September 26, 2023

Discovery at Dartmouth


The Ivy League university was a beta partner for the Summon discovery service in 2008. LJ asked Dartmouth administrators about their experiences on the cutting edge

Photo by Carolyn Bates Photography

Visitors to the Baker-Berry Library, the largest library of Dartmouth College, in Hanover, NH, will be struck first by its size. It functions as the humanities and social sciences library for the university, and its many features indicate a focus on serving users. Its reference area is spacious and inviting, bustling with graduate and undergraduate students using its terminals. A tour reveals a map room and a massive media center, as well as a bustling café, multiple study areas, classrooms, and administrative offices. The library as a whole has a capacity of some two million volumes and is only one of many libraries on the campus, which includes more than one biomedical library, a business and engineering library, and a physical sciences library, among others.

The front of the Baker-Berry Library (the Baker section), home to its picturesque tower and main entrance, was dedicated in 1928. But the newer wing (Berry) illustrates an airy and distinctly modern construction—it contains the tech-filled reference area. It opened in 2000, with work completed in 2002. If these halls could talk, they might say, “Treasure the past, but also look to the future.”

It’s a philosophy that Dartmouth takes to heart. While honoring libraries’ ongoing tradition of service, it’s always on the lookout for new ways to improve. In the 1980s, for example, it was one of the first academic libraries to implement an online library catalog. It is only fitting that it would be one of the first libraries to test-drive a next-generation discovery service like Serials Solutions’ Summon.

Though Dartmouth could only provide rough statistics for Summon usage at its school, Dartmouth deputy librarian Cynthia Pawlek tells LJ that in 2011 Summon received an average monthly total of 10,500 visits, with an average of about 40,000 searches per month. Summon usage has doubled since 2010, she says, and has grown three to four times since it was formally released publicly in mid-2009.

Summon implementations, meanwhile, have also grown significantly. Since the initial Summon betas began in 2008, more than 300 libraries worldwide now subscribe to the service.

Listening closely

The road to Summon started with Dartmouth’s focus on services. “Dartmouth Library has had a long tradition of thinking about its users,” dean of libraries and librarian of the college Jeffrey Horrell tells LJ. In 2008, for example, the library formed a group to take a close look at next-generation services and systems landscape, drawing on opinions from faculty, staff, and students to see what tools could help Dartmouth make the best use of its collections. (A similar group was formed again late last year to look at new open source and commercial library products.) “It’s important to talk to first-year students as well as scholars who have been working in their fields for decades, because their ways of working continue to change,” says Horrell. “And we have to be listening to that.”

David Seaman, Dartmouth’s associate librarian for information management, echoes that user-centric sentiment. “We’re fairly close to our users,” he says. “We’re not a huge institution, so we have a long tradition of asking them what they think and paying attention to what they say.” (Dartmouth has approximately 4200 undergraduate and 1900 graduate students.) The tradition extends to looking at new library technologies. “What we prefer to do is rather than evaluating products, we like to step back and say, ‘What do we want to do?’ ” Seaman says.

In the group’s report “Next-Generation Systems at Dartmouth College,” released in September 2008, the No. 1 need was listed right at the top, on the very first page:

We currently have a super abundance of resources accessed through a complex, disjointed discovery layer…. We need to strive for much simpler ways to find much more relevant information.

One search box to rule them all—federated discovery
of all available resources (print, media, electronic resources) from a single point of entry is an overarching need.

Next generation services must radically enhance resource integration and move us on from the isolated data silos of the present.

Around the time that Dartmouth’s next-generation library systems team was putting together its report, a seemingly made-to-order next-generation product arrived on their doorstep. Dartmouth was approached by ProQuest, which was developing a new Serials Solutions discovery service—not a federated service but one that would include all the materials in a library’s collection, from academic journals down to catalog records—and the company, which is the parent of Serials Solutions, wanted to know whether Dartmouth would be interested in becoming a beta partner. “For our first beta partners, we were looking for people that we knew were experts and would be good to work with,” John Law, VP of discovery solutions at Serials Solutions, tells LJ. (Oklahoma State University, Stillwater, was approached at the same time and also became an initial beta partner.)

