Interview with the editors: Shiri and Woolcott on Discoverability in Digital Repositories

Lauren Hays

Lauren Hays

April 11, 2023

Liz Woolcott and Ali Shiri edited Discoverability in Digital Repositories, which is available from Routledge. My interview with them is below. 

1. Please introduce yourselves.

Ali Shiri is a Professor at the School of Library and Information Studies in the University of Alberta, teaching courses in the areas of digital libraries and information organization and retrieval. His research areas focus on digital libraries and repositories, search interfaces, user interaction with digital information, and learning and data analytics. Ali’s current federally funded research project focuses on the development of cultural heritage digital libraries and digital storytelling systems for Inuit communities in Canada’s Northwest Territories

Liz Woolcott is the Associate Dean and Department Head for library collections and served until recently as the Head of Cataloging and Metadata Services at Utah State University Libraries. She has worked with Dublin Core, Encoded Archival Description, and MARC-based record systems for over 16 years. She specializes in assessment of digital objects, metadata structures, and workflows. Additionally, Liz is the co-founder of the Library Workflow Exchange, an open webspace for GLAMR institutions to share procedures and workflows.

2. Briefly summarize Discoverability in Digital Repositories.

Discoverability, the ease with which information can be found by a user, is the cornerstone of all successful digital information platforms. From search engines to Wikipedia to digital libraries, the ability to sift through millions of information objects and select the most relevant content is crucial in an age of information overload. As the gold standard for searchability has shifted from a simple focus on putting material online to a greater understanding of the role of metadata, levels of description, and exposure to search engines, the digital repository practitioner lacks a holistic and comprehensive understanding of how and where discovery happens. Further, they lack an understanding of how to evaluate the platforms they sustain and where their time and effort to bring digital content online could be placed most effectively.

This book brings together current understanding of user needs and behaviors and poses them alongside a deeper examination of technological and infrastructural components of digital repositories around the theme of discoverability. It examines discoverability in digital repositories from both user and system perspectives by exploring how users access content (including their search patterns and habits, need for digital content, effects of outreach, or integration with Wikipedia and other web-based tools) and how systems support or prevent discoverability through the structure or quality of metadata, system interfaces, exposure to search engines, or integration with library discovery tools.

3. Why did you decide to edit this book?

Discoverability in Digital Repositories addresses a field of research and development that has been evolving over the years. One of the primary gaps in the area of discoverability is the lack of a holistic approach to the introduction and evaluation of discovery in digital repositories. Most evaluation studies of discoverability discuss digital repositories as one small piece in a larger ecosystem, with greater emphasis on discovery layers, library systems, or, more frequently, how those two intersect. This book takes a new and holistic approach by providing a deep examination of how discoverability occurs in digital repositories specifically, focusing on a dual view of both systems and user perspectives alongside a robust discussion of the current scholarship on user search patterns.

4. Who is the primary audience? Why?

We imagined and designed this book specifically for digital repository managers and practitioners, who often have to sift through the monographs and articles about discovery layers and library systems to get to the small portion that impacts their work. It was developed with the emerging practitioner as a central audience. Of course, given the comprehensive treatment of topics on discoverability in digital repositories, this book will appeal to students, researchers and educators in library and information science, data science, and information management programs. We anticipate that it will also be attractive to metadata librarians, systems and usability librarians, and user studies librarians. 

5. It seems you feel that digital repositories are a bit different from discovery layers and library systems. In terms of discoverability, why is that? What makes digital repositories unique?

Discovery layers and library systems provide discoverability for a different type of information resource than digital repositories. Library systems often reflect purchased material typically composed of formally published or produced information sources such as books, articles, videos, etc. This book, however, looks at the digital repository on its own, whose material differs from traditional library material in uniqueness, content, description, and life cycle. Digital repository content is often a primary resource for a broader range of digital items and objects, such as digitized archival objects, data sets, or article pre-prints. These materials are housed in platforms separate from purchased or produced information and rely on exposure to search engines as much as institutional discovery products. They are often represented and described by different metadata schemas than formally published material and are usually managed separately by practitioners with a different skill set and a focus on long-term stewardship responsibilities than traditional library material. 

