Why is Novanet so confusing? Behind the scenes of our library catalogue

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Novanet is both a consortium of academic libraries and an integrated or shared catalogue.  Most of our library users know Novanet as the platform they use to search our library collection, and most of our library users find it confusing and frequently frustrating to use.

Why… in 2021… is our catalogue SO confusing?  That is a great question.  I frequently wonder that myself.  I also wonder why we can put people and robots in space, but our office HVAC systems are wholly inadequate, and dozens of Indigenous communities in Canada still don’t have clean drinking water… but I digress.

It is not uncommon when searching for information in Novanet that it seems that materials the library has access to, don’t show up.  Often items that we don’t have access to, DO show up.  It’s very frustrating.  Let me try and explain some of the reasons why these things might be happening and what we are trying to do about it.

  1. There are multiple systems running and ‘talking’ to one another to provide access to materials the library has purchased.  Some of these systems are proprietary databases of e-books and e-journals.  For example, ProQuest is a major supplier of many of our subscriptions to both e-books and e-journals.  ProQuest’s system must talk to our catalogue and vice versa. Also, the different vendors that we purchase subscriptions from do not necessarily like to make it easy for their systems to talk to other systems.  This creates additional complications for our catalogue.
  2. Our catalogue system itself (it’s called Aleph, in case you were wondering) is getting old and was never intended to manage electronic resources.  It was designed to manage print materials.  Therefore, it has limitations and workarounds (that don’t always work correctly), but there IS good news… read on.
  3. The catalogue (Aleph to us, Novanet to you) keeps track of each individual book, journal, etc. that the library owns.  However, increasingly much of what you are able to access through our library is purchased on an electronic subscription model (see mention of ProQuest in point 1 above as an example).  Inside such subscriptions are thousands of individual journals, books, journal articles, videos, etc.  Searching the catalogue for “hockey” would not find articles on “hockey” but would only find books or journals that we owned on “hockey’.  Therefore, we subscribe to another service called a discovery layer.  Our discovery layer is called Primo.  Primo ‘talks’ to our catalogue (Aleph) as well as all our individual databases (dozens) to find as many items as possible that we might have on “hockey”… or whatever your topic is.  In addition, we have yet another system called a link resolver (called SFX).  This system helps manage access to electronic full-text items (articles etc.). When you do a search, SFX is supposed to show you how you have access to that item through our library. It will either provide you with a link to the full text of the article or provide a link for you to request it through Document Delivery.   Usually, this works well.  But unfortunately, there are things that don’t work so well.
  4. Problem number 1:  As mentioned in point #2, Aleph (the catalogue: Novanet to you) is old.  Aleph doesn’t talk well (or at all, really) to SFX.  Fortunately, Primo does talk to SFX (usually).  But what this means is that if you have bypassed the discovery layer search and gone straight to a catalogue search, you may not find what you are looking for.  This happens most often if you are looking for a known journal title.  To avoid this problem, if you are looking for a known journal title simply skip Novanet and use the Journal search.
  5. Problem number 2: As you can imagine, with this many different systems to manage, there is a fair amount of work behind the scenes to make sure that Primo, Aleph, SFX and ProQuest (plus other databases) are all operating properly and talking to one another appropriately.  Sometimes a ‘switch’ (for lack of a better word) has to be turned on to tell one system that yes… we have that journal.  Sometimes that ‘switch’ gets turned off, and a library staff member needs to go into the system and turn it back on.  With literally thousands of titles, checking and double checking to make sure all these ‘switches’ are appropriately turned on is a time-consuming task that we simply don’t have the staffing to manage.  (BTW: it’s a myth that the electronic library environment requires fewer staff!)
  6. Because we share the Novanet system and all its complicated component parts with 11 other institutions, you can see what all those other libraries have.  This is both a good thing and a complicated thing.  It’s good because sometimes you can get what you want from another library in the consortium relatively quickly, and through other systems we subscribe or belong to, you can order it directly.  It’s annoying because sometimes you can see wonderful resources that aren’t available to you EXCEPT by ordering from another library.  In the case of eBooks, it is very frustrating because eBooks cannot be loaned to another library, and sometimes links to eBooks in other libraries are not obvious and just look like dead-end links.  It’s also good because having a shared system is FAR more cost effective and likely saves us up to $30,000 per year; but it’s frustrating because sharing a catalogue means we also get all of the incorrect information entered by other institutions.

What can be done?

To recap… most of the issues stem from two possible problems:  1) aging technical infrastructure that doesn’t interface well with other systems and 2) the need for human intervention to interface with the systems and check and double check and troubleshoot problems. 

The good news is that a new catalogue system is coming.  Aging old Aleph will be leaving and be replaced by its newer more modern cousin, Alma.  Alma was designed for the electronic resources world.  While things won’t look that different from your point of view, we are very hopeful that some of the current problems you may experience will not happen with Alma.  Alma communicates much better with all of the other systems like SFX and Primo.  Alma is scheduled for arrival in late spring or summer of 2022.

We could be more proactive and check all the thousands of titles we have (bearing in mind that titles can change from time to time) on a regular basis.  This would be a manual job and would be excessively time consuming.  Alternatively, it might be possible for a brilliant computer engineer to design an AI system that would do this work for us.  Unfortunately, we don’t have a brilliant computer engineer on staff.  However… we are considering putting some kind of manual process in place to attempt to check more titles more regularly.  Currently, we only really know that something doesn’t work when someone tells us.  At the moment we only have one staff person who does all the work required to manage and troubleshoot our growing collection of electronic resources.  As we engage in strategic planning and succession planning, we are hopeful that over the next five years or so new opportunities for new library positions with upgraded training and skills will help to improve our technical services infrastructure.

What can you do?

  1. Attend a library training or orientation session or have a librarian come to your class to give one to your students.  Some of these issues will be addressed in these sessions, along with guidance on how to best use the system to find what you need. (For example adding the filter to exclude all items NOT available at StFX can often eliminate a lot of links to electronic resources that don’t go anywhere)
  2. Tell us when you find a glitch or issue… we can’t address problems we don’t know we have.  You can email library@stfx.ca
  3. Contact us immediately when you have an issue.. we might be able to help resolve it immediately.  You can use the Library Help Desk widget.  If no-one is currently online on the Library Help Desk, your inquiry will still be answered relatively quickly, and someone will get back to you.
  4. If you see an eBook at another library (or any resource) that you wish we had… submit a request for it.  Most books that are requested (assuming they support the curriculum at StFX) are purchased.  Fill out the monograph request form to have your request routed to the appropriate librarian. http://bit.ly/stfxbookrequests

To keep up to date with library services, please visit our website: https://www.mystfx.ca/library/ , subscribe to this blog: https://beyondthestax.ca/, and follow us on social media: stfxlibrary on Facebook/Twitter & stfx_library on Instagram.

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