Introducing MCSearch: One search box–for the good stuff

The P.H. Welshimer Memorial Library is pleased to introduce MCSearch to the Milligan College community. What is MCSearch? We think our tagline says it all: “One search box–for the good stuff.”

One search box. Students are familiar with Google and other popular web search engines. They like the ease and convenience of being able to type a few keywords into a search box and get tons of results. But how relevant, reliable, or current is this information for academic research purposes? This is a serious question. Students need to acquire skills for evaluating information accessed from the open web. (The Library provides instruction to students in information literacy skills like information resource evaluation.) However, given a choice between digging hard for the best available information resources or the convenience of a Google search, students are often satisfied with “good enough.”

What if there was a tool available that provided the ease and convenience of a Google search, but the information resources searched and results returned were those provided by the Library? Students could get to the stuff that was truly good instead of just good enough. This is exactly what MCSearch does.

The good stuff. Every year the Library spends tens of thousands of dollars to provide Milligan College students and faculty with high quality information resources to support their coursework and research. Books, media, print and electronic journals and magazines, e-books, subject-based print and electronic reference works (encyclopedias and dictionaries), and numerous subject-based and multidisciplinary databases for accessing journal articles online. We also provide an array of tools such as online library catalogs, journal finders, link resolvers, and database interfaces to help students and faculty search these resources. We make this investment because, frankly (and contrary to much conventional current day “wisdom”), you can’t get everything you need on the open web. Academic information resources are costly to produce, publish and distribute. Although there is a slowly growing open access movement in academic communication online, generally speaking, the good stuff isn’t free.

One search box, again. The “killer feature” that makes a search engine like Google so powerful and compelling is that a single query is applied simultaneously across a multitude of sites and resources on the World Wide Web. Can you imagine having to browse or search each site on the web individually to try to find information you were looking for? I’m showing my age here, but I first got online in 1994, almost 5 years before the Google search engine started attracting attention on the Web. I still remember when Yahoo! was literally just a running list of websites. But enough about that. My point is that search engines have profoundly altered the way we search for information. What if it were possible to apply some of this kind of power when searching the Library’s information resources–a single query applied simultaneously to the Library catalog and databases, rather than searching each of these sources individually? This is exactly what MCSearch does.

The emphasis is on discovery. As the Library evaluated the various print and electronic information resources it provides to students and faculty, it occurred to us that in many ways we have enough stuff. What we felt we needed was a way to make the stuff we have more discoverable. MCSearch is not about “dumbing down” the research process, or pandering to the bad study habits of lazy students. Using a search engine effectively still requires skill and discernment. But because MCSearch applies a search query across a range of Library resources and formats at once, it can bring to the surface information a student may not have otherwise discovered through conventional means. This brings a delightful element of serendipity to the research process.

Filter on the way out. Because general or broad keyword searches tend to return too many results that are not necessarily relevant, conventional catalog and database searching with limited features encourages the user to formulate precise search queries in advance to get the best results. MCSearch also allows the user to apply limiters to search queries in advance to narrow search results. However, a particularly powerful capability of MCSearch is the ability to filter results after the search is completed. MCSearch includes the ability to easily refine or “facet” results by various criteria (date, format, subject, provider, etc.). This capability removes the “problem” of too many results, while still providing the opportunity to discover valuable resources from unexpected sources.

Try it out now! We will be providing more usage assistance in subsequent posts and instruction sessions. But right now I would like to encourage you to just take some time to play around with MCSearch and get familiar with its capabilities. Feel free to contact us with any questions, and we especially welcome your feedback.

“When you’re used to paper rolls it takes some time to convert to turning pages of a book.”

“Medieval Helpdesk” sketch from the Øystein og jeg show from the Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation (NRK), 2007.

I originally published this post on my now mothballed blog, Voyage of the Paradigm Ship on February 22, 2009. Even two years later, I think it is a relevant commentary as we observe the technological developments of the book form on various electronic platforms.

In this video we see the medieval equivalent of the IT guy making a house call (in true Geek Squad fashion) to help walk a frustrated user through a new piece of technology. The situation is familiar to most people (especially those of us over a certain age), though the time-shift takes us off guard. That’s what makes the sketch so hilarious. Familiarity in an unfamiliar context. As a non-Norwegian-speaking person, I find this “familiarity in the midst of unfamiliarity” dynamic enhanced even further.

I imagine that many people watching this video will, in fact, identify with the described situation while thinking of an analogous modern situation, such as learning to use a computer, a new piece of software, or the latest consumer electronics gadget. But as a librarian, I am interested in the described situation itself. Although the historical time-frame is off slightly, the sketch allows me to imagine the cultural, intellectual, and (even) emotional processing that accompanied the technological transition in the form of the book from roll/scroll to codex.

