A Shambrarian’s View of Summon

Guest blog post by Dave Pattern, Library Systems Manager, University of Huddersfield and Chair of the Serials Solutions User Group UK


  1. I’m not a librarian and, unless someone awards me an honorary LIS degree, I doubt I ever will be. However, that’s not stopped the occasional Chair from introducing me as a “librarian” or “systems librarian” at various conferences and workshops over the years, so I took to calling myself a “shambrarian” (i.e. sham librarian).
  2. I’m a huge fan of Summon!

The Trouble With E-Resources

I was asked to speak (well, actually I was asked to “rant”!) at this year’s UKSG Conference in Glasgow on the topic of e-resources and that got me thinking about what are the problems that Summon solves.

The main problem that we have is that we’re no longer the primary gatekeepers to information. In decades past, the path of least resistance to scholarly information was via the library and the librarian. Now, for many (if not most) of our users, that path is more likely to be via Google and Wikipedia.

“Why will our students not get up and walk a hundred meters to access a key journal article in the library? […] the overwhelming propensity of most people is to invest as absolutely little effort into information seeking as they possibly can.”
— Prof Marcia J. Bates, University of California (Toward an Integrated Model of Information Seeking & Searching, 2002)

This isn’t lazyness on the part of the student, it’s human nature. Time is a precious commodity and few people gain pleasure from struggling against the many barriers libraries and publishers often put in their way: authentication, obscure library terminology, poor user interface design, etc.

“As early as 2004, in a focus group for one of my research studies, a college freshman bemoaned, ‘Why is Google so easy and the library so hard?'”
— Carol Tenopir, University of Tennessee (Visualize the Perfect Search, Library Journal, 2009)

Perversely, it often feels to me that librarians seem to relish those difficulties. If a resource is hard to use, it means they become the gatekeepers again… “Come to the library! We can show you how to use this resource! We’ve got a 50 page in-depth handout that we wrote ourselves!” 😉

However, we go down this route at our peril as we risk alienating the very people we want to help. In her blog post “Library search tools. Could we make them harder to use?“, Australian librarian Carol Gauld talks about her daughter’s negative experience of a library instruction class…

“My daughter now thinks, perhaps rightly, that the library search tools are complicated, old fashioned and very hard to use […] She sees the library and it’s search tools as a last resort now and it will be incredibly difficult to change her mind.”

Carol ends her post with the following plea…

This is 2012 not 1980 […] If we can make our search tools easy to use without instruction students will have a go and then hopefully get help if they get stuck. We can let go of the outdated notion that everyone who enrols at university needs to develop searching skills based on arcane library-only metadata standards […] If we try to give them just enough instruction at just the time they need it there is a far greater chance they will retain that knowledge and use it again.”

Enter Summon Stage Left

“The challenge for academic libraries […] is to offer an experience that has the simplicity of Google…”
— Judy Luther & Maureen C. Kelly (The Next Generation of Discovery, Library Journal, 2011)

Once we accept that the starting point is that many (if not most) of our users simply want to quickly find stuff that’s “just good enough” — think Google and Wikipedia — then the value of Summon becomes clear. We don’t need to fret endlessly about which databases are covered by Summon, how good or bad the advanced search page is, how well it supports nested Boolean searches, etc. All we need to ask ourselves is “does it offer a comparable path of least resistance to better quality information than Google?”. In general, I say it does.

So, if we can hook those new undergraduates with Summon and provide them with an easy-to-use scholarly search tool, I believe we have a stronger initial base on which to teach information literacy.

Rather than pushing new students straight into the deep end with a “here’s how to search 20 different native database interfaces!” style induction session (and praying that most of them won’t drown!), Summon allows us to provide a paddling pool they can safely splash around in. Once they discover the water is fun, I think they’ll be more willing to learn how to do the Boolean backstroke 🙂