Monday, May 5, 2008

how could Google help search in academic libraries?

John Wilkin has an interesting post about various ways Google Scholar could add functionality that would help academic library patrons get to the specialized databases provided by academic libraries. Interestingly, he brings Anurag Acharya, the guy who created Google Scholar, in on the discussion. The ideas generally have to do with learning about the user's needs and then pointing them to the more specialized resources. The post really addresses the problem of metasearch, that is, finding a way to give users a simple, single search box and get them from there to some of the richer, more powerful databases produced for academic research.

But what about once a library patron is in a research database like MLA Bibliography, Historical Abstracts, or Psychinfo? Many of these resources are fairly primitive when it comes to the search functionality and content that they cover. Often you get to search the citations, abstracts, sometimes the fulltext of academic articles. Sure, sometimes more is less, but typically, they don't cover the increasing amount of scholarly material that is out there on the open web. They also certainly don't offer the fulltext of books.

If Google (or another big search vendor) offered a platform that database vendors could mount their systems on, those vendors could make so much better products. Services available to the vendor could include:
  • access to Google search software
  • ability to create an continually updated index of portions of the web alongside proprietary data
  • ability to provide advanced search functionality and data analysis specific to the needs of a particular discipline
  • access to Google Books index
Google already sort of offers some of this functionality with its APIs, which could allow mixing results from things like Google Custom Search and Google Books into results from an external resource. But I'm thinking here of an even deeper level of integration. Imagine Historical Abstracts if it also included high quality history websites (including digital archives) and the full text of books in its results.

I suspect that it wouldn't be worth it to Google to design a product for the library research sector. This would need to be an infrastructure product that could span proprietary search needs of multiple industries.

When we got a Search Appliance here at Lewis & Clark, I have to admit, I was kind of disappointed playing around with the admin interface, that you couldn't easily mix in parts of Google's web index with your own proprietary stuff. Guess this is sort of what I'm asking for here.

Scirus is sort of a development in this direction, that is a hybrid of the research database and search engine. Another sort-of-related idea: Dan Cohen has called for Google Books to open up its APIs for scholarly inquiry.

Some folks will no doubt be horrified that I'm suggesting putting more of our eggs in Google's basket. But the idea really is about bringing web scale infrastructure to the service of more specialized, niche needs. Not giving ourselves over to Google, but rather using their data and software as a platform on which to accomplish bigger things.

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