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Academic search engines

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The challenge for librarians

We live in an era of instant information. Supposing, for example, I want to find out about Siamese cats, a search query in Google will instantly put me in touch with useful websites where I can find out all about the breed, and even purchase a cat or rehome one I can no longer look after (see Figure 1, below).

Image: Figure 1. Screenshot of  Google search results for Siamese cat.

Figure 1. Google search results for "Siamese cat"

There has been much concern in academic library circles that students are infected by this sort of instant information gratification, which has set them against the more structured world of libraries. Many libraries have considerable resources in the form of databases to which they subscribe, recommended websites, e-journals, gateways, etc. For an example see Figure 2, below, of a screenshot depicting the University of Bedfordshire's "digital library".

Image - Figure 2. Screenshot showing the University of Bedfordshire’s "digital library".

Figure 2. Screenshot showing the University of Bedfordshire’s "digital library"

But for many, checking through all these resources is just too much trouble: users want the "one-stop-shop" approach of Google.

The OCLC Online Computer Library Center carried out a survey in 2005 on search behaviour, and found that 84 per cent of respondents used web search engines to look for information compared with 1 per cent who used the library web page. Libraries were regarded as places for books rather than electronic information and librarians were rarely consulted (Myhill, 2007).

The problem with this approach, however, is that whereas search engines are fine for general requirements, they are rarely suitable for academic information. Search engines do not have access to the important subscription-only databases or the "invisible web" – where many academic documents are stored, their retrieval process is too random and unstructured, and the results are open to manipulation (famously an example of which was the "Googlebomb" whereby entering the words "miserable failure" into Google brought up an entry on George Bush [Chen, 2006]).

Studies have shown (see the library management viewpoint on User studies) that users want to be able to search library resources, where they can be sure of the quality, but without having to learn complex search strategies or search across multiple databases (understandable, as many libraries subscribe to hundreds). Ideally they want a single interface which draws all these databases together into one search operation.

How then should the librarian advise, and how can the library itself create this quality controlled one-stop-shop search environment?

There are a number of search options for more academic material, which range from the freely provided services such as Google Scholar through to the complex federated search systems which enable the library to create a gateway to its resources. Before considering these options, we need to look in a bit more detail at the nature of the academic invisible web, and why it is inaccessible to "ordinary" search engines such as Google and Yahoo.