Curation for Discoverability: When Buzzwords Go Bad

A couple of fairly dorky words seem to be getting a lot of play lately: “curation” and “discovery.” Both of these are words that are familiar to librarians, a part of our professional toolkit, but they are being used increasingly in non-library settings. 

March 7, 2013

A couple of fairly dorky words seem to be getting a lot of play lately: “curation” and “discovery.” Both of these are words that are familiar to librarians, a part of our professional toolkit, but they are being used increasingly in non-library settings. 

One bemused bookseller said to me not long ago “everyone’s suddenly talking about curation.” Every time he decided which books to carry, he was making that decision on a host of complex factors, including likelihood it would sell, how it fit the mix in the shop, whether it matched the tastes of his local community of readers, whether it was something he would enjoy recommending to customers, and whether the price and terms of sale made it worth carrying. For every book he decided to stock, there were tens of thousands he didn’t. It’s something you have to get very good at when you have only so much shelf space and have to pay the rent.  
He was a curator; he just never called it that, until he started hearing it from publishers and industry gurus. It was being tossed around enough last year that The Atlantic included it in its “A-Z Guide to 2012’s Worst Words.” Steve Rosenbaum at Columbia Journalism Review disagreed, saying journalists need to provide “human-filtered, journalist-vetted, intellectually-related material.” 
But the busy hack who doesn’t have the patience to filter and vet can now take advantage of a new service that delivers curated links using a Wordpress plugin and an algorithm you train yourself, with the subscription cost based on how many topics you are following. It’s probably cool technology, but the tagline “discover fresh content and build your SEO” puts me off. I don’t care about search engine optimization. When I curate, it’s not to build an audience or collect clicks. My curation is for myself (things I want to squirrel away for various projects) or for my academic community (resources that fit our curriculum and the interests of individual faculty and students) or for avid readers of Scandinavian crime fiction who happen to follow a blog I keep in fits and starts on that topic. 
“Discovery” was a hot word at Digital Book World this past January. I know, because my friend Heather McCormack got quite cross while tweeting at the conference. Heather, who recently left an editorial job at Library Journal for a gig with 3M’s entry into the library ebook fray, ended up writing a tumblr post about it. Discovery is driven by people, she will tell you, not sales platforms, not algorithms. A DBW speaker announced that discovery (like so many things these days) is broken, in part because his research shows no clear connection to seeing information about a book online and buying it. What’s missing is the human curator, the person who is sharing news about a book they think is interesting and worth reading. Algorithms need not apply. 
Though libraries have always enabled discovery, we didn’t call it that until it was a software layer. We had catalogs, we had indexes, we had databases, and we had too many of them. Discovery layers to the rescue! This expensive and tricky-to-implement software takes in a simple search query and retrieves sources from all of those different databases. For the busy lower-division undergraduate who doesn’t need to fine-tune a search when all he needs is five scholarly articles, it offers something as easy as Google. Only . . . it turns out, maybe not. Because Google puts a lot into tweaking the relevance formula;  discovery layers have a hard time being as slick. And in the end, students still have the same frustration. Turns out, it wasn’t that they couldn’t find sources. They simply weren’t finding the perfect source. And discovery layers don’t make that any easier. 
Though I get annoyed by the incessant merchandizing of the kinds of human skills that librarians have long considered a public service, it does make me think libraries and librarians have something in our traditions that others value. We seem to forget how important it is to help people cut through the clutter. We forget that it takes some subject knowledge and some interpersonal skills to match the needs of a particular community of living, breathing human beings to information resources that they will find worthwhile. We no longer trust our curatorial instincts. The thing today is to simply open up the giant sales catalog and let our customers pick what they want. But they aren't really customers. And sometimes they could use a little help. 
What’s curious is that recent research suggests readers discover books in bookstores – and then buy them online. (The readers who discovered them at Borders shifted to other bookstores. That's why indies were busy last Christmas. But a lot of them have stories about the browser who shops for a deal on their iPhone while browsing the hand-picked stock.) The online platform is better at getting you something you know about than helping you decide what you want. The speaker at Digital Book World suggested that perhaps publishers should do something to preserve bookstores since they lead to sales, but can't survive if the actual sales happen elsewhere. 
Academic libraries are also learning (or ought to learn, if they haven’t heard the news yet) that yes, “discoverability and availability are being decoupled,” right in our libraries. More often than not, our patrons learn about the articles or books they want for their research outside the library – through Google Scholar, or on a blog, or cited by someone else, or mentioned on Twitter. Or because they ran a Google search and a link to a book turned up, and they went to the library to find it. To some extent, this has long been true. Most scholars have always searched for authors they know about or mine references for sources rather than toss subjects at a database. They are curators of their own personal libraries.
But for the undergraduate, providing more results for a search doesn’t help them figure out which will actually be valuable. We need to help them learn how to curate for themselves. Providing simpler interfaces for more unsorted stuff doesn’t really help with that. Maybe we should work harder on the curation thing and ease up on trying to build the ultimate discovery tool. Because in our rush to emulate Google and Amazon we forget that people are key to discovery - people who are interested and curious and discerning, people who are not trying to sell you anything but are willing to help you find the good stuff.


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