The discovery service, as-yet-unnamed at the time and now known as Summon, had a catchy concept, to be sure: a single search box with which a user could search all of a library’s resources, including the library catalog, using a unified index.

Summon at the start

Summon is a discovery tool that draws on an aggregate index of resources—currently more than 800 million records—to which Serials Solutions regularly adds content from publishing partners. It differs from tools such as Summon’s competitor, EBSCO Discovery Service (EDS), which also uses a base index of content and which can, via its Integrated Search add-on, extend searches to outside sources. Both differ from earlier federated-search tools, which retrieve results through a variety of connectors.

Different types of discovery have their advocates and detractors. Critics of index-only searching say that subject coverage may be lacking without connectors. Critics of federated search say that the heavy use of outside sources can make it unwieldy and less scalable. Dartmouth’s Seaman says that federated search worked fine when dealing with a limited number of information sources but not when the number of different sources climbed into the hundreds.

Dartmouth was no stranger to federated-search tools, including Serials Solutions’ own WebFeat, but Summon’s concept, a huge central index of metadata and full-text content, fit with what Dartmouth was thinking about already—to pull together as much information as possible, in a scalable way, and make it as easily accessible to users as possible.

“We know that time is the biggest factor that all our users are dealing with,” says Horrell. “The simpler and the most efficient way that things can get to them, the better.”

Seaman, who was deeply involved in Dartmouth’s Summon beta process, says, “If we could have one thing, we wanted to have ‘one ring to rule them all’ ”—echoing the next-generation library systems report (and J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings saga) and referring to Summon’s all-in-one discovery.

Summon offered the opportunity for Dartmouth effectively to get in on the ground floor and collaborate with the company on features and content in the new service. “This seemed like an opportunity we should become engaged with, and we’re very pleased that we did,” says Horrell. He adds, “We certainly weren’t doing it just to be the first, or just as a kind of an interesting exercise. We invested a lot of time, a serious amount of time, in this project, but we thought it was worth the ­investment.”

The beta band

To be sure, the beta process was a big undertaking, involving massive amounts of data and plenty of back-and-forth between the college and the company. The months-long beta process involved analysis of the interface and the indexing, followed by extensive user testing and data integration, including the entire library catalog. Serials Solutions, meanwhile, was negotiating contracts with content providers to add to its growing index.

It was a long process, and it made the Dartmouth administration examine the ways that its staff, faculty, and students approach research. “It really challenged us and pushed us,” says Horrell, “and made us think in ways that we probably hadn’t before.” It was also a two-way street. “We pushed [Serials Solutions] in ways that I think were useful to their thinking and, ultimately, to the product as it was developed,” he says. Dartmouth did user testing with a selection of staff, faculty, and students, which provided both the library and Serials Solutions with plentiful feedback.

Two teams made up of Dartmouth College administrators—a beta evaluation team and an outreach coordination team—submitted a joint evaluation report to Horrell in November 2009, and it provides an intriguing look into the beta process and user testing at that time. Undergraduates, in particular, took to Summon immediately, owing to its ease of use, finding it “fast, simple, and familiar.” Familiar to Google, specifically: “It makes an excellent first impression, using a familiar ‘Google-like’ single search box to traverse masses of disparate resources and return relevant results in an attractive, simple presentation,” reads the report. (“As soon as we started testing it, they started telling their friends,” ­Seaman tells LJ.)

Still, there were hiccups. Early concerns were raised about relevancy of some search results—for example, ranking a review of a book higher in search results than the book itself—though more than one staffer noted that relevancy had greatly improved since the early days and noted that Serials Solutions had quickly addressed the issue after receiving feedback. “Having this kind of rapid-fire feedback has been invaluable to ensuring that, with each iteration, we’re getting closer and closer to the goal,” says Serials Solutions’ Law.

Opening windows

Laura Braunstein, a Dartmouth English-language and literature librarian and part of the beta’s outreach team, says that Summon’s wide-ranging discovery offers a good option for first-year students or those whose work spans multiple disciplines. “It’s enough like Google that it’s a good first step for them, but it’s also different enough that it’s a good gateway to learn how searching in library resources is different,” she says.

