An Interview with Sam Brooks
EBSCO Publishing has become the dominant provider of digital information in abstract and full text form. In the last five years, the company has pushed to the preeminent position as a result of innovative product packaging, user-centric technology, and old-fashioned customer support. I have heard for many years such comments as “When I call EBSCO, a person answers right away” and “EBSCO’s professionals follow up not just via email but often with phone calls and personal visits.”
Earlier January, I sat down with the affable Sam Brooks, who is the senior vice president for sales and marketing at EBSCO Publishing. EBSCO Publishing operates from Ipswich, Massachusetts, and hundreds of offices worldwide. We met in the EBSCO employee cafeteria.
I was particularly interested in EBSCO’s implementation of what I call “business intelligence” functions to the firm’s online services.
Search and content processing continues to advance at a rapid pace. Most of the world’s attention focuses on the mass market services. News about Facebook, Google, and Twitter saturates Web pages and news media.
Significant developments are taking place, and in many ways, these innovations are likely to have a significant impact on students from elementary school to post-graduate studies. One of the leaders in the commercial online information sector is EBSCO Publishing. The company provides reference and instructional materials to tens of thousands of institutions, government entities, and commercial enterprises.
At a conference in London, England, in December 2010, I saw a demonstration of EBSCO’s next-generation information retrieval system. The company has developed a “discovery system” that makes it possible to locate quickly and easily high-value commercial content as well as Web-accessible content.
Like companies working in business intelligence and social analytics, the EBSCO development team combine a search box with hot links, suggestions, and other contextual elements to speed information retrieval. Finding a needle in a hay stack is now easier because EBSCO has pioneered a new approach to research tasks.
The full text of my interview with Mr. Brooks appears below:
What is EBSCO Discovery Service?
EBSCO Discovery Service (EDS) provides users with fast, simple access to all of their library’s full-text content, including both electronic and print resources. EDS offers a truly integrated one-stop search experience for all of a library’s journals, magazines, books, special collections, catalog, etc.
What problem does it solve?
Good question. As library users have grown accustomed to the simplicity and one-stop shopping of web search engines, EDS allows users to initiate a comprehensive search of a library’s entire collection via a single search box. The true value of EDS is that while providing a simple, familiar search experience to end users, the sophistication of the service combined with the depth of available metadata allows EDS to return extensive results as if the user had performed more advanced searches across a number of premium resources.
How did you become interested in next generation search and retrieval? What's your background?
With decades of experience providing online research services for libraries, the creation of a truly comprehensive discovery service was the logical next step in continuing to meet the changing research needs of libraries and their users.
What are the principal functions of the service that you offer? Did you create these via trial and error, user feedback, a combination? How long has this service been in development?
Let me run down some of the functions of EDS. First, EDS offers unprecedented breadth of coverage.
What’s that phrase mean?
As you know, EDS has an incredible wealth of high-value information, both text and other types. Due to our partnerships with an unparalleled number of journal and book publishers, as well as database producers such as H.W. Wilson, Baker & Taylor, NewsBank, Readex, Alexander Street Press, ABC CLIO, JSTOR, LexisNexis, Thomson Reuters (Web of Science), and many others, EDS has the most comprehensive single search box with regard to the quality and quantity of sources covered.
Second, EDS has unprecedented depth of coverage.
That means EDS combines full-text searching (for more journals and other sources than any other service) together with subject indexing (which is something that is lacking from other services). The full-text searching is available for the majority of the world’s leading academic publishers, and also includes important magazines, such as Time, Bloomberg BusinessWeek, Forbes, Fortune, Harvard Business Review, etc. (other discovery services have fewer academic publishers and lack full-text searching for the most important magazines). The subject indexing comes from the world’s leading journal indexes. Even if a library has no EBSCOhost database subscriptions, it will have access to subject indexing and abstracts for tens of thousands of journals (unlike other discovery services). However, if a library has access to subject indexes via EBSCOhost, its discovery experience will have even more breadth and depth, because more journals will have deeper coverage.
Yes, but content is not useful if it is locked up in a complicated search system. How do you make specialized information and general reference material to a user like a high school student or an adult working to pass a nursing exam?
That’s a great point. Here’s where we differentiate ourselves from the old—style, non-iPad oriented online public access catalogs and the command-line search vendors.
We offer a powerful and comprehensive, yet easy-to-use and easy-to-customize platform. Our technical approach makes it easy to deliver customization features tailored specifically to a particular situation. We offer an interface developed after years of feedback from librarians and usability testing with students and faculty.
Were users involved in this new interface? [I need two screenshots: The interface and a results display.]
Absolutely. Our users guided our EDS approach. We used a combination of internal development and extensive user feedback and usability studies. While the general concept of a discovery service is relatively recent for libraries, EBSCO has been working on providing customers/users with such functionality for many years. Although groundbreaking, the EDS interface is usable by anyone and without special training.
Does the system rely on third party software; for example, from a mainstream vendor like Endeca or open source? Did your engineers develop the system from components of other EBSCO services?
No. We looked at various commercial options. EDS evolved naturally out of EBSCO’s ongoing efforts to provide customers with the most intuitive, yet powerful search experience possible.
