Monday, May 22, 2006

Article Note: On SFX and Academic Libraries

Citation for the article:

Wakimoto, Jina Choi, et. al. "The Myths and Realities of SFX in Academic Libraries." The Journal of Academic Librarianship 32.2 (March 2006): 127-136.

Read the article via ScienceDirect.

I picked it up this article to see what insights it would provide. Dealing with tools like SFX and other resolvers seems to be something that builds expectations, only to bring those expectations crashing down when the system does not work. The result, at least what I have seen in reference and instruction work, is often more frustration and confusion. I often get the beleaguered student come to the reference desk asking a variant of this question: "The computer said you had it [the article they want]. I clicked on the link, and I got nothing [or some confusing screen, which to them may as well be nothing given there is no meaning to them]." This is one of the eternal battles I face, and trying to teach about finding an article with the resolver tool, well, let's just say luck is not that much better. This article, in many ways, confirms some of what I know already. The systems, no matter the vendor, are mostly frustrating, not really designed for the student used to a tool like Google, and I can't sit with a straight face and tell the student it will all be ok. Don't get me wrong, when it works, it works like a charm. The problem is when it does not work, which seems often.

The article examines user expectations and actual experiences. The authors used a survey as well as interviews with librarians in a focus group. They also ran test searches. In the background section, the authors describe how they had done customization to the SFX system at their institutions. On my campus, as I understand it from the Web Librarian, we do have a good amount of customization, yet what we do customize can still be confusing to students. This is definitely not something that I can just create a guide for. The resolver may work well with EBSCO for instance and then do a bad job with ProQuest. This is not the library's fault, and it may not be the fault of the database providers, but students will not make these subtle distinctions. By the way, I just picked those two vendor names because they popped in my head and not because they may or not work well with a resolver.

Overall, the expectation numbers were not terribly good. The tone of the comments was not better either. "In terms of the tone of comments, 26 percent were deemed positive, 34 percent were mixed, and 40 percent were negative" (129). Now, I know I am being selective here, but I do not think this bodes well for SFX.

In terms of instruction, the authors mention that some librarians will use canned searches in their demonstrations where they know the SFX works. Other librarians just take their chances, and use the experience of SFX not working, when it does not work, as a teaching moment. I will say that I have done it both ways, and I am very comfortable with both ways. However, teaching spontaneously about finding that article when SFX does not quite cooperate can be a bit more challenging. A bit of humor can be very helpful in such situations with a dose of reassurance that they can always ask the librarian for help. That last bit of advice may not be as good for distance students, but that is where we hope they will use distance reference tools to get help. One common frustration students face:

"Others thought that the SFX menus were not intuitive, particularly when they only linked to the target database's search screen" (130).

Yes, very often students do not know to go back and check the citation details. However, what happens at this point is that students get the database screen, and they simply say "now what?" The search screen becomes another hurdle. No wonder they prefer to Google their information. As an advocate of using the best information possible, I can't necessarily say I blame them. Here is what one of the librarians in the focus group reported:

"Another reported that when SFX does not deliver the full-text article to the students, instead of requiring some detective work to find it, they tend to give up" (131).

Here is where convenience comes into play. If an item is to hard to get, they go find something else. You lost your chance at that point. Now, I can teach a student how to do the detective work, but very often there is more than one database involved, and each one with its own interface. What I often do in classes is to tell them to choose the Lexis-Nexis link when the resolver offers it. I don't do it because I think Lexis-Nexis is better. I do it because I usually show them how to use Lexis-Nexis in class. What often happens is that I am using Academic Search Premier, an article citation comes up that requires using the resolver, and it often suggests Lexis-Nexis as a source. So, I am just trying to make the best of the situation. This can eat up some time in a session, but it is necessary. It is not only necessary so they see how to find an article but for reassurance that it is a possible feat.

The article also looks at usage, and it discusses the test searches the authors did, which I think is an interesting discussion. Overall, the article found that there were high expectations, but that only half of the users said it met their expectations (133). Also, the authors note the following, which I hinted at earlier in terms of distinctions users may or not make:

"Of course, the availability of online full text in SFX has almost nothing to do with SFX itself, instead being largely dependent on the library's collection. However, it is clear that library end-users do not make this distinction when appraising whether or not SFX met their expectations."

All the student knows is he/she clicked on something, and it was not where it "was supposed" to be. There is some food for thought in here. The researchers did well in trying to cover their bases by looking at users, librarians, and then trying searches themselves. The authors ask an interesting question: "have library users simply forgotten how cumbersome that process was before SFX?" (133). No, I don't think they have forgotten. They simply gave up on the item, or nowadays they just google something they can actually find, with all the risks that can involve in terms of information quality. With any luck, they may go ask a librarian for help. Actually, for our younger users, they can't forget because what we have now is what they have known. Now, if I sound a bit snarky, keep in mind that I deal with this regularly when classes are in session on campus. At any rate, the article is worth a read.

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