Warning: long post!
I've just spent the last day and a half at a federated search symposium sponsored by The Alberta Library. I went in with some preconceived ideas about the state of federated search, and while they weren't totally assuaged, I think I feel a little more confident about the future of this idea. But not the present.
Wikipedia has a pretty good definition of federated search.
Yesterday Roy Tennant talked to us for more than an hour on where we are and where he thinks we want to be with federated search. His slides should be available in the next little while, and I'll update with a link to them when they are. I believe his talk, and those of the panelists and possibly that of Cathy Gordon from Google were all recorded and should also be available soon.
Roy and his team have spent over a year tweaking the version of MetaLib that they purchased for the California Digital Library. They still haven't released it to their public. Roy has a lot of tecchies working on this project. Though I don't know exactly how many, I'll bet it's more than your library can afford to devote that much time to! That tells you something about the state of federated search right there. Based on his experience, Roy offers the following list of questions we need to ask our vendors when considering such a tool:
- Exactly how difficult is it to customize your interface? Show me.
- Will we need to redo our customizations with system upgrades?
- Do you have an API? If so, please show me the documentation.
- What resources are available for metasearching?
- And through what types of connections? For each, do you bring back actual records, or only a hit count?
As an aside, one of the nice little nuggets from Roy's talk is the fact that all the assessment activity that the California Digital Library carries out is available online.
Roy also had this list for final advice if you're considering a federated search tool:
- Review your user needs
- Determine your goals
- Survey your options and decide which pain(s) you wish to endure (important to note there will be pain somewhere)
- Be prepared to spend more money and time than you plan, for less result than you hope for. Do not over-expect. (that one's a little depressing!)
After Roy's talk was a panel discussion of four librarians who have implemented a federated search tool. Products addressed were Central Search (Serials Solutions), AGent Portal (Auto-Graphics), MetaLib (ExLibris) and WebFeat (Consolidated Searching). The panel discussion piqued my interest for the rest of the symposium as every single one of them mentioned the specific pains they had in implementing their product. I'm sure punches were pulled, but some were thrown as well, and I was interested to hear how the vendors in attendance would respond the next day when we got a chance to see their demos.
The lunchtime talk was delivered by Cathy Gordon, Director of Business Development for Google Scholar. Cathy has an MLS and extensive experience working for the likes of Dialog and Lexis/Nexis. I think. I didn't write that down, sorry. Her talk was about how Google considers itself a switchboard connecting content consumers and content owners. One of the Google mantras stands in pretty stark contrast to Roy's experience spending time tweaking MetaLib. Google says launch fast, refine later.
She then told us the story of how Google Scholar came to be, and how they're continuing to work on it. In response to one of the biggest complaints from librarians about Schoogle, she says, "It's too much work to show a list of all our sources - it's always changing." Still sounds like a cop out to me! (I wonder where that phrase comes from...) We do know that Elsevier is not one of the participating publishers. I spoke with Cathy afterwards and she says they're still negotiating with Elsevier and many other publishers. My colleague Diana asked Cathy if they were working on a way to limit results to either books or journals, and it seemed that they hadn't been thinking of such a limit, as it's only been recently that so many book citations are showing up in Schoogle. But Cathy took note of the good idea, so watch for that feature soon :-)
Rest of the day devoted to brainstorming group work / claims analysis.
Day two was spent moving between vendor presentations. There were five vendors present, but only time to hear three presentations, so I ended up hearing about AGent Portal, SingleSearch, and Central Search. Of the three I was personally most disappointed with SingleSearch - it's a SIRSI product and we're a SIRSI user here at the U of C. It just didn't seem to do much. Couldn't tell from the initial results screen whether you could get full text on the next click. Couldn't choose, from within SingleSearch, to search the native interface of any database. It worked, but so did all the other products. It just didn't have anything extra, IMHO. AGent was ok, but obviously not marketed to academic libraries, as aside from consortias they have not a single academic library customer. Must be some reason.
Of the three I saw, I was most impressed with the Serial Solutions presentation on Central Search. This was at least 40% due to the excellent presentation style of their product manager, whos name now completely escapes me. It was really refreshing to hear him say I'm working on this, not we're working on this, becuase he's the one who's responsible for the product. But I also got the feeling that Central Search was by far the most innovative and nimble of the three products I saw. One of the neat things to look forward to later this year is the integration of Vivisimo clustering into the results. That makes a lot of sense; every one of the vendors mentioned how difficult relevancy-ranking is, so this at least offers a useful way to help slice and dice lots of results. He was also an advocate of popping a simple Google-style search box in multiple places all over a website instead of forcing people to come to The Portal Page. Why not include a search box on your Education pathfinder page that defaults to a search of your 5 best education databases? And another box on your Psychology subject page, or why not one on a non-library page in your School of Business? Again, just a really sound idea that nobody else mentioned. Sure, they're not the be-all and end-all, but keep your eye out on this product, I think you'll be hearing more about it.
OK, going to wrap this one up with a list of links to the vendors represented. As mentioned, I'll be sure to update this post if/when slideshows and audio recordings are made available.