With the benefit of this perspective, I can extrapolate some of the processing required as we are once again approaching a credible point of transition in book form from paper to electronic (i.e., the so-called e-book). I am not interested in speculating about the imminent demise of the ink on paper book, which I do not see. Rather, and at the risk of over-analyzing a two-and-a-half minute bit of humor, I am interested in thinking about human interaction with and reactions to technology at points of significant technological transition, such as the maturing of the e-book format, which I do think is now well underway.

The “familiarity in the midst of unfamiliarity” dynamic of the sketch allows us the space to see, by analogy, that the form of the book we all take for granted was itself a technological innovation that encountered significant resistance to adoption in the presence of an existing and presumably satisfactory alternative—the book roll. Vocal detractors to the codex as an appropriate form for literary texts were well known in first and second century Roman society.

Brother Ansgar says, “When you’re used to paper rolls it takes some time to convert to turn[ing] pages of a [book].” Familiarity to the point of taking a technology for granted is a key point exposed in the sketch and shouldn’t be missed. Adoption of any technology by a society and individuals within that society becomes complete when that technology effectively disappears as a technology—it becomes ubiquitous. That is why technological developments that disturb ubiquity are frequently met with resistance. After fifteen hundred plus years it’s easy to forget that the printed book as we have it today is still a technology, an invented thing that hasn’t always been.

Notice how this ubiquity is reflected in modern language usage. Here is a definition for the word “codex” from the New Oxford American Dictionary, 2nd Edition (2005):

Notice the phrases “in book form” and “hence a book.” The definition is offered from the standpoint of “everyone knows (is familiar with) what a book is, and a codex is like a book in its form.” This definition is not untrue. But this usage reinforces identification with what is ubiquitous, and inadvertently contributes to resistance to change. How can an e-book be a real book? I imagine that a literate person in second century Rome would vigorously reject this dictionary definition. He or she would say that while a codex might be fine for keeping a grocery list, or for children to use to practice their alphabet, it is definitely not a book! “Would you read Virgil’s Aeneid on a grocery list?!” How far off is this, really, from someone today saying, “Would you read Virgil’s Aeneid off a computer screen?!”?

I have gone to persistent pains in this post to talk about the roll/scroll, codex, printed book, and e-book as book forms. I will even throw-in a text inscribed on a clay tablet as an authentic book form. Literate Akkadians or Babylonians certainly thought so as they read the Epic of Gilgamesh! I disagree, however, with the notion that a book is only about content. It does seem significant that a book needs to have a form—needs to be in some sense a discrete object that exists as a container for its associated content. But why can’t that discrete object be a digital file accessible in virtual space at the click of a mouse, or the touch of a screen?

I know there are a raft of conscious and unconscious, social and conventional, personal and emotional associations that build-up over time to authorize a book form as ‘real’ and authentic (e.g., the dictionary definition above). But these associations are learned, as the use of any technology is learned. From the safe distance of several centuries we can laugh at Brother Ansgar for his technological difficulty with something that, to us, is so obvious. But if we laugh we’re really only laughing at ourselves. If a codex can become a ‘real’ book even if at one time it was not deemed to be so, then by analogy an e-book should be able to acquire a similar authorization. It’s just a question of time.

While writing this post I stumbled across an article by John Siracusa on Ars Technica entitled, “The once and future e-book: on reading in the digital age.” Siracusa was involved with efforts in the 1990s to get e-books adopted into the publishing and reading mainstream. Although I disagree with his contention that the book is format agnostic, and only about content, his article is otherwise very illuminating and well-worth a read. I may interact with Siracusa’s article further in a subsequent post because he addresses some of the common technological issues that have hampered the pace of wide-spread e-book adoption (like the Medieval Helpdesk producing their user manual for the codex in codex form! “Oh. We hadn’t thought about that.”).

Coming attractions: Ebook improvements!

Everyone who works in the Milligan College Library has had the following experience. A student asks for help finding a book, we go over with them to the catalog to search their subject. When scanning the results list, the student finds an item they like. We mention that it is an electronic book. The student sighs and asks if we have a “real” version of the book. By “real” they mean, “Do we have the book in print?” We sigh and try to explain the strong points of an electronic book. But we know in our hearts why students are reluctant to use our collection of electronic books (which now exceeds 73,000 titles–approaching 50% of our entire book collection in all formats!). The interfaces are clunky, require too much clicking, and on-screen readability is poor.

Libraries have been purchasing electronic versions of books for over a decade. While many librarians were aware of user reluctance to use them, libraries continued to buy ebooks because of convenience and other advantages, including attractive pricing. And because libraries continued to purchase ebooks, vendors often felt little pressure to improve their products. NetLibrary, the largest source of ebooks in the Milligan Library collection, has done little to improve their interface in the past 10 years.

