Technology Adoption Proposal: Google Scholar in the Law Library


The University of New Hampshire School of Law Library has materials in print and in digital format on a wide variety of legal topics that reflect the academic offerings of the school. These include numerous specialized databases, electronic journal subscriptions both individually and through Serials Solution and scholarship created by the law school community hosted in the UNH Scholars’ Repository and in the NELLCO Legal Scholarship Repository. The library is also a federal depository for government documents with a special designation as a patent and trademark resource center (PTRC). The library is used by faculty, students, visiting scholars, reciprocal students from other area colleges, and paying members of the local state bar association. The library’s depository status mandates a certain, but limited, level of public access to the physical GPO materials and one computer station.

It would be very useful to have a tool that offered a single search interface for the diverse set of resources that the UNH Law Library has to offer. At present many of the resources listed above are accessible through the Innovative Millennium OPAC MELcat:  UNH Law Library’s Online Catalog as individual titles, but users are required to click through to a login screen that then takes them to the resource. Other users will find that they need to visit individual databases. In order to deliver users a seamless search interface it is recommended that the law library pursue a two-step discovery strategy consisting of a link resolver and a discovery layer.

Discovery layers work in conjunction with a link resolver, which is software that uses OpenURL technology to facilitate direct access to electronic items such as databases and ebooks when users search for them in the catalog. There are many different ones to choose from that are compatible with our library system and coordination with other UNH campus libraries should be considered to limit expenditures. Once a link resolver has been installed and tested, it would be possible to implement a discovery layer with a unified, single search box.

Web scale discovery tools are essentially massive indexes that are created in one of two ways, either by aggregating content supplied by publishers or by using the API to query individual databases (Brubaker, Leach-Murray & Parker, 2011, p. 22). One of the functions of the discovery system is to decipher data on licensing agreements to figure out whether a library user has access to an item or not (Craigle, 2011, p.7). It is up to the discovery service provider to negotiate what database products can be harvested for the index (p.8).

Much of the value of the discovery layer is in its index. These mega-aggregates strive to have the capacity to represent everything ever published. Not every index is as inclusive as another, however, and some seem to excel in some disciplines while disappointing in others. This reflects the fact that vendors and publishers, often one in the same, must “cultivate partnerships” (Breeding, 2014, p. 13) between themselves to be able to license the rights to use one another’s indexing content. Some publishers however, will not allow their content to be indexed by any discovery service. This is due to concerns that discipline-specific proprietary taxonomies will be made freely available to anyone using the service (Breeding, 2014, p.14).

Ellero (2013) warns that having a discovery system does “not necessarily equate with librarian disintermediation” (p.313). There are some other limitations to WSDS as well. The systems seem to have difficulties handling the “blended thesauri” (p.311) from the different databases and a survey found that “patrons with advanced, discipline-specific information requirements” (Breeding, 2014, p. 13) preferred databases geared towards their area of interest.

Relevancy remains a problem (Breeding, 2014, p. 9). Known item searches are an area of relative weakness (Ellero, 2013 p. 312; Fahey, Gordon & Rose, 2011, p.4) and a user study comparing Summon and WorldCat discovery systems found book retrieval to be especially low (Brantley, 2014, p. 11, 12). Faceted searching is another area that seems to be poorly understood by users (Ellero, p. 315) While Asher (2013) makes the point that time spent teaching information literacy might be reduced if students were only required to learn one system (p.476), the curriculum will likely need to be refocused to include keyword selection and critical evaluation of resources (Ellero, 2013, p.315) in addition to instruction in facet searching.

Discovery layers can be rather incomplete in their coverage of legal materials, which might be limiting their adoption in law libraries. A 2011 survey of 58 law libraries found that discovery systems were being used in just over half of them (Craigle, p.7). Of those Encore seemed to be the most popular choice, with 44% (p.7). This is not surprising since they also make Millennium, which is used in many law libraries. However, many Encore users noted “frustration with the lack of legal information databases available for activation within the system” (p.7). A larger study involving several hundred libraries also found that legal materials were not well represented in any of the five major vendors (Breeding, 2014). In particular EDS was found to have poor law coverage (p.17), Primo users had problems with Westlaw discovery (p.18), and libraries using Summon noted problems with HeinOnline (p.19) as well as specialized legal databases (p.20). It was also mentioned that datasets were not well represented by Summon (p.19).

The law library should consider using Google Scholar instead. This is considered to be a free discovery service (Asher, 2013; Breeding, 2015). Lambert (2010) wrote that Google Scholar provides access to primary materials and indexes “secondary sources through its arrangement with third-party vendors like HeinOnline” (p. 54). It is clearly not as robust as the commercially availably solutions, it scored lowest in terms of relevancy in a study that compared five different products (Asher, p. 474). It also does not have nearly as much content. While exact numbers are not easy to derive, a rough estimate places the number around 160 million (Breeding, 2015, p. 6), while other indexes boast over a billion (p.13). Nevertheless using Google Library Links in conjunction with a link resolver it is possible to provide free “article-level links to subscription full text for patrons affiliated with a library.” In addition to providing full text where available, Google Scholar features the ability to search by case law, limit searches by patents and citation, as well as save items to a folder. Mattson (2015) notes that some of these features are similar to Westlaw and LexisNexis (p. 39). Another reason to pursue a free solution for a discovery layer now is that the “realization of Linked Data” (Ellero, p.321), might be imminent and the fact that UNH has adopted Symplectic Elements also points to implementing linked data solutions as a long-range goal.

Web scale discovery systems can offer the benefit of reducing the “cognitive load on students” (Asher, 2013, p.476) caused by selecting and repeating the same search on multiple databases. They can steer students towards full text resources that are not as well known (p.476). Breeding (2015) wrote that universities have found that discovery search interfaces “can have very high strategic value to the institutions implementing the service” (p.5). In spite of their shortcomings many academic law libraries are using discovery layers and prospective students will be comparing library technology offerings, so this is an important issue to consider. Electronic access to subscribed materials in a seamless single search format is mission critical if we are to increase our remote course offerings, as well as attract scholars from other disciplines.


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