Helping users find content is one of the fundamental services that academic libraries have historically provided. As we have tracked in the Ithaka S+R survey of library deans and directors, it is also an area where there have been important and fast-moving changes. In the 2010 survey, library directors saw discovery as an area for increased investment, and many libraries subsequently put money into new-to-the-market index-based discovery services that promised to bring their collections together into a single search tool. Discovery services, now common, are seen by respondents as a modest success in many respects, though their impact on users is hard to judge. But there are hints that the way that directors look at discovery issues has started to undergo some broader changes.  The 2013 survey pointed to the possibility that going forward directors will place less emphasis on making their libraries a “starting point” for researchers.

Discovery as a Budget Priority and Discovery Services

Discovery was seen as an important area for investment in 2010, when 41% of respondents said that they would invest an additional 10% budget windfall in tools for discovery—the tools on the market included EBSCO Discovery Service, Primo, Summon, and WorldCat Local. Many libraries undoubtedly invested in these services in the intervening years, and in 2013, 73% of respondents said that they had implemented one at their library.

In the US Library Survey 2013, discovery appears to have largely dropped off as an area for future investment. In a question very similar to the 2010 question about how library directors would spend a 10% windfall, only 16% of respondents in 2013 said that they would invest the additional money in tools for discovery. This decrease may reflect the shrinking pool of libraries that have not already started using a discovery service. This does not necessarily mean that library directors feel that they have “solved” discovery, but in the wake of major investments in new tools, they appear inclined to direct any marginal funds toward other priorities.

Have discovery services lived up to their promise? In an effort to explore this issue in more detail, we asked library directors how satisfied they were with their discovery services’ ability to help users in a variety of scenarios. Respondents reported that they had seen improvements of most aspects of discovery at their libraries, more in some areas than in others. Many respondents reported high satisfaction with discovery services’ ability to “help users find new items they do not know about” and “facilitate linking to online resources that my library licenses,” with 78% and 74% of directors with discovery services saying that they had seen major improvements in each of these areas, respectively. They were less satisfied with other aspects of these services, such as their ability to help experienced users, with only 27% of respondents reporting that their discovery services improved their ability to “help users find items they already know about”. (See figure 35 in the report for more details on how respondents assess the value in their discovery services.)

The Library as a Starting Point

Why have libraries made these investments in discovery services? The data suggest that one cause may be a desire to serve, or at least be seen as serving, as users’ “starting point” for research. In the survey results, directors who think that discovery is an important priority for their libraries are those who are also most concerned with promoting their library as patrons’ primary starting point for research. There is a strong positive correlation between a high rating for the “gateway” role of the library and strong agreement with the statement “It is strategically important that my library be seen by its users as the first place that they go to discover scholarly content.” (Interestingly, respondents who rated the gateway role highly or agreed strongly with this statement were no more or less likely than their peers to have implemented discovery services.)

However, there are some indications in the 2013 survey responses that directors might be focusing less on making their library a starting point for discovery.  In 2013, 78% of library directors agreed with the statement quoted in the paragraph above, down from 84% in 2010. This decline was consistent across all types of institutions. Respondents may be moving to some degree toward alternative discovery strategies that focus on different aspects of the research process. As one respondent wrote, “I don’t want to presume that all patrons should begin with us… and that if they don’t, we’ve somehow ‘failed.’  After all, isn’t the outcome more important than the path traversed?”

Being a “starting point” is just one aspect of the role that libraries can play in discovery, and the data from the 2013 survey may indicate that library directors are starting to reshape their thinking about discovery to focus more on other discovery-related goals. Given the important shifts in user behaviors and the tradeoffs that library leaders face in terms of strategy, it will be very important to continue tracking these items to see if directors’ thinking continues to evolve.  We will next survey library directors nationally in 2016.