The original Kindle ereader from

In 2007 released the Kindle for $399, and the ereader/ebook world as we knew it began to change. This was not the first attempt at an ereader. I remember seeing some Sony products at a library conference over 10 years ago. But they were too expensive, had too few book choices, and were unwieldy. They never caught on. It seems Amazon did their homework and figured out what features people really wanted in an ereader, and the types of books people wanted to read. They had the ability to deliver on both by leveraging their well-developed online book distribution system and massive purchasing power to negotiate Kindle-compatible editions with publishers. Kindles have also continued to drop in price. Amazon just released an ad-supported Kindle for $114, a price that will likely fall to under $100 by Christmas. Amazon has also extended its reach by providing Kindle book reading software applications that work on various computer, smartphone, and tablet devices. I’m not necessarily promoting the Kindle. Its proprietary (closed) file format is especially problematic for use in a library context. But Amazon has probably been the most successful to date in raising the profile of ebooks to the general public by releasing a viable, easy to use, and relatively inexpensive reading device into its hugely popular online marketplace.

Now that an increasing number of library users have experienced the wonders of ereaders, they are even more frustrated by the limitations of ebooks available from academic libraries. They want user-friendly interfaces that work on their ereaders and other mobile devices (e.g., smartphones and tablet computers). In short, they want the “Kindle experience” when accessing ebooks from the library.

That experience may be getting closer to reality. About a year ago, NetLibrary was purchased by EBSCO. You may already be familiar with this company through the use of its popular library-provided EBSCOhost journal databases—ATLAS, CINAHL, Education Research Complete, Humanities International Complete, PsycINFO, and others. When Milligan librarians learned that NetLibrary was purchased by EBSCO we were hopeful that they would work to make the product more attractive for our users.

Last summer EBSCO began surveying all NetLibrary libraries asking for feedback on ways to improve the interface. Based on the questions EBSCO was asking, the library staff was cautiously optimistic that NetLibrary would finally be getting a much-needed makeover in the right way. We were not disappointed. A new NetLibrary interface will be rolled out over the summer utilizing the EBSCOhost database platform. We have seen previews and demos. While not absolutely perfect, the interface is much improved and easier to navigate. There is built-in note taking, dictionary look-up, citation creation and export, and enhanced printing.

Most exciting, we have learned that EBSCO is developing an app for iPhone/iPad and Android mobile devices that will, via a personal Adobe Digital Editions account, enable NetLibrary ebooks to be downloaded (essentially “checked out”) on to your device for a specified period of time! To accompany these changes, EBSCO is retiring the NetLibrary moniker, and is simply calling the service eBooks on EBSCOhost.

Watch this blog for further updates as this story continues to unfold!

“The library is the hub about which the academic wheel of education turns”

Librarian John W. Neth, Jr., with his student assistants. Photograph from the 1954 Milligan College yearbook.

This post was originally published on my personal blog, Voyage of the Paradigm Ship on May 25, 2009. I am in the process of de-commissioning the Paradigm Ship but plan to periodically republish relevant posts here.

The other day a professor handed me a photocopy of an article he stumbled across while browsing back issues of The Stampede, Milligan College’s student-run newspaper. The article was entitled “Library News,” and was dated Tuesday, October 15, 1953.

The article reported on the recent arrival of the new librarian, John W. Neth, Jr., and changes he was instituting in the Library. In 1953, the Milligan College Library was not housed in its own building, but occupied several rooms in Derthick Hall, the main administration and classroom building. A floor plan of the reorganized library was included in the article.

I read the article with a mixture of amusement over how much has changed in libraries and librarianship over the past 55 years, and admiration over how much has remained the same.

The users of the Milligan College Library are noting a definite trend toward a more efficient arrangement of the available facilities in relation to usability … [The] atmosphere of the library is taking on an air of interest.

Giving priority to “usability” and providing an “atmosphere of interest” for users remain very important in the contemporary library. Of course, deference to the user had its limits.

[T]hese changes have been accompanied by correspondingly necessary rules.

Well sure, we still have “rules” today—print periodicals and reference works do not circulate, and we still expect the “return of circulated books on or before the due date”—but we have broken down other long-standing library mores. We no longer prohibit “bringing…soft drinks namely cokes, into the library,” and student discussions (talking) in the library are no longer limited to “subjects relative to their search.” Today we merely ask students who bring food or drink in the library to clean-up after themselves, and while we no longer shush students for talking, we do ask that they consider and respect their neighbors as they interact.

The old rules reflect an understanding of the library as a place primarily where information resources are stored and searched. Emphasis was placed on protecting these resources and controlling the study environment. Today we have a primary desire to make the library a more open and welcoming place. We are less obsessed with control. We recognize that learning is a social activity, and learning is best facilitated when the study environment is comfortable and (even) domestic (I got this term from Scott Bennett).

