994, when she left to set up her own business, and then returned to the field in 2003.  She made the fascinating observation that in her first period in the field, she used federated search systems like Dialog, Lexis-Nexis, and BRS.  When she returned in 2003, everything was disaggregated, and publishers were selling their own databases, but now new aggregators are appearing and selling federated search systems again.  My reactions to this:  what goes around comes around, and there’s not much new under the sun!

JHU has subscriptions to many search systems and electronic databases, but researchers at APL are much more specialized and need very high-level scholarly databases,  so many of the databases available through the main JHU library are not sophisticated enough for them.  Fingerman mentioned that this has caused problems because of licensing issues and Z39.50 compliance (or lack of it).  With their advanced technical knowledge and expertise, her users want to know the details about how the system works, so lack of transparency in the search process is a major issue for them.

Fingerman wondered what, if any, were the differences between "federated searching" and "metasearch": both terms seem to be widely used for the same thing.  For example, is Ei Village including NTIS and Compendex federated searching or metasearch?  If there a difference?  Does it matter?  She also recommended the blog Geeking With Greg as a good source of information on federated searching, especially the article, "The End of Federated Searching", which is a discussion about Google.

Full copies of the presentations will be available on the Sci-Tech Division Website shortly after the conference.

Don Hawkins
Consultant, Information Today

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