Science blog

27 September 2013

Seek, but shall ye find?

Johanna Kieniewicz explores information access across the environment sector, and what the British Library is doing to improve its discoverability.

When I was doing my PhD in Earth and Planetary Sciences, I had exceptionally good access to the information required for my research. I was doing my degree at a major US research university that had excellent print and online journal subscriptions - and on the occasion that I required something a little more unusual, such as a PhD thesis, our departmental librarians were only too happy to request it by inter-library loan. And indeed now, working at the British Library, I find myself once again with exceptionally good access to any piece of information I could possibly want.

Researching the information use of researchers and practitioners across the environment sector, I now realise how fortunate I have been. Extensive journal subscriptions are often prohibitively expensive for many charities, small businesses and local government departments. And, while resources such as government reports and PhD theses might be free and contain really useful information, they are often difficult to track down. A couple of years ago, I surveyed a wide range of researchers and practitioners from the flooding sector about their information access. This group included not just academics, but also people working for local government, environmental charities, consultants and small businesses. Were they happy with their current access to information? What barriers did they encounter in trying to get the information they needed for their work?


ES info use
We asked researchers across the flooding community to rank the factors creating barriers to information. The boxes highlighted as 1st and 2nd indicate their most significant barriers.

Not surprisingly, pretty much everyone reported either money or time as their greatest barrier to the information they needed for their work. However, digging a bit deeper, they also reported difficulty actually discovering the information itself - or filtering through to get at the stuff actually relevant to their work. For a flooding practitioner interested in the impact of Thames flooding on London, their first port of call might well be a Google search: Thames flooding London (or something similar). However, this search would bring back first news articles first, not the Environment Agency report, which is actually what they need.

Our survey also showed that environmental information access is also far from equal. We asked the flooding community what information they now find crucial to their research (red dots below), and what they might potentially use with improved access (yellow dots). While the behaviour of academic researchers might not change that much, that of people working for NGOs/charities, local government, the private sector would change tremendously. While being more financially pressured, they are also often more pressed for time, with tight deadlines, multiple priorities, and little time to spend searching for (letting alone reading) information. We found that government reports, datasets and legislation were real priorities across the board, but also a real interest in less conventional outputs such as PhD theses.

ES Info sectors
Red dots represent resources that researchers considered crucial to their work. Yellow dots indicate resources that they would use more with better access.

So we in the Science Team at the British Library wondered if we could improve things. As a library, we have a duty to facilitate access to information and help users discover the research they need for their work. But most environmental scientists aren’t interested in coming into libraries - they would like electronic access, pdfs they can download, whether they are in the office, lab or field. Would there be a way in which we could make more of what we already do as a library but make the information available to users electronically, wherever they are?

The search interface for Envia, the new environmental information discovery tool from the British Library.

Envia is a new tool developed by the Science Team, with support from the Living With Environmental Change partnership, to improve environmental information access and discovery. Bringing together often hard-to-find government reports, PhD theses, data resources, and journal articles (soon!), we aim to enable the easy search and discovery of resources relevant to flooding (we thought all of environmental science might be a bit much to tackle in one go, so have narrowed down to flooding for the Beta). Rather than viewing ourselves as a ‘one stop shop’ for flooding information, we view Envia as an important tool for connecting  users to information - whether it’s in the Envia repository or elsewhere on the web. Envia might be accessed through its website at - but we also intend it to be used via search boxes embedded in users’ browsers or our partners’ websites.

We have now launched Envia as a Beta service. This means we are still adding content and developing its functionality and looking for feedback from users. So please try it and let us know what you think. User involvement has been integral to the Envia project from the beginning as we are keen to develop a tool that meets the needs of our users - particularly those who don’t have the kind of access to information I was privileged to have during my PhD.


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