This week’s CNI meeting featured a variety of thought-provoking sessions on the digital issues facing academic libraries today, including privacy and preservation. I facilitated a session on Monday afternoon on discovery, using my recent issue brief on the topic to ask the question, “What Role(s) Should the Library Play in Support of Discovery?”

While participants shared mixed views about the value of indexed discovery services at their institutions, with some expressing the sense of their real value especially for undergraduates, no doubt was expressed that a high share of academic search takes place through non-library services, such as Google. Put another way, the library has a minority market share for academic search. Market share is a useful metric for thinking about resource allocations wherever resources are limited and choices must therefore be made about where to focus investments. In the case at hand, libraries have made significant investments in indexed discovery services, but they have not made similar types of investments to facilitate other discovery channels nor to create new services that would address a series of very real unmet researcher needs.

I shared some examples of the types of discovery needs not currently being met, at least not by most academic libraries:

  • Current awareness about new publications in the research literature
  • Anticipatory discovery to deliver information when it will be most useful
  • Personalized search that helps to surface the most relevant results
  • New forms of collections visualization that bring browsing to the digital environment
  • Integrated discovery of library-acquired materials and personal collections together
  • Improvements in authentication and link resolver systems to reduce impediments between discovery and delivery

Some of these needs might be more appropriate than others for a given library to prioritize, but they suggest other ways to imagine the library’s role in support of discovery beyond serving as the starting-point for academic searches.

It is hard for many of us to take a critical perspective on whether we are making the right level of investment today in a traditional strength like the library as search starting-point. But budgets are not unlimited and there are opportunity costs associated with these choices. For example, if librarians are holding on unduly to the search starting-point role, are they doing so at the expense of new discovery roles where the library’s impact might be greater? These choices have consequences for our communities and over time our libraries’ strategic position within them.

Ultimately, libraries are served well by an ongoing and fearless re-evaluation of existing practices and traditional strengths alongside emerging needs and opportunities, in discovery as in other areas.