The Streaming Library

Lately I’ve been tasked with giving an introduction to library research. This is common enough for instruction librarians, but since I primarily work with graduating students at the point of dissertation or thesis deposit (with instruction on the side), the shift towards orienting new students to library research has been interesting, for a number of reasons. But primarily it’s the emphasis on library research. Because these days merely existing online has become a kind of research exercise. “Just search up burgers in Astoria,” as my kids like to say; the most mundane decisions now rely on one’s research prowess, the ability to “search up” the right answer. Yet library research somehow entails a different way of being, a mode contingent on the understanding that at one point there were discrete objects that contained answers and you had to know how to navigate those objects without seeing inside them. How, then, to begin?

Google has become a way of life, so how do we begin to talk about research in a library context? One solution has been to slap a big bland search bar on top of every library website, as though our search mechanism were a 1-to-1 analogy with the most ubiquitous search engine on the planet. Not exactly.

There is, however, an analogy that I’ve stumbled upon that seems to work. I think. At least, it seems to make sense to my students—and to my kids and my non-library-researching partner, who listens patiently to me as I describe why this thing makes sense for understanding how modern-day libraries work. So here it is. The instruction session begins like this:

I do a general introduction to library services, borrowing periods, etc. And then I pull up the library website, with our big giant Google-esque search bar. And I stop, to ask the room a question.

“How many of you stream movies or TV shows?”

There’s usually more than a few hands raised. “So let me ask you: how do you find out where something is streaming? If you want to watch a movie, or a TV series, where do you start?”

They look at me slightly confused, then someone will graciously explain to me that Netflix has a search function.

“Yes, but you have to go into Netflix to see if they have it.”

Nods. “And if they don’t have it, what do you do? Well, maybe you have Amazon Prime, which means you get some streaming video included with your membership, so you search there. And if they don’t have it? Maybe you go over to Hulu and see if the movie is there.”

At this point, they are starting to see what I mean. “You have to go into each service to see if what you’re looking for is included in the package. And not only that; it changes! So one day you might log into Hulu and find the whole Criterion collection is gone, because they’ve moved to another platform!”

Again, nods of recognition. “There’s no central place, really, to look up where a movie or TV show is streaming.” That’s when I explain that, sadly, the world has finally caught up with libraries. “The library website is trying to be that central search. We subscribe to online journals, databases, ebook collections, and instead of making you look through all these platforms, we place this shell on top that will search through all of our subscription content and—hopefully—direct you to the right place to access it.”

I then go into a short history lesson about how libraries used to purchase materials for shared use, and how those materials used to live on our shelves. And that catalogs were our “inventory systems” and that these intricate systems of subject headings and classification schemes were necessary to sort and file materials for retrieval. But now, we no longer own those items on our shelves; they are subscriptions that live elsewhere. I call this the Netflix/Hulu problem. And library “discovery” layers are trying to solve the Netflix/Hulu problem.

So far I’ve found that this seems to connect with students. Mostly, it clears up that we are not Google (Google doesn’t have to worry about subscriptions). We’re not actually trying to serve up all possible materials on a topic. We’re trying to show you what is available to you based on our subscriptions. But the vendors keep changing it, so things disappear, or there is overlap across databases, so you might get six records for a single journal article (or worse, ten book reviews when you’re looking for the book). It sets the stage for the wonkiness that is a part of library research, primarily by explaining that we are still trying to figure it out. Try as we might, it’s not seamless. It’s not Google. It’s not supposed to be. It’s something else, and nobody’s actually solved it yet.

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