Electronic Eye August 2015

EBSCO EXPLORA

Kathleen Meulen

I’m moving to a new position in a high school library this fall under somewhat extraordinary circumstances. The librarian who I will be replacing died mid-year. This is a tragic situation for the students and teachers who I will be working with next year. I am trying to be mindful of the last librarian’s legacy of care and service to students and teachers but I also realize that I need to establish my own vision for the program. There is also no way to learn from him about what was important to the students and teachers. While there are clues here and there, I feel a little like I’m flying in the dark this summer as I plan for the new school year.

The thoughts of the last librarian and I diverged greatly in one respect: de-selection. The last librarian was a great collection developer and yearly purchased timely books on topics that appear to be important to the school’s curriculum. But he didn’t remove much on a yearly basis from the print collection.

A team of librarians and I have been working this summer on a rather large weeding project that will eventually remove nearly one-fifth of the volumes on the shelves. It has been a challenging project as our team has struggled to consider whether an out-of-date book has value on a shelf because it is the only book representing a critical topic or whether its presence on the shelf makes the collection as a whole less current and trustworthy. Should the book stay as a placeholder while I search for another resource? Or should I make the somewhat painful decision to start the year off with very bare shelves?

Something that has made this decision somewhat easier is the fact that the last librarian and I share an interest in providing access to quality online resources, which increases the strength of the print collection. Many of the databases provided by EBSCO were a part of his electronic collection.

I have always had great value for EBSCO’s products but I will admit that they require a certain degree of skill to navigate. The many options and ways to modify searches can be initially confusing to a student researcher and the interface has had a somewhat austere look. Young adult researchers do not gravitate to the platform on their own without a great deal of encouragement and support. They don’t return to the platform unless they experience academic success from having done so.

In other words, they’ll use an online resource again if they get better grades from their teacher for the effort.

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As with all other online resources, it would be great if the barrier to use by young adults was lifted and I have high hopes for EBSCO’s most recent update to their interface. This update is so big that it even has a new, cool-sounding name: Explora. While current users of EBSCO Host have access to the new interface for free, site administrators have to turn on the functionality from the administrative website.

Explora is being billed as an EBSCO “Experience” and is advertised as a redesign based on EBSCO’s research on the information seeking behavior of children and young adults. There are several different versions of Explora based on the library’s audience. How does the new Explora search interface compare to the older EBSCO Host interace? And will it make database searching more appealing to young adults? I was curious to find out. For the purposes of this column, I will be reviewing the “Explora Secondary Schools” product. There is another product for public libraries as well.

One thing that I know about student researchers is that they need the online resource to be visually appealing and straightforward to use. Explora works to make the research process straightforward by placing a large search box at the top of the screen. This search box presents suggested searches as a user types in a term and also presents suggestions for misspelled words. This makes the search process very forgiving. A user will find something on a topic without too much difficulty.

Explora makes the experience more visually interesting by embedding an image carousel at the top of the page. The image carousel is populated with five current topics representing different disciplines, including history, math and science, and literature. The images are visually attractive and link to the results page for the topic. At the time of this review, the image carousel featured the American Revolution, Vincent van Gogh, Perimeter and Circumference, The Life of Pi by Yann Martel, and Gay and Lesbian Rights. The last topic definitely highlights the recent Supreme Court decision on same sex marriage. Two rainbow colored hands making the shape of a heart is the visual that EBSCO chose to highlight this current topic.

Below this image carousel are eight broad topics that feature narrower topics for browsing as well. The eight broad topics featured are: Arts and Literature, Biography, Business and Government, Current Issues, Health, History and Science and Math. At the time of this review, the narrower topics highlighted for Geography include Brazil, the Gobi Desert, and Yemen.

Each broad topic also has a “More” link. This link allows the user to access an alphabetical list of other topics. While users can click on the letter in the alphabet to move forward in the list of topics, this is still a bit overwhelming and not very graphically appealing. I think that the only use for this functionality would be if a student needed an idea to research from within the large topic and had no ideas to pursue.

What I do love about Explora is the fact that these browsing links attach to a search results page that has a “Topic Overview” at the very top. This topic overview is generally offset with a small image to draw the researcher’s attention to it. I think that the image could be larger on the results page. The topic overviews come from the Salem Press Encyclopedia. The citation clearly shows when the topic overview article was last reviewed, which gives the student researcher some confidence in the timeliness of the information. Most appear to be current but there is some degree of lag time. At the time of this column, the “water rights” article was reviewed four months ago and so too was the “same sex marriage debate” article. Recent court rulings may have made both of these somewhat out-of-date.

I do value the fact that these shorter, encyclopedic treatments are featured first in the results screen, allowing the young adult researcher a chance to become more familiar with a topic before delving into more specific readings.

The same excellent filters that were on the EBSCO Host search results page are in Explora as well. These filters appear in the left column of the page and include the chance to limit the results by publication date, type of source (academic journal, magazine, report, news, book, biography, review, or trade publications), and Lexile range. The hit count for each of these options is also represented. Users can also check if they only want to see full-text results or peer reviewed results.

Other elements worth noting about the search results page include the icons that identify the source type, which allow the user to target or avoid certain source types with ease. I’m thrilled that “Reviews” are listed separately from other source types. I feel that students often get frustrated by finding a book review on exactly what they want and then have to go through the longer process of gaining access to the book.

Many articles can be viewed either as an HTML version or a PDF version and the user has the choice. PDFs load very quickly in the embedded Adobe Acrobat viewer, which was surprising and very welcome. Users can work with the articles in many different ways including possibilities for sharing as bookmarks of persistent links with other users via several social media platforms. Users can also export citations to several bibliographic generators like EasyBib, RefWorks, and EndNote.

I value the fact that the EBSCO Explora platform has also taken into account the differing capabilities of student researchers. Not only can users identify articles written at an easier Lexile level, there is an embedded text-to-speech player that allows users to customize it with American, English, and Australian accents as well as vary the reading speed. Users also have the capability of translating the text into many other languages. I can’t speak for the quality of these translations.

There are still advanced search capabilities and a way of finding similar results using a function called “SmartText” search which seems to put most of one article’s citation into the search box in the hopes that the many keywords located in the citation will bring up something magical. I’m not sold on this function.

I am sold on the fact that this update to an already strong product will be welcomed by the young adults that I will be working with next year. I’m looking forward to introducing it to them.

Meulen headshot, used with permissionKathleen Meulen Ellison has been a teacher librarian for over two decades in both New York City and the Pacific Northwest.  She can be reached at kellison@bisd303.org

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