Search vs. Discovery

Search vs. discovery is a phrase seen often in library circles. I’m sure there have been hundreds of conference session, poster presentations and articles on the topic. I try to read widely and broadly to see where knowledge from other areas can creep into what I do in the library. One of the blogs I read for that purpose is Seth Godin’s blog, and he posted an entry with the same title at the beginning of the month. You should go read it, it’s short.

He ends with a challenge “Are you working to help your clients, patrons, customers and colleagues find what they already know what they want? Or teaching and encouraging them to find something they didn’t know they needed?”

This seems to be a key shift in our new information economy. Users think they can find what they need online, and often see libraries solely as storehouses or providers of online content (if that!). I think we have an opportunity to use this to our advantage and show our users how the library can enhance discovery. Many public and school libraries get to do exciting things like story time and makerspaces that cater to this role, but it can be trickier in academic libraries.

Academic libraries often have the mission of supporting the research needs of the university/college, and it can be hard to justify more creative ideas that are difficult to assess. I’m currently reading inGenius by Tina Seelig as an attempt to foster creativity both within and outside my library work. I think discovery is akin to a creative form of searching – we are still trying to meet an information need but may not have the words or tools to communicate that need.

Our most effective form of encouraging discovery is likely to happen when we are actively engaged with a user in a classroom, at the reference desk, in the stacks, or in communications online. I like to explain the LCC Classification system by selling students on how great it is that books on the same subject sit near each other on the shelf. I’ve found that at least half of my trips to the stacks with a student result in them checking out a book we didn’t start out looking for – either to fill the requirements of their expressed need or to fill a need they discovered when they saw that book on Buddhism or quitting smoking as they walked by.

This experience is hard to replicate online, but it is still doable. I am embedded in several Nursing research classes who have to find research for very specific questions with very specific requirements. I spend a lot of time crafting emails to students explaining the importance of going from broad to narrow and in being flexible with their queries. When I run into questions that aren’t being addressed in current nursing research I often point them to systematic reviews or articles from other fields to introduce citation searching. This kind of lateral discovery is often new to them and even if they don’t replicate my steps I know they at least have been exposed to a new way of solving their information need.

A library’s strongest selling point may be that it offers a central location for people to work alone or in groups in a space that is dedicated solely to assisting them. Libraries are not trying to sell anything or push an agenda. Libraries are simply dedicated to helping people meet their needs through whatever means we can reasonably provide. One way we can do this is to find those opportunities to foster discovery.


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