<span class="padlock_text"></span> v25 #4 Charting Discovery

by | Oct 17, 2013 | 0 comments

by Jesse Holden  (Head, Acquisitions, USC Libraries, University of Southern California)  <jholden@usc.edu>

Magnifier.Discourse about and including the idea of discovery has become ubiquitous with the recent rise of Web-scale discovery services.  So complete has this technological (not to mention lexical) revolution been that the correlation between “library” and “discovery” seems fairly obvious and natural today.

Of course, libraries have always been about discovery on one level or another.  But this emerging concept moves away from previous notions of what it means to discover and, by extension, what it means to search.  A curious way to mark the paradigmatic shift already underway is to look at how librarians themselves view discovery.

The 1943 A.L.A. Glossary of Library Terms (“Prepared under the Direction of the Committee on Library Terminology”) does not include an entry for “discovery.”1  This omission may already seem odd, so common is the use of the term at present.  It may help to take a step back, then, and ask:  What was the official definition of “library” in 1943?  Answer:  A library is “a collection of books and similar material organized and administered for reading, consultation, and study.”  Also, it is a “room, group of rooms, or a building” designated for said purpose.  This definition conveys two things about the library:  first, its inherent materiality;  second, the implication that the library is (or contains) a collection of relatively known things.  The idea of discovery in this context can only be in a very limited sense; that is, whatever information materials are available in the surrounding room(s) or building.  The library was an island to be explored, perhaps, but the information within had already been discovered.

Likely it is not surprising that the 1943 Glossary lacks a definition of discovery.  However, it is interesting to note that the contemporary Online Dictionary for Library and Information Science, the open access resource from ABC-CLIO, also lacks a defined concept of discovery.3  The closest entry is, in fact, “discovery service,” which is defined foremost as “an interface.”  Such a technological ontology for the term can be expected given that much of our conceptual development of the idea of “discovery” the past few years has been technology-driven.  Regarding the “library,” it is worth noting that the Online Dictionary provides rather a more nebulous definition, indicating that a library is “organized to facilitate access” and that its user needs are met by “trained personnel.”  This is a marked change from the overt materiality of the library of 70 years ago; the present-day library has come to include connections as well as collections, and service as well as a physical, administered space.  But even now, the idea of “discovery” is not always integral to the definition of the library.

However, it is undeniable that our emerging concept (or concepts) of discovery are becoming more complex and nuanced as the information landscape becomes more difficult and confusing to navigate.  The very idea of discovery is becoming inextricably tied to the library.  And though this idea certainly carries the connotations of technological development and expanding access to content, it also provides a new framework in which to refine (or even redefine) library collection and service models.

As the featured selections in this issue demonstrate, the concept of discovery goes beyond a simple interface, advanced search algorithms, and electronic content.  Several of the contributors take the conceptual aspects of discovery to the next level.  Scott R. Anderson uses analogues from everyday life to illustrate the valuable potential of mental models in the development of discovery services.  Sam Brooks looks at the potential of discovery services to enhance and enrich the end user experience.  Eddie Neuwirth and Gillian Harrison Cain make a compelling case that discovery creates the possibility to increase the scale of library services while simultaneously promoting the value of those services.  Meanwhile, Virginia Bacon and Ginny Boyer trace the implementation and evolution of a discovery service at East Carolina University, providing a case study for the adoption of (and adaptation to) discovery in a way that impacts the whole library.

Exemplified by these collected articles is the fact that discovery may be approached from many perspectives.  Though some ideas and manifestations overlap, it is clear that those within the information ecosystem are all exploring the concepts and developments of “discovery” along many different paths.


1.  Elizabeth H. Thompson.  A.L.A. Glossary of Library Terms. Chicago: American Library Association, 1943.

(Interestingly, the verso of the Glossary title page features the following notice:

“WAR FORMAT: Any departures from usual A.L.A. style and standards of format in this book are the result of the war.  Conservation of materials and labor through the use of lighter weight paper and smaller type contributes to the thinness of this book.  Shifting personnel attributable to wartime conditions may also have resulted in inconsistencies of style and even in some typographical errors.”)

2. Joan M. Reitz.  Online Dictionary for Library and Information Science (ODLIS). ABC-CLIO, [2013].  Available at: http://www.abc-clio.com/ODLIS/odlis_A.aspx.

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