“It’s a nice place when you really just need to dip your toes in [to a subject], and you don’t need to be an expert,” she says, adding, “We’ll make ourselves less relevant if we think we’re only around for the experts.”

Dartmouth reference bibliographer William Fontaine concurs, saying that Summon “opens that window across disciplines” and “can bring those disciplines into conversation with each other in a way that did not happen in the past.” He points out Summon’s Database Recommender feature, which suggests additional pertinent databases for a user to search based on search results.

He also notes that Summon, while still working out some kinks, is continually being refined by all involved. “It’s an ongoing process,” he notes. “I think that’s kind of the nature of the Summon experience, in that it’s something that they’re continually working on.”

Barbara DeFelice, Dartmouth’s director of digital resources and scholarly communication programs, says that users “were very interested in getting as quickly as possible to the full text” of articles they found in a Summon search. But a problem that came up was that full-text links weren’t working properly for some sources.

Dartmouth made Serials Solutions aware of the problem. “Dartmouth was the first to call this out,” says Serials Solutions’ Law. Previously, Serials Solutions had been using existing tools, such as OpenURL, for link resolution, but Dartmouth’s feedback made clear that a distinct solution was needed. The company rolled out a new Index-Enhanced Direct Linking feature in November 2011, using information from publishers in the Summon index and the Serials Solution knowledgebase to allow more direct linking to many materials. (OpenURL is still used by Summon for materials from providers that don’t provide direct full-text linking.)

Getting specialized

Dartmouth feedback recently led to another new Summon feature, unveiled at the most recent American Library Association Midwinter Meeting, held in January 2012.

More than one Dartmouth staffer noted that students and faculty in highly specialized disciplines tend to favor more specifically tailored search options, such as JSTOR or Google Scholar. Dartmouth’s 2009 Summon evaluation report stated, “Graduate students…held a generally negative view of Summon when compared to subject-specific databases that they use.”

Indeed, a few students LJ spoke with at Dartmouth re­inforced this observation. Natalie Colaneri, a senior studying biology, said she usually started her searches in Google Scholar. Sophomore Aditi Misra, a sophomore also in the sciences, said that Google Scholar was more useful if she wanted something “more specific” in a particularly scientific field.

In an effort to respond to such feedback, Serials Solutions developed a new Summon feature called Discipline Scope Search. A widget creates search boxes targeted at specific disciplines, by keying into a discipline’s unique metadata. “We didn’t cut along the database lines, because that would have been the old-school way of approaching it,” says Law. Instead, a search can look among a wide range of databases and put metadata matches into the search results—pulling relevant articles from an archaeology journal, say, into a geology-related search, allowing more broad discovery.

One thing is certain: Summon will continue to add content and develop new features and functionality. One intriguing development in March 2011, for example, was a partnership between Serials Solutions and the HathiTrust digital archive, which lets Summon-subscribing institutions like Dartmouth (which is also part of HathiTrust) link their print holdings to HathiTrust’s indexing for the more than ten million works in its collection, including full-text indexing for all of HathiTrust’s public domain works, as well as holdings in the library’s collection. Dartmouth, meanwhile, is interested in exploring search customizations in the future using Summon’s application programming interface (API), as well as new mobile ­possibilities.

Summon will continue to listen to its users, as well. Law says that Serials Solutions draws on feedback from many different sources, including an advisory board of partners, which is refreshed with new members each year, and that the original beta partners will continue to be “significant guideposts for feedback.” With those first beta partners, he says, there is “a lot of trust, a lot of credibility. They know a lot about the service and what our mission is.

David Rapp About David Rapp

Associate editor David Rapp previously covered technology for Library Journal.


  1. G Tinker says:

    This isn’t a news feature. It’s an advertisement that reads like it was written by PR flacks at ProQuest or Dartmouth, or both. Cmon LJ, you can do better than this.

  2. Can Dartmouth supply use data? Are they part of a consortium? Astudy i did on OCLCs “WorldCat Local” showed a decline in use of locally owned materials and indexed databases. User enthusiasm for theproduct does not mean they are finding and using the best sources.