Behind the scenes of search

The work to streamline information access

Sunshine Carter, left, and Stacie Traill
Sunshine Carter, left, and Stacie Traill

By Jon Jeffryes

The University of Minnesota Libraries serves 65,000 students, faculty, and staff. Every day each of these people and uncounted community researchers have the chance to interact with more than 114,000 subscriptions available through the Libraries’ homepage search box.

Consider that each of these subscriptions includes thousands of links to individual articles or book chapters and the challenge of keeping seamless access to all of this information becomes evident. Librarians strive to ensure that all links work smoothly and researchers get quick and easy access to the information they need.

But sometimes errors appear and sometimes links break. When that happens Libraries’ staff strive to resolve issues as promptly as possible.

Sunshine Carter, Electronic Resources Librarian, and Stacie Traill, Metadata Analyst, led an effort along with the Electronic Resource Management Unit, managed by Carter, to improve the Libraries’ ability to respond promptly and effectively to access issues.

A new information landscape

John Halvorson and Amy Nixon
John Halvorson and Amy Nixon on a troubleshooting mission.

Simple searches make for complicated troubleshooting. 

As library search tools, like MNCat Discovery, make finding information easier and more intuitive, the operations behind the scenes connecting millions of library sources into a single simple search gets more complex and labyrinthine.

Carter and Traill write in a recently published article, “staff must contend with an increasingly elaborate and intermingled set of systems and technologies to uncover root causes and successfully resolve access issues.”

“We have many, many more links. Millions more. And so with that comes more breaking of access points for patrons.” Carter explains. It’s not just the links but “the interaction between all of the mechanisms that run our systems.”

“There are a lot more points along the way where a failure could occur,” Traill agrees.

Expanding support

In the previous information environment the majority of troubleshooting could be done by one or two people, but the complexities and size of the new systems require a more robust staffing model to respond to issues.

“The more people who are able to troubleshoot effectively and efficiently and quickly; the better the response time will be when problems are reported; the quicker users actually get access to the content they need,” Traill explains.

In order to successfully extend coverage Carter and Traill had to standardize staff knowledge and procedures to be able to solve reported issues consistently. They examined their work, broke down the steps, and articulated all of their reflexive thought processes to build standard practices. Their work makes the troubleshooting process more efficient and restores access to the researcher as quickly as possible.

Carter uses the analogy of a doctor to explain their work.

“You have the patient on the table and you’re trying to figure out where the problem resides,” she describes. “There’s something thrilling about that. You have to quickly think about all of the options and all of the systems.”

Carter gives kudos to the Electronic Resource Management Unit. That team of six Libraries staff includes John Halvorson, Adam Johnson, Chris Koehler, Amy Nixon, Yumiko Toyota-Kindler, and Beth Wolszon. They are often called upon to drop their other work to quickly respond to reported issues. Over the last year the Libraries received an average of three troubleshooting tickets per day.

The team leverages strengths of curiosity and persistence in their work.

“They’re the ones that are handling the majority of the issues” Carter says, “I can’t say enough about how much work they put into troubleshooting.”

Proactive steps

Front row, from left: Amy Nixon, Yumiko Toyota-Kindler, Adam Johnson; Second row: Stacie Traill and Beth Wolszon; Back row: John Halvorson, Christopher Koehler, and Sunshine Carter.
The E-Resources Team, front row, from left: Amy Nixon, Yumiko Toyota-Kindler, Adam Johnson; middle row: Stacie Traill (Data Management and Access) and Beth Wolszon; back row: John Halvorson, Christopher Koehler, and Sunshine Carter.

Carter and Traill aren’t satisfied to stop with faster response times. They’re also testing approaches to seek out potential broken links before a user has the chance to encounter them.

Last summer they experimented with proactive troubleshooting, generating a random selection of full text links and examining potential access issues before they became a hurdle for researchers.

“We’re getting better at responding and fixing things more quickly.” Traill says.

If you encounter unexpected trouble accessing our resources — let us know!

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