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By Eddie Neuwirth - Sr. Product Manager, Discovery Services

As new innovations to discovery services are being released, it is a good time to reflect on linking and its importance to the end user’s discovery experience.  According to the 2009 OCLC report Online Catalogs: What Users and Librarians Want, “The end user’s experience of delivery is as important, if not more important, than the discovery experience.”[1] The process of “delivery,” linking end users to the content they’ve discovered, is certainly critical to the research process.  After all, it does little good for users to discover content if they can’t get to it.  

Delivery is Critical to Discovery

Thanks to libraries’ rapid adoption of discovery services over the last five years and their renewed focus on user experience, researchers are now more likely to view the library as a preferred gateway to begin their research process.  And even when users begin their research with Google or Google Scholar instead, the library still plays an important role in provisioning access to content by enabling affiliated end-users to bypass pay-walls to get the content.  

Whatever discovery method researchers select and use, they can now easily discover millions of search results – mostly for content available online and in full text – with just a single query.  In other words, in the researcher’s mind, discovery is easy.  Yet, linking users to discovered content remains a serious challenge.   

In order to meet users’ expectations for immediate access to appropriate copies of full text, libraries have largely been reliant on middleware known as the OpenURL link resolver.  Unfortunately, as various studies have suggested, Open URL linking has been less reliable than desired.  Studies suggest OpenURL links fail anywhere from 5-30% of the time. [2]  And even if reported link failure rates may be somewhat inflated, linking issues are still the most frequent complaint of library end-users.

The advent of discovery services and the popularity of open Web resources like Google Scholar have only increased scrutiny and expectations on library linking tools’ success.  And as library collections continue becoming predominantly electronic there is a lot at stake for libraries.  Today’s researchers do expect to get immediate access to the full text of just about every item they discover.  When those expectations are not met, there are real consequences for the library.    

Failed Links Have Real Consequences

While it may be unfair to think that library linking tools can achieve 100% accuracy and success rates, this is still nonetheless the goal libraries (and the vendors who supply linking tools for them) need to strive for.  Besides negatively impacting direct usage of library resources, failed link resolver links frustrate end users and cause dissatisfaction with library services.  From an end-user’s perspective, it is not a stretch to say that if a link fails, then the library has failed.  When a user’s expectations are not met due to failed links, this leads to further abandonment of the library’s services in favor of tools (such as Google) which users may perceive to be easier or more reliable. 

While the true cost of losing a frustrated user to non-library tools is difficult to measure, and has long-term consequences, failed links also have an immediate impact on staff resources.  When users do report problems with links, there is a real cost in terms of the time library staff has to spend to track down the cause of the issue, report the problems to the link resolver vendor and/or, in many cases, try to figure out why a link to an item was not available.

OpenURL link resolvers have been around for more than 12 years now (for a technical overview see Why OpenURL?).  But, unlike other library technologies, the link resolver has been slow to evolve.  This is not to discount the terrific work done by organizations such as NISO, of which Serials Solutions (now ProQuest) has been an active participant in, or the work of individuals such as Adam Chandler (Improving OpenURLs Through Analytics, in Context) who has championed real linking improvements. 

However, in the scheme of rapid technological advances over the last 12 years that have impacted libraries – such as the rise of Google, Amazon, Facebook, Twitter, the iPhone, iPad, mobile technologies and even web-scale discovery services – link resolvers have certainly not kept up.

As evolving technologies continue to impact access to information, libraries not only need to be concerned about link reliability, but they should also be focused on the end user’s experience in linking to content.  

In our next blog post, we focus on some of the very real challenges with link resolvers as we look toward ways to improve linking for libraries.

[1] OCLC. “Online Catalogs: What Users and Librarians Want” (2009)

[2] Jason S. Price and Cindi Trainor. "Digging into the Data:Exposing the Causes of Resolver Failure." Library Technology Reports 46.7 (October 2010): 15-26.

30 May 2014

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