Many companies including Megaputer (a little known vendor with technology from Moscow State University) and giants like Google (a search and ad company) offer technology that "discovers" hidden information. How does the EBSCO system differ from services and products already in the market?
There are many things that EBSCO, and libraries, have that are differentiators from free web search engines. There are two major differences.
First, There is the availability of high quality, often peer-reviewed sources that are not freely available on the Web, an
Second, there is our careful assignment of subject indexing from controlled vocabularies to nearly every important piece of research published.
With your ability to go across content from third parties, in house data, and a wide range of other information--how did you deal with copyright and access issues?
EBSCO has well-established relationships with an extensive array of publishing partners and has been able to work with them to make their content readily discoverable via EDS for the benefit of all parties involved. Access to the full text of premium content is made available via the same authentication methods employed by EBSCO for all of its research databases.
Is the security for the system home grown or did you use third party solutions?
We provide solid security and EDS integrates with our customers’ security methods. I don’t want to go into details about how we implement security, but EDS is in use at sensitive installations around the world, and EDS is fully compliant with security requirements at those types of organizations.
Let’s talk about the interface or what some experts call “user experience.” What are the elements of the user interface?
By using our EBSCOhost infrastructure as the foundation for EBSCO Discovery Service (EDS), the entire library collection becomes available through a fast, familiar, full-featured experience that requires no additional training. Additionally, unprecedented levels of interface customization allow libraries to use EDS as the basis for creating their own “discovery” service. Currently, users can access EDS via the mobile version of the EBSCOhost interface. Further, there will soon also be a dedicated iPhone/iPad app for use with EDS as well.
The iPad move is a good one in my opinion. But why is this type of service important for research applications such as an academic or organizational library/knowledge center?
Discovery services such as EDS help to bring more value to an institution’s collection by bringing less-used resources to the forefront of a user’s search experience. Resources that may have gone unnoticed by users in the past are brought directly into the fold for all searches. Therefore, libraries benefit from a significant increase in overall usage of their resources while end users can “discover” more of a library’s collection than through traditional searching.
How is the service delivered?
As I mentioned, we use the solid EBSCOhost infrastructure as the EDS backbone. The same methods of authentication and accessibility are used. EDS can also be fully integrated with an institution’s Web site, Intranet, or Extranet in order to meet the unique delivery needs of an institution and to allow for extensive customization at the institutional level. The fact that EDS is fully hosted and supported by EBSCO eliminates the need for additional server space and maintenance by individual customers, thereby saving time and cost. I think some people would describe EDS as a cloud service. We think of it as a service that reduces costs and makes information that would be otherwise inaccessible readily available.
There is tremendous budget pressure in most market sectors. How is the new Discovery service priced?
EDS is offered as a separate service. Institutions using federated search services will find that they can save that money by purchasing EDS. In addition, EDS is proven to increase usage of a library’s collection, which means that the library’s per use spending actually goes down.
As you look forward, what are some of the new features and functions you will be working to implement in 2011? Mobile, for example?
We are working in a number of areas, and mobile is certainly one of them.
As with any EBSCO database in service, EDS will benefit from ongoing development and enhancement as dictated by the varying research needs of our customers. In the next year, customers will see enhanced customization features, more widgets that import and export additional functionality, a dedicated iPhone application, and expanded language capabilities including limiters, clusters, and search aids in additional languages. In addition, EDS will feature composite book records featuring enhanced library catalog records with a consolidated list of available editions and manifestations as well as links to all available copies/formats (e-books, audiobooks, inter-library loan, and so on).
EDS will also feature composite journal article records that combine indexing from all EBSCO sources, retain links to all available sources of full text for the article, and provide consolidated links to other provider views of the article.
Discovery is a very competitive sector. Will you be offering this service outside of the library market?
EDS is proving to be of great interest to college & university libraries, large public libraries, medical institutions, government agencies, and corporations.
How does a person get more information about EBSCO Discovery Service?
EBSCO has a dedicated website for EBSCO Discovery Service featuring detailed product information, news and customer testimonials at www.ebscohost.com/discovery.
What sets EBSCO Publishing apart is that the company has been one of the first, if not the first, of the commercial digital service companies to use technology honed in the intelligence community for commercial and academic applications. Unlike IBM Cognos SPSS, for example, EBSCO’s approach makes words and data available to a user who can run a key word query, explore suggestions, or access collections of content. No special training is required and the service works regardless of the user’s computing environment.
Most content-centric systems force the user to know before running a query which resource to tap. Not EBSCO. The user can explore, replicating the browsing experience of a traditional print-on-paper library or narrow focus to a corpus of content about a specific academic interest. In short, EBSCO combines the usability of Web search systems like Bing.com, Blekko.com, or Google.com with the horsepower of sophisticated discovery systems from Attensity (partially funded by the CIA’s investment arm In-Q-Tel) or SAS, the analytics giant whose products are standard tools for statistics majors worldwide.
In our view, EBSCO’s approach enhances the research experience for children who are working on their first library project to the competitive intelligence professional who is scoping opportunities in a fast-breaking sector like health care or nanotechnology.
EBSCO deserves a look from organizations seeking an enhanced reference resource to commercial enterprises looking for an information advantage.
Stephen E. Arnold, January 18, 2011