The search for equitable search

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We should meet users’ needs, no matter who they are, where they are from, or which language they speak, writes Ashleigh Faith

Should libraries expect users to 'speak' library? Or should libraries 'speak' user? Put another way, how effective can a library discovery service be if users are presented with this Catch-22: in order to access the knowledge they seek, they already need to know what questions to ask (and how), but they can’t know what questions to ask (nor how) unless they’ve already had some access to that knowledge.  

Of course, the 'expert' researcher knows to use a discipline-specific vocabulary. But the user might just type in a query in their everyday language. Certainly, the lay-user will use their own words, especially if starting research on a topic they are unfamiliar with. And it’s here that a traditional discovery service might be more hindrance than help. If the search requires precise, yet unintuitive, keywords and phrases to find anything meaningful, the user might have an unnecessarily frustrating research experience. 

Since the discovery service may not understand the words entered by the user, their keyword search cannot get 'through the front door' and connect to the content’s preferred terminology and, since the discovery service may not know enough to attempt to search for synonyms or common phrases for the keywords, it can’t offer any 'side door' options to the user either. This begs the question of how to create a discovery service that can deliver expert-level results in response to non-expert queries, thereby providing Equitable Search to all users. While approaches run the gamut, four fundamental principles must be considered:

  • Smart Results

  • Multi-lingual Resources

  • Trustworthy Content

  • Easy Search That Promotes Search Skills

Smart results

The discovery service must be able to comprehend everyday words, synonyms and concepts across topics and subjects so that when the user conducts a search, the service expands user queries to cover all subject synonyms. For example, if the user enters 'Learning aids', the service knows that they could be asking for 'Instructional materials' (from ERIC, MLA International Bibliography), 'Instructional resources' from (GeoRef), 'Instructional media' (from APA PsycInfo), or 'Teaching aids and devices', (from Education Abstracts, Education Source) and so on.

The next step is to be able to help users see how their subject is related to other topics. For instance, the subject 'Battle of the Bulge' may also go by 'Ardennes Counteroffensive' as an alternate form of that subject. Taking this a step further, the discovery system should also be capable of showing that the subject 'Battle of the Bulge' can be related to the 1965 film of the same name via the subject tags assigned and retrieved in search. Enhancing the connections between the users' keywords and the subject tags increases the effectiveness of search and makes for a less daunting search experience. 

Multi-lingual resources

The discovery service should be able to 'think' in more languages than just English and have extensive international content so that anyone can comfortably search in their own language and engage in extensive, relevant cross-lingual research. Thus, if a user enters the word for 'cat' in any language, the discovery service should understand the idea of 'cat' independent of specific languages, and then connect each individual language’s words for 'cat' to their corresponding concepts, and so on.

Trustworthy content

Given that the library has a responsibility to users of all levels — from novice to experienced — the discovery service should know how to steer clear of predatory journals. But that’s just the beginning. The discovery service should also draw on journals that are indexed within subject-specific resources, university presses, and on sources that academic libraries tend to use in general. 

Easy search that promotes search skills

As for presenting a smooth user experience that helps users hone their search skills as they search, a smart library discovery service doesn’t have to reinvent the wheel when it comes to its interface. Recognising that almost all users are already accustomed to searching on Netflix, Amazon, Spotify, and Google, the discovery service can borrow a page from those sites’ use of personalised dashboards, sharing options, and recommendation capabilities, thus meeting users where they already live.

Regarding features that teach the user how to 'fish' as opposed to just 'feeding' them for a day, the ideal library discovery service can ask users about their intent. If a user enters a word like 'java', which has multiple meanings, the discovery service can ask if they meant the island, the programming language, or the colloquialism for coffee. Once the user has selected which word they intended, the discovery service can display a visual representation of connections to related subjects. So, if the user is searching for Italy, the discovery service could visually show the connections to related subjects such as: Italy’s capital city, 'Rome', its geographic features like the 'Alps', or that it has 'UNESCO site' points of interest. By presenting this information visually, the user can browse the subject connections. This helps the user find results that are more meaningful, since adding additional lines of inquiry and additional facets of their research topic to their search helps them frame the context and set the depth at which they want to explore the research material. 

Taken together, these four concepts, Smart Results, Multi-lingual Resources, Trustworthy Content, and Easy Search That Promotes Search Skills, are the main ingredients for Equitable Search. And with Equitable Search, a library can fulfill its mission by finally 'speaking' user and therefore empowering any user from any background to perform expert level research.

Ashleigh Faith is the director of EBSCO Information Services’ platform data and visualization team