Wasn’t Columbus a “Discovery Service”?

I know that most people think they know what the word “science” means. But if you ask a person for a definition of the word “science”, the result will most likely make astrology a “science”. Since astrology is definitely not a science, one realizes that we humans often employ words and terms for which we don’t have a complete understanding.

It is my feeling that in the library world, “discovery service” is one such term. I use it, and I talk to students about our “discovery service”; but my general feeling is that we all agree not to ask what the heck that really means.

So this week I’m gonna dissect the McNairy Library website a little in order to provide some insight into our “discovery service”.

The “Mouth” of the discovery service

The most visible part of the “discovery service” is the search box that is prominently displayed on our website:

The mouth of the discovery service in the red circle

The front end of the discovery service looks like Google. Many users use the discovery service like Google, asking it questions. They put entire sentences into the discovery service like “What is the Uncertainty Reduction Theory?” This is not a good idea. [Clarification: The Uncertainty Reduction Theory is a good idea, but entering entire sentences into an academic discovery service usually is not.]

This type of searching is called “natural language” searching. It’s as if you were asking someone a question. It works for Google, because Google employs “natural language processing” for its website. Most academic discovery services do not employ “natural language processing” [That may change in the future, but for the present: be here now.]

Google is like a car meant for the average consumer. You can put any type of gasoline into it; you can put any type of oil into it; you can install cheap spark plugs: it will probably still run.

But academic discovery services are like Ferraris. They’re not meant for the average consumer. You have to use high octane gasoline; you have to use specific oil types; you have to use spark plugs that are miniature light-sabers. If you want the performance of a Ferrari, you have to deal with the fact that there are certain things you need to do. Academic discovery services are like Ferraris: If you want true performance, you gotta bump up your game!

The “Back end” of the discovery service: Search results

When using the discovery service on the McNairy Library website, just enter the terms that are important, in our case: Uncertainty Reduction Theory [which, by the way, is a concept used in Communications studies]. When you perform a search for uncertainty reduction theory, you get the following 10,700 results:

Results of search without quotation marks

Let’s take a look at three things that the discovery service provides here, on the back end:

1- Your search terms are formatted in bold lettering in the search results. This allows you to quickly scan the records and decide if the search results are relevant;

2-  There is a “Research Starter” at the top of the search results. For many topics, the discovery service provides encyclopedia articles that provide a quick overview of the topic as well as other resources to pursue.

3- There are 10,700 items in your search results.

10,700 items are way too many to look through.

When using most discovery services (even Google), put quotation marks around concepts. In our case, the search for “uncertainty reduction theory” results in 768 records:

Getting better results using quotation marks for concepts

By using quotation marks around the three-word concept, we were able to get better targeted search results from the discovery service. In fact, we weeded out 10,000 items.

Still, 768 results are still too many to look through. We need to limit our results. In the left hand column of the search results, there are many different “limiters” that we can apply:

Full-text and Scholarly (peer reviewed) limiters applied

In the image above, you can see that by limiting the results to “Full Text” and “Scholarly (Peer Reviewed)”, we have shaved off 300 search results from our list.

If you look in the “Subject” section of the left column*, you will see that there is an option for “uncertainty reduction theory (communication) (247)”. If you choose that option, you limit your search results to 247 items that have been assigned the “uncertainty reduction theory (communication)” subject heading.

By applying the limiters in the left hand column, the user can get better targeted results.

My suggestions for applying limiters

1- If you’re looking for books in the library -> “Catalog only” limiter- This limits your results to books that the library has in its collection.

2- If you’re looking for digital articles that you can access right away -> “Full Text” limiter- This limits your results to resources that you can access right away, i.e. without using the “Request It” links.

3- If your professor says that your sources have to be “peer reviewed”, “scholarly”, or “from an academic journal” ->”Scholarly (Peer Reviewed) Journals”. Use this in conjunction with the “Full Text” limiter for quick satisfaction.

4- If your professor says that your sources have to be within a certain time period -> “Publication Date” limiter.

5- If you feel that your topic is too broad -> Use the “Subject” section. Click on the “Show more” link in that section to see all sub-topics. Choose the sub-topics and then click the “Update” button. When you get those results, you can do this again. I find that as you drill down into sub-topics, new sub-topics will appear.

The “Guts” of the discovery service: Between the “Mouth” and the “Back-end”

Users often wonder why the discovery service provides them with resources that the library doesn’t have. That’s because the discovery service does not limit itself to items in the library collection, the idea being that the user should be given as much information about what is available on a topic, whether the library has those resources or not [For those users who only want to see what’s in the library’s collection, they should access the library catalog: Go to the library’s webpage at www.library.millersville.edu> Click on “Books, eBooks, and Video”> Click on “Millersville University Library Catalog”].

The “guts” of a discovery service includes records from many different collections and resources. Basically, the discovery service collects the data from most of the databases in our collection (to see the numerous databases available in the McNairy Library, go to our database list at http://www.library.millersville.edu/libguides/all-databases-title) and uses that collection of data as the basis for “discovery”. This vast trove of information from many different sources, each with its own unique data structure, is squished together, hidden behind the simple, “Google-like” search box that seems to say, “This is all so simple.”

And then, once a search is initiated, not only does it have to find the records that match, it also then has to search for the PDF files or the URLs that will take the user to the resources that the library has access to. The whole thing is quite a production. For those of us who used libraries before the “Digital Age”, we find it to be miraculous.

If you need help using the “discovery service”, please feel free to contact me at nathan.pease@millersville.edu. Or you can use the library’s “Ask a librarian” service at http://www.library.millersville.edu/tools-services/ask-librarian.


*Full disclosure statement: Although I will often refer to all the sections in the left-hand column as “limiters”, I should tell you that within this discovery service only the “Limit to” section contains official “limiters”. All other sections in the left-hand column are “facets”.


Lee, Russell. Holstein cow at Casa Grande Valley Farms. Pinal County, Arizona. She yielded 497 pounds of butterfat in 370 days. On test 77 cows of the Casa Grande Farm yielded an average of 386 pounds of butter fat in 365 days. This was the highest in the state for that many cows. 1940. Photograph. Lib. of Cong., Washington D.C. Lib. of Cong. Web. 23 Oct. 2015. <http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/fsa2000017645/PP/>.

[Nathan Pease is an adjunct Research Librarian at the McNairy Library and Learning Forum on the campus of Millersville University. In his spare time, Mr. Pease digitizes out-of-print vinyl records and plays “European board games” such as Targi, Pandemic, Dominion, among others. He also volunteers and works part-time at LancasterHistory.Org, also known as the Lancaster County Historical Society.]