Since about 2005, Smart Libraries Newsletter has chronicled the development and adoption of what was originally called next-generation catalogs, and later discovery interfaces, and more recently Webscale discovery services. Since then, many changes have developed in this space. In recent years, the emerging trend is for many libraries to drop third party interface solutions in favor of those provided by the same vendor of their core automation environment. Although that pattern of movement in the discovery arena exists, so do counter examples. I'm frequently asked whether a library should stick with the interface offered through its main automation provider or implement a separate discovery service. The answer is complicated, with a variety of factors to consider.
The scenario where a library implements a discovery interface separate from its core library automation system comes with a significant layer of overhead to make these two components work well together. In most cases the bibliographic database in the automation system has to be exported, indexed in the discovery platform, and routinely synchronized. Mechanisms are also needed to provide real-time availability status in order to display whether an item is currently available or checked out. It's also necessary to connect the systems for enabling selfservice features such as logging into a My Account profile, viewing items currently charged, requesting renewals, placing holds on items, paying fees, and other related tasks. The ILS-DI (Integrated Library System – Discovery Interface) specification proposed by a work group of the Digital Library Federation addresses these interoperability issues.
During the phase where online catalogs were perceived as especially dysfunctional and limited in scope, an opportunity emerged for products capable of providing a more modern user experience, expanding the scope of search, and adding other features not possible through the built-in online catalog module of the integrated library system. Given the vast improvements offered, the overhead involved in integration added to the effort, but was perceived as worthwhile. The ILS-DI work aimed to reduce some of that overhead. Beginning in around 2005, products such as AquaBrowser Library, Ex Libris Primo, VuFind, Encore, BiblioCommons, Endeca, and others emerged as discovery interfaces that libraries might deploy instead of, or in addition their online catalogs. This movement could be seen in both academic and public libraries.
Since then, a number of developments have altered the dynamic of discovery interfaces. These include the expansion of native online catalog products, the emergence of Web-scale discovery services, and the growing ties between discovery services and library services platforms offered by the same provider.
In the academic sphere, the emphasis has gone toward Web-scale, or index-based discovery services based on article and chapter-level metadata and full text. Examples of these discovery services include Serials Solutions Summon, EBSCO Discovery Service, Ex Libris Primo Central, and OCLC's WorldCat Local. Each of these index-based discovery services can be used with any of the major integrated library systems, though we also see a growing affinity with library services platforms by the same vendor if it has such an offering. Ex Libris Alma and Primo, WorldCat Local and WorldShare Management Services, Summon and Intota are designed to work well together with built-in integration. Intota has not yet been released, but Serials Solutions has stated Summon will be its ideal public interface, though APIs will be exposed to support others.
There are some notable exceptions to these matched set offerings. EBSCO Discovery Service, for example, follows a strategy of integration with any back-end integrated library system or library services platform. EBSCO works to minimize the overhead involved in integration, partnering with a wide variety of providers of library management products, including SirsiDynix, Innovative Interfaces, OCLC, Kuali OLE, and Capita. In this sphere, we see a dynamic between discovery and management with competing trajectories of integrated suites and separable components.
In the public library arena, significant movement shows a preference for the discovery interfaces provided by the vendor of the integrated library system in place. The features of the online catalogs have expanded well into the feature set previously seen only in third-party discovery interfaces. The overhead of integration with third-part products seems no longer justifiable when the capabilities of the public interfaces delivered by the ILS provider approach or exceed that offered through third party products.
As the most prominent indicator of this trend, AquaBrowser, once one of the most popular discovery interfaces in the United States, has seen considerable erosion in its use. The AquaBrowser technology was developed by Medialab Solutions, based in Amsterdam, and proved to be a very popular discovery interface in the library arena. Following its successful reception in its home country and surrounding areas, a business arrangement was made with The Library Corporation to market and resell the product in its territories of activity, including the United States, Canada, and Singapore. The Library Corporation saw great success in its marketing efforts for AquaBrowser, not only among its own customers but to libraries running non-TLC ILS products. AquaBrowser even gained adoption by academic libraries in this period, including major institutions such as Harvard University, University of Chicago, as well as many other mid-sized institutions, or consortia.
The Library Corporation's discovery strategy changed dramatically when ProQuest purchased the AquaBrowser Library technology from Medialab Solutions in 2007 through its R.R. Bowker subsidiary; in 2008 responsibility for AquaBrowser was transferred within ProQuest to Serials Solutions. From the time of the sale of AquaBrowser to ProQuest, The Library Corporation focused on the development of its own LS2 PAC as the discovery interface that it would market to its customers. Since then, almost all libraries that had previously implemented AquaBrowser with TLC's Library.Solution or Carl.X ILS products have shifted to LS2 PAC. The company has made significant investments in interface technologies, including opening a development office in New York City that focuses on user experience for both its patron-facing and staff products. The installed base of AquaBrowser has also eroded as libraries have selected Polaris as their core integrated library system. All libraries that used AquaBrowser with their previous ILS have shifted to the native PowerPAC catalog interface as they implemented Polaris.
Interest in AquaBrowser has not declined altogether. In its original home country of the Netherlands, Stichting Bibliotheek. nl renewed its contract for AquaBrowser through Serials Solutions in December of 2012. But overall, it also seems that development of AquaBrowser has not been a priority in recent years. AquaBrowser continues to be mentioned as a current product on the Serials Solutions' website, but there are no recent announcements regarding developments or enhancements.
An exception to the convergence of discovery and management systems in the public library sphere can be seen in BiblioCommons. This socially-oriented discovery service operates with most of the major ILS products. BiblioCommons focuses entirely on discovery and portal technologies and does not offer its own library management products. Major libraries implementing BiblioCommons in the United States include the New York Public Library, Boston Public Library, Seattle Public Library, Salt Lake City Public Library, the CLEVNET Library Consortium, Austin Public Library, and others.
In the open source sphere, VuFind and Blacklight continue to hold their own as discovery interfaces and are used with a variety of back-end management products. Some academic libraries have moved from VuFind to index-based discovery services, such as Brown University (VuFind to Summon), Purdue University (VuFind to Primo as part of Alma implementation), Southern Illinois University (VuFind to EBSCO Discovery Service). VuFind is also used as a discovery interface integrated with a commercial discovery index, such as Villanova University's incorporation of Summon with its VuFind interface. Some of the libraries on track to implement the open source Kuali OLE library services platform will rely on Blacklight or VuFind.
While in broad terms, we see a trend toward consolidation between discovery and management platforms from the same provider, libraries continue to acquire discovery products from other vendors or implement those available as open source software. In the coming years, dynamics to watch will be whether discovery services and library services platforms coalesce; and if they do, whether the discovery service in place will drive decisions regarding the selection of library services platforms or if the library services platform will lead to replacement of existing discovery services.