Is Summon the search solution we want it to be?

Eugene Barsky and I are working on a paper about how to market and teach Summonthe new discovery tool at UBC Library that was introduced in February 2011. Many of the technical and practical challenges in introducing Summon cannot be overstated, especially where academic libraries have implemented federated or meta-search solutions in the past.  Frankly, so many of those tools were expensive and poorly-designed to be useful in the long term.

As a medical librarian, I’ve been experimenting with Summon and had mixed results. (What is Summon?) The idea of providing one-search for users in medicine — mostly physicians and medical students — is very difficult for me to justify (and teach). Further, it’s not appropriate in most search instances. That said, one of the benefits of Summon is the way it points users to digital content held in the library, content that includes journals, monographs and knowledge objects in the institutional repository. And — that’s a good thing.

However, the depth and breadth of Summon (potentially, 700 million records) is also a potential weakness for users, and a source of information overload. Academic librarians need to be aware that it can be confusing to use Summon unless there are compelling reasons to do so. Should it be our default search tool in the long term? [No.] I’m still trying to determine how Summon fits into my own search activities. Some of its results for medical topics are illogical and force users to re-do searches through native tools such as OvidSP MEDLINE.

Tania Alekson from Capilano University says that “….an interesting wrinkle in this discussion is the commercialization of the search process that is afforded by the design of one-search system[s]. Google has “sponsored” links and its secret algorithm and Ebsco Discovery promotes its databases above any others to an absurd level (considering the de-silofication inherent and advertised in one-search [tools].) Is Summon truly the democratic option it seems [wants] to be?”

The commercial factor notwithinstanding, one question I have is whether browsing and discovery shouldn’t be contextualized more simply. Use a subject guide. Google scholar. Academic Search Premier. Do we really want users to be searching across all those millions of records to discover something?? Whatever you decide, your recommendation should be part of a coherent teaching approach.

Another trend I noticed recently (and maybe you have, too?) is that academic libraries are starting to hire discovery librarians. I support any tool (or trend) that helps our users find what they need to do their work – but where does discovery fit into our information literacy (IL) programs exactly? How do we teach it? Or, is discovery simply part of building upon what users do already?

2 thoughts on “Is Summon the search solution we want it to be?

  1. Hi

    Interesting post.

    Can you explain more why you don’t think Summon should be the default search in libraries? I would think currently for most libraries the default search tools are usually our next generation catalogues (Encore, Aquabrowser, Primo etc).

    While I understand for specific needs you might want to use say Pubmed for medical librarians, I can’t see why Summon would be a worse default search over library catalogues.

    For a known item search, Summon should be as good if not better than our library catalogues, particularly in cases where users put in article names. There’s a possibility that common item names might lead to information overload but refinement options help here and it’s a relatively small price to pay.

    ” Do we really want users to be searching across all those millions of records to discover something?? ”

    For “long tail searches”, the answer is yes! Do expert users do more long tail searches?

    I agree there is a possibility of getting too many results for general topic searches. Arguably, sometimes it’s just better to look at academic search premier or JSTOR if your search is on “Kant” etc, which means the size of the index you are searching doesn’t matter as much.

    I suspect for typical undergraduates doing assignments, the trade off is probably worth it, as long as the first few results are relevant. Google gives you god knows how many results, yet most people are happy with it.

    For really expert users, I can see them using specialised interfaces, but even for them, I wonder if it is possible to provide scoped searches, where Summon etc searches over a subset of results. I understand Summon is planning on implementing discipline specific facets.

    “but where does discovery fit into our information literacy (IL) programs exactly? How do we teach it? Or, is discovery simply part of building upon what users do already?”

    Yes, very good questions , I have being pondering that too…

  2. Hi @aarontay

    interesting questions about Summon as discovery tool; best used for general browsing / known-item needle-haystack / intralibrary

    more later, dean

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