Mind the gap: Bridging the divide between discovery and delivery


I wrote in OCLC Next last year about “container collapse” and how many people are having a hard time evaluating the value of online research results. Students think that being able to identify high-quality materials is important. They also believe they are good at it—though our findings suggest they actually aren’t.

Some more recent research, though, indicates that librarians can make a difference. Somewhere between discovery and delivery, there is a gap that needs to be filled. As librarians, we can provide the training and assistance necessary to connect people to high-quality information.

Recognizing the gaps

At the recent ALA Midwinter Meeting in Seattle, I did a booth spotlight presentation with two of my colleagues (Joyce Valenza and Samuel Putnam) that covered much of the same ground from that previous blog post. We reviewed students’ research behaviors, some of the difficulties they are experiencing when choosing online materials, and the difficulty they have determining who and what to trust online.

There is a gap, of course. As librarians, it’s hard for us to see, because we’re used to nimbly stepping from the discovery “platform” onto delivery “trains” many, many times a day. And so this is what we see:

Discovery tool –> results –> selection –> delivery

We use the tool, get the results, make a selection, and either access the material or wait for it if necessary. When we think about improving that process, it might look like this:

Better discovery tool –> more results –> selection –> more delivery options

For us, the gap is in the power of the tools. To extend the railway metaphor, we want more comfortable and feature-rich stations and faster trains that go more places.

None of which matters if you step off the platform when there’s no train there, when the doors are closed, as the train is moving, or, of course, directly in front of a moving train. For others, the process can look more like this:

Discovery tool –> results –> CONFUSION –> delivery

To help someone else navigate that journey, we need to accept and address their gaps.

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Measuring the gaps

That’s what our work on “container collapse” and other user information-seeking behaviors has done for the last decades. We, as librarians, often will have an innate sense of an individual simply “not being good at this” when it comes to search. Where we can fall down, however, is when we try to address that need by teaching the same tools we use. “Here’s how to use the library search box. Here’s how to use the advanced features. Here’s how to use the knowledge base. Here’s where all our licensed materials can be found. Here’s where you fill out the ILL form.”

This presents two problems.

First, when these users leave your library, they’ll be using all kinds of other discovery behaviors—commercial search engines, social media, friends’ recommendations, online notes, links from sketchy sources—to fulfill their needs. If they only know how to get “good stuff” from you, they won’t be successful outside your library where (as we know) the majority of their information seeking will occur.

Second, even when they’re inside the library discovery experience, if they don’t know how to determine the value and credibility of what they find based on their needs, they still could fail. This is the equivalent of teaching someone how to navigate the gap between platform and carriage but letting them take a train to the wrong destination.

Bridging the gaps

At the OCLC Research Update at ALA Midwinter, we had a chance to review some recent data based on a new and really interesting way to collect user information at the “gap moment.”

We identified when students and faculty were doing searches from session logs and sent them a pop-up asking if we could interview them about their experience. Some of these sessions only were a minute long, so we assumed the search failed and the discussion would be short and boring: “I didn’t get the thing I was looking for.”

In reality? We talked to these students for 45 minutes to an hour. What did we find?

  • Individuals did not have failed searches, but left the discovery system and went elsewhere to get the materials, i.e., library stacks, Amazon.com, Google Scholar, etc.
  • Too many results is not helpful, it’s frustrating.
  • Convenience always is a major factor, but it’s contextual.
  • Librarians and library instruction enhance the discovery-to-delivery process EVERY TIME.

That’s right—100% of our interviewees mentioned learning something helpful from a librarian. Let me tell you, the number of times I get to write “100%” on anything related to user research is very rare.

This means that library instruction is an incredibly effective and essential part of the discovery-to-delivery process. It means that the gap between discovery platforms and destination resources is as important as the quality of the trains.

I’ll be continuing this discussion at the OCLC Resource Sharing Conference coming up on March 19–21 in Jacksonville. If you can join us, I’d love to hear what your library is doing to “mind the gap.”

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