Almost all libraries today offer a Web-based online catalog that allows their patrons to virtually search or browse through their collections. These Web OPACS have evolved steadily over the last decade, incorporating more features such as personalization, e-commerce, and automatic notification. With most catalogs offering structured and keyword searching and browsing capabilities, the framework for searching has stayed within a conservative boundary set.
Today, many librarians believe the current generation of OPACs lag behind other search environments that their users experience on the Web, and many are eager to implement more sophisticated search capabilities.
Medialab Solutions, B.V, an Amsterdam-based software development company, has developed a search environment called AquaBrowser that takes quite a different approach. As with a standard catalog, a search session begins by typing search terms. In addition to the list of results returned by a conventional online catalog search, AquaBrowser Library presents an interface designed to help the searcher pinpoint material that matches their investigation topic.
To the left of the results list, AquaBrowser displays a graphical map of terms related to the result set—a “cloud” of associations. Each term serves as a suggestion for narrowing or refocusing the search. Clicking on one of the suggested topics re-executes the search. On the rights, the browser displays a list of formats, subject terms, and categories that can be applied to limit the search results. Overall, the AquaBrowser Library transforms topic searching into an interactive progression through concepts and terms beyond what the searcher might have originally known to try.
Relying on a set of technology components, the AquaBrowser Library is designed to operate as a front-end search and retrieval interface for a variety of environments that deal with information, whether it is unstructured (as in a repository of Web pages or e-mail messages) or structured data such as a library catalog. Data connectors extract and translate data from its source, while a knowledge builder layer analyzes the data, builds word frequency tables, and organizes the data according to internal dictionaries and thesauri.
At the core of the system lies a full-text search engine, called “Igor,” that includes a number of advanced features, such as results ranking, variations based on word stems, fuzzy matching, and matches based on statistical and semantic relationships to the search terms. The user interface sits on top of these layers of technology components at the ready to assist and guide the searcher.
Libraries in the Netherlands have demonstrated considerable interest in Medialab Solutions' technology, with at least twelve major public libraries and four academic libraries using the product. The company aims to expand its presence internationally through partnerships with other technology companies that have complementary products.
To date, three North American library automation companies have engaged in partnerships with Medialab Solutions to integrate the AquaBrowser interface with their automation systems. With an agreement in November 2002 to bring AquaBrowser into their Zones suite of library portal products, BiblioMondo was the earliest.
Two other library automation companies have recently announced their plans to make AquaBrowser Library available to their library customers. At the recent ALA Midwinter Meeting in Boston, AquaBrowser was one of the notable new technologies, available for view at the booths of The Library Corporation (TLC) and VTLS.
TLC entered into a partnership to offer AquaBrowser Library in September 2004; AquaBrowser will be offered as an optional search interface for each of TLC's three automation systems: Library.Solution, Carl.Solution, and the company's newest offering, Carl.X. Lexington Public Library in Kentucky, a municipal system of six branches with a collection of more than 325,000 titles, will be first United States library to implement the product.
Announcing its partnership with Medialab Solutions in January 2005, VTLS will offer the AquaBrowser Library search interface to its customers as an optional add-in to its VECTORS, the portal interface for the VIRTUA library automation system. Early adopters of AquaBrowser Library through VTLS include Scugog Public Library in Canada and Nyenrode University in the Netherlands.