Smith College is no stranger to innovation. Since 1871, Smith has been innovating and educating women leaders.  Their internet tag line is “Individual. Global. Exceptional,” and this is a story of how Smith’s  libraries designed an innovative bento box approach to searching that served students better and gave them a truly ‘individual’ search experience. It’s also about how scholarly blogs and authoritative social media can be incorporated into a student’s search experience.  Pat Sabosik, General Manager of the ACI Scholarly Blog Index, interviewed Barbara Polowy, Head of the Hillyer Art Library at Smith College, and Rob O’Connell, Director of Discovery and Access for the Smith College Libraries, for this article.

Here’s a bit of library bento history from a 2014 Duke University Libraries Blog post: “Bento searching was pioneered by our library colleagues down the road at North Carolina State University and it has started catching on at other libraries around the country. It has the benefit of helping users gain quick access to a limited set of results across a variety of resources, services, and tools, while providing links to the full results.”  

While early in the adoption curve, the larger university libraries are the ones implementing this segmented display of search results because they have large collections that can be parsed and displayed in various ways. For smaller libraries, whose collections can be easily searched through a simple discovery engine, the bento box approach may not be necessary. However, as the technology develops, small libraries have an opportunity to reconsider redesigning search results. 

Polowy and O’Connell are actively disproving this theory that bento boxes are for larger libraries by creating a unique, personalized search experience for Smith students.  According to Polowy, “search results in the form of lists that combine all types of material into one search result are hard for students to use; they are confusing. The bento approach to segmenting search results makes more sense for students.” 

O’Connell found the current bento box software offerings lacking–“some are too structured.” He and his team developed a customized interface for displaying search results.  Then he took it one step further and gave students the ability to customize their interface and the set of resources they will be searching against.  “Bento box is a more efficient way of searching.  We break out boxes that reduce search results to six items; it’s a more digestible display,” said O’Connell of the design results. 

The Smith interface has dynamic boxes that shift in size depending on the amount of content that is surfaced.  The boxes all show six results entries (if there are six) with the option to “explore more.”  The size of the box varies because the citation/entry information for each format varies. The new bento display is called “New Discover” and it can be reached from a link on the Discover tab on the Smith College Libraries main page.  A clear message on the New Discover page sums up the benefits for students:  “The New Discover is a great place for you to begin your research. Use it to find a few good citations to books, articles, and media, before moving on to more specialized resources. New Discover is a robust tool for interdisciplinary research too. And, try it for chasing down information on esoteric subjects.” Barbara Polowy, Librarian

With this innovative approach, students are able to design a research workflow for their courses and research projects. The search display is linked to a URL so students can share their searches with other students.  In addition, when books are displayed, students are able to limit their search to just the Smith collection, an important time saver. If the book is in another library collection, students have the option to order it.  Smith College and the Five Colleges in the area have a shared catalog.

The Smith bento box project also gave the librarians a chance to integrate new and different resources into the search and discovery process.  This is where the ACI Scholarly Blog Index comes into play.  Polowy and O’Connell have allocated partitions in their library bento box to surfacing primary source material, Smith specific collections, and blogs.  The librarians were impressed with the ACI Scholarly Blog Index’s coverage and wanted to use it to bring supplemental material into the research process. One of the bento boxes showcases search results of scholarly blogs from ACI.  Students can click through from scholarly blog titles in their search results directly to the blog record in ACI. 

A strength of the bento box approach is being able to search across various databases and resources, including images and video, and display them in different boxes.  The Smith bento project, in addition to enabling students to design their own display, helps students know what general resources are in a discipline and then helps them narrow the results. For example, art resources at Smith can display a disciplinary focus, such as the visual arts.  In the sciences, students can tailor their disciplines, for example by biology or chemistry, and customize their research workflow. This also enables students to learn the literature in their fields as well as the top blogs and bloggers writing about contemporary issues.

The Smith bento box project is not the ACI Scholarly Blog Index’s first innovation project with Polowy and O’Connell.  In a project to keep their LibGuides fresh, Smith librarians worked with ACI to bring in an RSS feed of subject-oriented search results that display in the college’s subject guides.  Students who discover topic-specific scholarly blogs in a subject guide can click through to the full blog record in the ACI Scholarly Blog Index database.

Polowy, O’Connell, and the librarians at Smith College continue to innovate to provide individual, global, and exceptional education to Smith students. ACI is pleased to be part of these new projects showcasing technology and integrating new resources into innovative research workflows.

Visit ACI Scholarly Blog Index at the upcoming ACRL Conference in Baltimore. Stop by ACI booth #1204 to speak with Larry Schwartz, President of the ACI Information Group, publisher of ACI Scholarly Blog Index, and Aura Novembre, Vice President, and Pat Sabosik, General Manager.  Pat is also hosting a roundtable discussion: “Scholarly Communications and Grey Literature: Completing the Chain—Links Between Authors, Institutions, and Readers.” We look forward to seeing you in Baltimore!