Tech Blog

How California College of the Arts is Using Summon to Achieve Their Goals

Contact Name: Eric Phetteplace

Job Title: Systems Librarian

Institution: California College of the Arts


Q: California College of the Arts focuses on “learning through making”. With multiple programs at the undergraduate and graduate levels, how does CCA approach discovery and the unique needs of the diverse patron groups that use the libraries on a day-to-day basis?

The biggest challenge related to discovery for us is the diversity of needs of our users. We see many requests for images and multimedia alongside more traditional academic research. We want to surface our visual resources (before my time, CCA had a librarian position specifically for visual resources) but also make it easy to find peer-reviewed articles and reference sources. Summons’s function as an “all in one” search engine is vital for this and we enjoy how it shows ARTstor results with thumbnails, for instance.

Q: Is there anything unique you’ve been working on/with in terms of the Summon API?

One way we’re customizing Summon is to use results from research I’m doing with the API to inform our configuration. We have data about what facets people use and what search terms they use. I can use the API to translate that data into what kinds of search results users obtain and what resources work best. I am using the API to execute real queries from our user data, look at the detailed results, make notes on what links resolve properly, and finally compile summary statistics on the nature/quality of these results. We can, in turn, use that data to optimize our settings. Recently Ex Libris Support advised us to disable Book Reviews in searches from our website’s main search input because book review links were among the most troublesome sources. We witnessed so many users who were searching for the book itself become confused or frustrated by results that were reviews of the title they were looking for.

Q: What advice would you give to libraries who are working with API/customization for the first time?

I struggled to get request authentication to work initially, perhaps wasting too much time trying to use trial and error to figure it out before I finally gave up and contacted Support. So I would recommend that new users A) look at the examples in the Summon API Toolkit, which is immensely useful (I always use Python or Node so these examples are more appropriate than the PHP/Java contained in the Summon API Documentation Center), and B) contact Support if you get stuck.

Secondly, look at all the data contained in the API results, compare it to how results appear in Summon (e.g. does this document attribute imply a particular display?), and start to deduce what things mean or how they’re structured. The document records are very rich which was great for my research since they provide so many data points to look at. I still have a lot of interpreting results to do!

Q: How do the CCA libraries structure e-resource management and maintaining user-friendly discovery platforms across multiple locations? Is there a specific staff team or discovery committee set up to handle major decisions regarding your discovery platforms? Who on your team manages the day-to-day implementation of your e-resources?

There is an E-Resources team and I am it. We’re a small institution so as Systems Librarian, I manage the entire technical side of library operations, from e-resources, Summon, the library catalog, digital archives and more. I rely very heavily on feedback from our other librarians, who perform more reference and instruction than I do. They often notice problems with the discovery layer first or have insightful questions about why things work a particular way, which prompts me to look for possible improvements. Settings alterations and new features often result from collaborative decisions made during our “all librarians” meetings.

Q: Where does Summon fit into the CCA libraries’ short-term and long-term institutional goals? For example, a short-term goal might be giving undergraduates a Google-like discovery layer while a long-term goal may be to track user engagement and behavior. Are there any specific features of Summon you are using to achieve/track these goals?

We do very much want a single search interface for our users and Summon is meeting that goal. We don’t want our users expending all their research effort in finding the correct database among dozens or learning the intricacies of several different, clunky search engines. In my dreams, the connection between Summon and our various other tools is even more transparent. For instance, it would be nice to circumvent the searching features of our ILS and use Summon instead, something which is probably doable but impractical at the moment. One thing we’ve noticed is that the most commonly used facets are “Library Catalog” and “Content Type: Book / eBook”. I’m quite happy to see that because it means users can use Summon like a library catalog, but in doing so must refine their retrieval efforts. We receive many inquiries that start with “I need a book on…” but when you unpack the need, a book isn’t requisite and may not even be the most appropriate form of information. So, Summon both makes searching across diverse sources easier but can also prompt users to be deliberate about the type of content they want. In terms of tracking progress, we use a variety of data but at the highest level, we’re seeing Summon usage increase while other usage measures (print circulation, foot traffic) decline. I spoke about this in our 2019 annual all-staff meeting and noted that we saw COUNTER article downloads increase for the first time in recent memory.

In terms of long-term goals, I want Summon to be one tool among a few enabling us to rely upon open access resources. We are such a small institution that our database subscriptions will always be meager compared to the great quantities of available OA literature. If we can expose our users to all the great, free scholarship out there it does so much: eases budgetary stress for us, exposes them to more resources than we could otherwise offer, and prepares them for obtaining information after college when they might not have access to institutional subscriptions. A second, related, element of this is I would like to expose more of CCA’s unique holdings and have them display in Summon alongside external resources. I am thinking specifically about special collections and items in our digital archives. The custom content panels I’ve already mentioned are an initial effort in this direction.

About the Author

Eric Phetteplace is the Systems Librarian at California College of the Arts. He manages CCA’s library website, catalog, vault, and other technological resources. His previous roles included working as an Emerging Technologies Librarian at Chesapeake College in Wye Mills, Maryland. He holds a BA in English and Mathematics from Stanford University and an MLIS from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.  


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