Library Journal "Digital Libraries" Columns 1997-2007, Roy Tennant
Please note: these columns are an archive of my Library Journal column from 1997-2007. They have not been altered in content, so please keep in mind some of this content will be out of date.
Fixing Library Discovery
Regular readers of this column know that I've often taken library catalogs to task for being the "wrong solution" for most user needs ("Library Catalogs: The Wrong Solution," LJ 2/15/03). I also haven't taken kindly to making small changes to what I believe to be systemically broken ("Lipstick on a Pig," LJ 4/15/05). We are now finally seeing some major new interface initiatives by libraries and vendors to address this problem. NCSU blows the doors off To recent major notice, North Carolina State University (NCSU), Raleigh, announced a new catalog that departs in significant ways from the typical catalog. The NCSU catalog is just a front end--not an acquisitions system, circulation system, or indeed anything other than a finding tool. To avoid the pitfalls of the typical integrated library system, as well as to experiment with enterprise-grade software for clustering and faceted browsing, NCSU extracted all one million-plus records from the ILS and gave them to the Endeca software company. Endeca, whose clients include major online retailers, processed the information, and NCSU staff created a faceted browsing depiction of holdings so powerful you can browse the entire collection using Library of Congress (LC) Classification Numbers. You can click on "D - World History," for example, and see how many books NCSU owns in each D subclassification, which is easily viewed as 53 items classified in "DX101-DX301 History of Gypsies" (my 13-year-old daughters would insist that should be "History of the Roma," but I will let them take that up with the Library of Congress). Clicking on that heading displays those 53 results. In only three clicks from the main page, I have honed in on 53 items of interest out of a collection of well over a million. All the various facets of those 53 records are displayed in a left sidebar, aggregated and exposed so I can simply click on a selection such as "Dictionaries" to see a historical dictionary of the Gypsies. It's quite powerful to expose the richness of the underlying metadata in an easy-to-understand interface. NCSU has set the bar high, and it will be interesting to see how many other institutions and/or vendors attempt such a radical makeover of our finding tools. Vendors get with the program Ex Libris is charting a dramatic new course in library finding tools. Set to unveil Primo at the American Library Association annual conference in June in New Orleans, Ex Libris is trying to create a next-generation finding tool. It isn't a library catalog, but it is touted as an "enterprise-level solution for the discovery of institutional content." You may think that vendors are creating these systems to sell yet another application. But it does solve an existing problem--library-based information is simply too difficult to find. Primo and similar systems are really the tip of an iceberg that may unify searching of your integrated library system, your metasearch application, indexes created from metadata harvested from remote repositories, and other methods that modern libraries use either to aggregate content or provide access to it. At first this sounds like a standard metasearch application, but products like Primo seek to offer added-value services such as preprocessing of local metadata to provide clustering, faceted browsing, and other user interface enhancements. (See "Ex Libris To Debut Project Primo," LJ 3/1/06) Interesting alternatives Emerging products such as Primo are also trying to present an alternative, since the library catalog simply cannot be the main finding tool we introduce to our users. Libraries allow access to a wide array of resources--many of them not within their walls. We need tools that can logically and usefully encompass that wide world and present search results from this diverse universe in a way that users can comprehend. Whether you are an early adopter such as NCSU of new opportunities, or are content to wait for library vendors to provide the next generation of finding tools, it's clear that how library users will find information at a library is in a period of rapid change. This is a good thing, since library finding tools are mostly broken, particularly when compared to finding tools offered by companies such as Google and Amazon. We must fix them--and soon. For more on the wired library, see the netConnect supplement mailed with the January, April 15, July, and October 15 issues of LJ Link List * Endeca endeca.com * NCSU Catalog www.lib.ncsu.edu/catalog * Primo primo.exlibris-usa.com/aboutprimo.html