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veritas Harvard University Library Notes, For Harvard Library Staff, Number 1325 May 2005


Laura Farwell Blake


Harvard University Library Notes / July 2005 / No. 1326

Interview: Laura Farwell Blake

Laura Farwell Blake is a research librarian in HCL's Widener Library, and a member of HUL's MetaLib Working Group. She received an AB in English language and literature from Smith College and an MA in library science from the University of Wisconsin. Before coming to Harvard in 1989, she held several reference positions and, later, a directorship in public libraries. In Widener's Research Services, she serves as liaison to the English Department and as co-liaison to the Department of Comparative Literature.

Since the June 30 launch of E-Research @ Harvard Libraries, what have we learned?


We've heard some comments from users, although it's a quiet time on campus now. We've heard from people who have found the new features exciting and are starting to experiment with the "My Research" functionality.

Not surprisingly, there's some confusion as well. We are all used to finding things in certain ways. The new system has changed navigation and it's a hard adjustment for many of us. We've found some surprises about how the system functions, as well. I hope that we'll keep hearing from users, whether they're distressed or delighted.

We've also learned that it's crucial to remind users at library workstations to log out of E-Research when they finish searching.

What are the most frequent questions so far?

In the old E-Resources menu, you could browse simultaneously for e-resources and e-journals alphabetically by title. The size of the growing e-journal inventory in MetaLib—over 22,000 titles—makes scrolling through an "A-to-Z" list impractical. It's important to tell users that they can accomplish the same sort of search by using the "starts with" function under "Find E-Journals" and by using truncation if they're not sure of a title. We've also already made improvements to the navigation in these lists.

It's interesting that, with regard to the "A-to-Z" list, the University of Maryland experienced this same complaint at the time of their MetaLib launch, but find that it is no longer an issue with their users.

Did you anticipate questions that have not been asked?

Federated searching—the ability to search in more than one resource at a time—is in some flux. And one of the anomalies is that it's difficult to do a search by author. You can certainly enter an author's name as a keyword, but your results will include works by the author and those that cite the author.

What's the genesis of the MetaLib project?

Harvard's collections of electronic resources have grown astronomically in recent years. In 1998, Harvard offered access to 615 e-resources, including e-journal collections. At the close of FY '04, the number was over 6,000. When we count e-resources, we're counting individual databases and indexes. But we're also counting e-book and e-journal collections as single e-resources. As of right now, we're offering access to more than 22,000 individual e-journals. To accommodate that number, we needed different tools on the portal.

For some time the old E-Resources part of the library's portal was becoming more and more unwieldy for users. At the same time, vendors had begun to make federated searching a possibility. The MetaLib tools offered us an opportunity to manage our e-resources more effectively and to give users the option to conduct simultaneous searches.

When did planning for MetaLib begin?

The former Cross Catalog Search function was based on an early version of MetaLib. Three years ago, the ULC approved an OIS project to evaluate the developing set of MetaLib tools, including federated searching, with the intention of replacing the portal e-resource functionality.

For the current launch of "E-Research @ Harvard Libraries," a working group of librarians from across the University has been planning the implementation for over a year. Our colleagues in OIS have done a wonderful job of taking a product that has significant strengths and weaknesses and working with it, to take advantage of the strengths and mitigate the weaknesses. They've worked hard to adapt it to the needs of our community.

It's important to remember that in adopting MetaLib, we are essentially buying a commercial product that is supported by a commercial developer—Ex Libris. If we are to rely on support from Ex Libris, we have to use the tools as Ex Libris developed them. The MetaLib Working Group—and the OIS staff in particular—has walked a very fine line in customizing the MetaLib tools as much as possible without risking the support that we need from the vendor.

What's been the trajectory of the project?

In the time that's elapsed since our initial agreement, MetaLib has evolved and the overall environment has changed dramatically. At one point, we thought that the MetaLib tools might replace the entire Harvard Libraries portal. But as you can see, at this point MetaLib has replaced only the old E-Resources menu on the portal.

Sid Verba has described the MetaLib tools as "Google-like." Can you expand on that?

By selecting Quick Search, users can search for articles and other kinds of information in a number of subject areas. It looks a lot like Google. It has a simple screen with one search box that delivers results immediately. Though it doesn't allow for sophisticated searching, it does bring users to reliable resources within the library collections, and it's a place to find a few articles on a wide range of topics very quickly.

MetaLib has real advantages and a few real drawbacks. What are they?

First, you can save sets of links to resources that you use frequently. Second, you can organize that saved material by course, project, topic, in whatever way is best for you. Third, you can create a set of links, or bookmarks, for the e-journals that you consult most frequently. And, fourth, it's possible to save citations you've found using the cross and quick searches, creating folders for various topics of interest. All of this will save time and effort, and gives users a new space to work in.

Overall, the ability to search across multiple resources simultaneously is something we've been wanting to be able to offer, and now we have the capacity to do that. It creates a whole new way to use our electronic resources.

But there's a downside.

The system doesn't do all that we wish it would. We'd like to have had a more flexible way of helping users find resources by subjects and types, but are somewhat constrained by the software. We are working on giving users the capacity to find e-journals by subject, which isn't present yet. And, federated searching is not a straightforward kind of exercise. Because each resource differs, even if only slightly, from another, MetaLib has to try to translate all of the differences when users are in Quick or Cross Search, and that can sometimes lead to unexpected results. And, as with all new implementations, there are, of course, still a few bugs in the system.

In FY '04, we counted 6 million hits on the HOLLIS catalog and 4.5 million on the portal's e-resources menu. What's the interrelationship of HOLLIS and MetaLib?

One perhaps too simplistic answer is that HOLLIS represents the primary means of intellectual access to the collections of the libraries (together with the other specialized catalogs), and MetaLib offers another increasingly important view of the collections, through an electronic lens, and adds new capacity, especially useful for searching journal literature, with space that users can make their own. They have an interestingly complementary relationship at this point in their development. We rely on multiple tools to give researchers a full picture of the libraries, and these are two of the core set.

Who is best served by MetaLib, and why?

We think that a wide range of researchers will be well served; those who need to find a few reliable sources quickly and with a minimum of exploration will be well served by Quick Search. Researchers working on long-term projects will now have the ability to save citations, links to resources, and e-journals they'll consult as they work. Those whose work is interdisciplinary will more easily search across disciplines, in Cross Search. The system has the capacity to serve users well, and what I'd encourage all researchers to do is ask, either via the "comment" line or in person, for guidance from a librarian.

Relative to the launch, what's being planned for the opening of the fall semester?

We'll review carefully the comments we've received. We'll be refining and expanding the help materials and the "Getting Started" documentation based on the experience of our users over the summer. We may add additional cues to the E-Research home page and other pages. And there are several issues of functionality that we'll be bringing directly to Ex Libris. Librarians are working on their fall instructional programs, planning workshops, and integrating these new tools into their existing programs. This summer we've organized at least one session to bring librarians together to talk about experiences with E-Research and develop best practices for helping users.

We're working toward a smooth opening of the fall semester.


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