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Quick question.

May 4, 2009

I’ve got this question forming very slowly in my mind … what is the purpose of the ILS? (Integrated Library System for you non-library types)  I don’t call it the “library catalog” because that answers the question and is far too limiting … the catalog is, in fact, a catalog, and we should be far past considering that a great achievement.  Why do we have an ILS, and what are we attempting to do when we design a new ILS?  Is it simply an index?  Is it just a database of items that we allow to people to search, or is there more?  

You see, I’m beginning to suspect that the library business has been caught up in the business of creating ever more feature rich databases and has completely forgotten to step back and wonder exactly why we’re doing this.  Is it our primary purpose to facilitate searching through a lot of stuff and provide as accurate string matches as we possibly can (i.e. – keyword or phrase matches)?

If so, carry on.

However, my belief is that libraries have been far more involved (and interested in) supporting the processes of research, teaching, and learning, of which string matching is but a tiny little part.  Research is a far more complex process than just finding matching information buried in a big pile of other information … if you really look into the process of research as practiced by academics (and others) there are a lot of very complex social interactions that go on to complete successful research.  One of interest that librarians should already know about, is the idea of the invisible college … whatever you call it, fields of study, areas of interest, etc. become collections of people who become aware of others who are doing work in similar fields … and then they communicate, share information, read each others work, cite each other, and become familiar with the literature.  Serious researchers are often aware of pretty much everything in their field before it is published and will be more likely to be unpleasantly surprised by the absence of a work in the collection of their library than pleasantly surprised by its presence.

What am I talking about? Search can be done well by anybody … that has been clearly demonstrated.  Supporting research, however, is something that librarians should have a talent for, and our expertise goes far beyond the ability to efficiently type keywords in to a search string (that is also something that we are good at, but there is less and less demand for that).  If we truly want to support research, rather than just searching, I think that we need to consider what that process entails, first of all, and then decide how to create systems that actually support more of that process than just the search … that process is rich and social, but our systems provide an isolated and very non-social experience … I truly think that there is something to think deeply about here … I’m going to go off and think deeply about it some more …  (and no, I’m not suggesting that researchers should just use Facebook more …)

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