In 1953, students had to come to the library because that was the only place where information resources could be accessed. Today, while we still stock our physical shelves with books to support the research needs of our students, the storage function of the library has diminished significantly in the face of anywhere/anytime access of information resources in electronic format just a few clicks away, starting from the library website. Students no longer have to come to the library. Whether or not they will depends on the library being more than a storage facility. The question of whether the relaxation of “rules” is pandering to the user, as I imagine Mr. Neth might have insisted, is way past moot. The role of the library itself has changed that much.

But what about the role of the librarian? Rule 5 presents an interesting paradox:

The last resort in any research problem is seeking the assistance of the Librarian. [Consult] the Card Catalog, the encyclopedia and dictionaries, the special reference collection and periodical indexes, and then finally consult the Librarian. However, no one should leave the library without an answer to the question at hand until all the above have been consulted.

The last resort?! At first I was taken aback by the brashness of wording that could be construed as communicating the librarian’s time was too important to be pestered by students seeking assistance with their research questions. But in fairness to Mr. Neth, he was the only full-time staff person, running all the functions of the library with the help of some student workers. Today we have three full-time librarians, a part-time librarian, two part-time paraprofessionals, and a small army of student workers. Even considering that the library was significantly smaller in 1953, Mr. Neth’s time was definitely at a premium.

Seen more positively, this rule (even if originally motivated by pragmatic concern) provoked students to take greater ownership for the research process, and propagated in them a self-service attitude well before its time. Although there are still students who come into the library (often at the last minute) hoping that a librarian will do all their resource searching work for them (yeah right), the democratization of information access fostered by the Web has encouraged all of us to rely less on professionals and experts as authoritative mediators—at least initially. We like being able to seek-out our own answers. The librarian’s role has shifted from mediating information to instructing students how to search effectively for information, and how to better evaluate the quality and relevance of that information for the intended use. Librarians are also more involved educationally in getting students to think-through their research topics, and composing a manageable thesis. We then set them loose. Assuming we aren’t leaving students entirely to their own devices as we endorse a self-service attitude, the rule has a very contemporary ring to it. I like it.

I also like the way the article closes. Mr. Neth expresses a key affirmation of the function academic libraries should play on every college or university campus—both symbolically and in actuality. This affirmation remains every bit as timely and relevant today as it did over half a century ago:

The library is the hub about which the academic wheel of education turns. It is as much a tool in the process of gaining knowledge as is any other individual tool in that program.

Milligan College History, Now Available Online

P.H. Welshimer Memorial Library and the Milligan College Archives are proud to announce the availability of a trove of Milligan documents online, through a mass-digitization project recently completed in collaboration with Appalachian College Association (ACA) and Lyrasis, with funding from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.

Milligan’s site is hosted on Internet Archive, and serves as a portal to a collection that includes Bulletins and Catalogs (1880-2008), Stampede newspapers (1940-2005), and a full run of Buffalo yearbooks (1915-2010). These are all freely available for viewing online or download in a variety of formats, and are fully searchable.

The landing page for Milligan Colleges Internet Archive collection

For example, say I wanted to see what Dr. Jeanes was up to during his college days. He graduated in 1968, so let’s look at the 1968 Buffalo. From our Internet Archive site, click on “B” in the “Browse by Author” field. This takes us to all the items with authors beginning with B (in this case, Buffalo Staff), arranged by date scanned. I then sort by date (they’ll be in reverse-chronological order.) Scroll down, and click on Buffalo 1968.

Sort by date

Click "Date" under "Sort results by"

The front page for each item looks very much like the main page, but includes information about this specific item, and links under “View the book” to various formats (including PDF, EPUB, and Kindle, available to download). The online viewing is gorgeous and easy to navigate. Click “Read Online.” Each book “opens” to the title page, in a two-page spread view.

First page displayed in 1968 Buffalo.

To “turn the page,” click anywhere within the right page to advance, or the left page to turn back. (Alternatively, click on the arrows at the bottom right corner, or by dragging the finger-shaped scroll button.) Clicking the “down” arrow in the lower right hides the toolbar, allowing full-page, full screen viewing. The other buttons in the bottom corner allow single-page, two-page, or all-page (tiled thumbnails) viewing, as well as zoom in or out.

Navigation buttons

The search box at the top will search all printed text (not graphics). To find Don Jeanes, type “Jeanes” into the box, and click “Go.”

Search box

Search results display as tear drop-shaped icons along the scroll bar at the bottom. Hovering the cursor over the “hit” displays a snippet of the searched word in context, and clicking on icon turns to the relevant page, with search term highlighted in blue.

"Jeanes," found.

This project has already been extremely helpful to me as Archivist. I have been able to answer inquiries with direct links to quality images of our books, rather than flipping through pages and pages by hand, and then scanning individual pages piecemeal. I hope the Milligan College community will find this equally useful, and will have fun exploring some of our history!