Deepening the Conversation

thinking about questions of authority, technology, learning, and 2.0 in academic libraries


First Thoughts on Federated Search

We are at early days of discussing federated search at MPOW and I am very leery of the approach we are taking, which seems to be aimed at the predetermined end that we will get a federated product, we just have to decide which features we want.

As is my nature, I want us to discuss whether or not we actually want federated search, and my colleagues have addressed that by asking me to compile a list of my concerns. Federated is something I followed very closely before coming here, but I am admittedly behind the curve on new innovations and improvements in the technology. I have a stack of articles to read up on, and I am sure they will change my concerns. But, to track my own thinking process (publicly) I thought I’d put my initial concerns up here. All feedback is welcome!

  1. Subject databases don’t index their primary subject. A sloppy search in a federated context (and let’s admit up front that there will be lots and lots of sloppy searches) will leave out the most relevant hits – those un-indexed as primary subject
  2. Information literacy requires an ability to select the right tool for the job. Federating assumes the opposite to be true. Format matters (because content is frequently format driven), and if the federated product includes OPAC, newspaper searches, statistical sources and article databases in the search, we are putting the librarian stamp of approval on the assertion that format doesn’t matter.
  3. A single Google box will inspire Google-like searching, which patently does not work with paid, indexed, library resources
  4. The intricacies of library search are not just there for decoration; the indexing and special limiters in each database are there because they serve the purpose of allowing searchers to get better results. Federated search removes many (if not most) of the special features that (a) improve precision and recall in search processes and (b) often drive collection development decisions
  5. I am cautious about how federated effects precision and recall. More better results is the goal, not just more.
  6. My final initial concern is one I have been told is no longer valid: federated search used to pull results in in whatever default order the source databases sorted. For example, and OPAC search would come back with most recent first, and and EBSCO search would come back with relevancy ranking, and some other database would come back with oldest first, and these results would get all mixed up together in a hodge-podge. Is fixed now? In all federated tools?

I’m off to read my articles and refine my thoughts. While I’m doing that, please contribute: what do you like or hate about federated/ What would you look for if you were looking for one? And, if you’re brave, what’s the decision making process like at your POW?