However, digital repository content often needs to be integrated with discovery layers and library systems. JoLinda Thompson, who wrote “Implementing Web-Scale Discovery Services: A Practical Guide for Librarians”, and her colleague Sara Hoover, authored a case study chapter in this book that outlines the process they took to integrate discovery for digital repository collections into their library’s discovery layer. It is a wonderful example of how these systems can coordinate to provide deeper levels of discovery.

6. What are three primary user needs for digital repositories?

The term user needs is rather broad. We could talk about digital repository managers as users, technical staff supporting digital repository systems and interfaces, or end-users who would be conducting searching and browsing tasks in digital repositories. The advantage of this book lies in its inclusive approach to these different target audiences and needs. For end-users, digital repositories can provide rich information and data sets. However, discoverability is always a challenge as most users such as students, researchers, or academics may not be fully familiar with the sophisticated underlying structure of a digital repository. There are chapters in this book that focus on searching and findability as well as metadata as a filtering mechanism to support searching, browsing, and navigation by end-users. It is really an intersection of needs that is highly dependent on the user’s domain knowledge and intent. For instance, in highly specialized repositories, such as data repositories, system structures and functionalities such as controlled vocabulary specificity or faceting may be critical for discovery and navigation. Whereas in more general primary source repositories, exposure in exterior spaces such as search engines or Wikipedia may be the driving force behind discoverability.

7. What changes do you think librarians should make in the future to ensure digital repositories remain accessible?

We think it is important to note that digital repositories can be and often are managed outside of libraries, too, so we really tried to refer to repository “managers” or “practitioners” wherever possible to be inclusive of the many GLAMR fields that support these important resources. Digital repository practitioners can provide support with digital repositories in a variety of ways. One way is by conducting empirical studies of users who interact with and make use of digital repositories in order to understand the information searching and browsing behaviors of users and the challenges that they may face as they use resources within a digital repository. These studies should adopt mixed methods approaches, drawing upon qualitative and quantitative data to ensure that digital repository user experience is properly understood. These studies should inform the improvement of digital repositories and their user interfaces in order to support discoverability. 

Another way is to build multilingual repositories and/or multilingual access to repositories. Several of the chapter authors (Sharon Farnel, Jenn Riley, Oksana Zavalina, and Mary Burke) argue that this is a burgeoning and essential system requirement to build equitable access and broaden the reach of and representation within our digital repositories. Likewise, practitioners should focus on ways that linked data and aggregations can improve the functionality and connection of repositories, particularly to overcome the siloed “institution by institution” model of repository development. Anna Neatrour and Teresa Hebron’s chapter on linked data demonstrates the impact of both connecting resources and enriching the search process. And one of the most essential things practitioners can do is to bring content outside of the repository. Meet the users where they are. Elizabeth Kelly has a wonderfully accessible chapter on incorporating repository content into wikidata and how this can improve discovery and use. 

 8. Is there anything from the chapter authors that surprised you?

We wouldn’t say it was a surprise really, but we felt very privileged to work with such an intensely knowledgeable group. From George MacGregor’s eloquent opening chapter laying out a history of and theoretical model for digital repositories, to Jenn Riley’s masterful command of the metadata landscape, to Danping Dong and Chee Hsien Aaron Tay’s brilliant deep dive into the process and analysis of search engine visibility between two repositories—there is just so much content to nerd out on. 

9. Is there anything else you would like to share?

We are so grateful to the chapter authors who made this book possible and for their willingness to collaborate. All together, we covered three continents and spanned eight time zones, so we had to get creative in finding times to meet over Zoom, or hold discussions over emails. Thank you to everyone for your flexibility and collaborative spirits. And our sincerest gratitude to Tanvi Mohile whose grammar and copy editing skills were absolutely foundational to surfacing and centering the ideas in the text.

Lauren Hays

Lauren Hays

Lauren Hays, PhD, is an Assistant Professor of Instructional Technology at the University of Central Missouri, and a frequent presenter and interviewer on topics related to libraries and librarianship, especially information literacy, educational technology, and library and information science education. Please read Lauren’s other posts relevant to special librarians. And take a look at Lucidea’s powerful integrated library systems, SydneyEnterprise, and GeniePlus, used daily by innovative special librarians in libraries of all types, sizes and budgets.

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