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Focus On: Zoe Dickinson

Focus On: Zoe Dickinson

May 23, 2016

Highlighting research by members of the Canadian library and information management community.

2016 MLIS Graduate, School Information Management, Dalhousie University

What is your research topic?

My research is about the discoverability of library collections online. Online searching has become such an integral part of information seeking, for both online and offline resources, and I’m interested in how libraries can best respond to that shift.

My main focus is on search engine visibility. For example, if you google a book title, will your local library’s copy show up in your search results page? At the moment, the answer to that question is almost always “no”. If you were to search for the library itself, the institution’s website would probably be the first result, but if you were to search for one of the resources offered by the library, you would only see Amazon, Harper Collins, and so forth.

Libraries work so hard to make their collections useful and accessible, but those collections are not generally speaking showing up in search engines, which, I would argue, is where the vast majority of people look for information. I want to know why that is, and how libraries can make their resources more visible to online searchers.

What interested you in that topic?

In my first year of library school, we learned about the deep web in an Organisation of Information class. The deep web consists of huge volumes of online content that, whether by choice or accident or technical necessity, is not included in search engine indexes, and thus won’t appear in a regular Google search. It’s even more enormous than the indexed web, and it includes everything from big databases hidden behind paywalls, to individual webpages that simply aren’t linked to other parts of the web.

Anyway, in that first-year class, I was horrified to learn that library catalogues are often part of that deep web. I got talking about the issue with my roommate at the time, Alieda Blandford, who was in the MLIS class ahead of me at Dalhousie, and we both got really passionate about it. We were very concerned about how continuing invisibility in such a popular information forum might impact libraries’ perceived relevance over time. We were also worried about how that might impact the public’s ability to find library resources, as search engines become increasingly ubiquitous.

I’m old enough to remember a time before Google, but the cohort graduating from high school right now has never lived in a pre-search engine world. Their first response to any question is to google it on their smartphones (honestly, that’s my first response too). If libraries don’t begin to participate more actively in this forum, how will that generation connect with their local library?

With all that in mind, I set out to discover why library resources are so often in the deep web, and how we can help bring them up into the surface web where people can see them more easily. That was the beginning of my master’s thesis. The answer turned out to be more complex than I expected, and there are still pieces of the puzzle that I want to continue investigating.

What impact would you like to see your research have on LIS practitioners?

My biggest goal is simply to get LIS professionals talking about this question. This field is full of intelligent and creative individuals, and if we put our collective heads together I feel sure that we can figure out a way to integrate library resources with search engines much more effectively. However, this question doesn’t always occur to LIS practitioners as something needing an answer, or it doesn’t always rise high enough in the list of priorities to really be considered. I hope that my research will convince the LIS community that this is an issue worth addressing.

My goal in speaking to various professionals throughout Canada during my research, and disseminating my research in Canada’s LIS community, is to start a more robust conversation on the topic. Vendors of library technology are also a big part of this conversation, and I think that the more librarians are aware and interested in this topic, the more motivated vendors will be to address it as well. I’ve actually already had a fair bit of interest from some vendors of LIS database solutions, which is really encouraging. The more we all start thinking and talking about it, the more likely we are to come up with answers. My research only barely scratched the surface. There is a lot more work to be done.

What emerging topics do you foresee in the future of LIS research?

I think that library and information science research lives at the intersection of human communities and technology (whether that be a paperback, a 3D printer, or a smartphone). As emerging technologies begin to impact communities, LIS research should be there to help us understand those impacts, and also to help communities navigate the issues surrounding technology. Innovations like social media, the internet of things, and so on, have huge potential for both positive and negative impacts on communities, and I think LIS research has an important role in unlocking the positive potential.

What advice would you give to LIS students or practitioners hoping to engage in research?

Go for it! Be curious, and follow your instincts. I never thought I would do a thesis, but I got really curious about something, and before I knew it I was deep into original research. A lot of the time, research in this field basically amounts to being curious about something, and talking to people until you discover some answers. The answers might not be what you expected, but they will almost certainly be interesting. It’s very empowering to be able to add even one small piece to the knowledge available to LIS professionals.

My other advice for LIS students is to reach out to your professors. I’ve had amazing support and encouragement from the faculty at Dalhousie, and especially from my thesis supervisor, Dr. Smit. We work and study in a very cooperative field, and it’s a huge help to tap into the collective experience of your colleagues and mentors

Select Bibliography

Dickinson, Z. (2016). Public libraries and search engines (master’s thesis). Available at: http://www.collectionscanada.gc.ca/obj/thesescanada/vol2/NSHD/TC-NSHD-71421.pdf

Dickinson, Z. & Smit, M. (2015). Being where the people are: The challenges and benefits of search engine visibility for public libraries. Library Hi Tech News, 32(10), 11-15. Available at: http://www.emeraldinsight.com/doi/10.1108/LHTN-08-2015-0055

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