Fueled by exceptionally successful interfaces found elsewhere on the Web, users of online library services come to the “search table” with extremely high expectations. Google, eBay, Amazon, and Yahoo! are just a few of the major brands that employ Web interfaces palatable to a wide user base. And aside from the good press that North Carolina State University (NCSU) Libraries' new Endeca-powered OPAC received earlier this year (see “From Swine to Divine: NCSU Unveils New Catalog” and “The Revolution Will be Folksonomied,” on the ALA TechSource Blog; URLs under “Contact”), the traditional library open public access catalog (OPAC) rarely creates a buzz among online searchers. But one of the strongest trends to emerge in early 2006 in the library automation field is the infectious endeavor to—dramatically—improve the library's Web-based catalog.
Libraries and vendors alike are working on recipes for OPAC-user interfaces that leap beyond the conventional OPAC to cook up an online catalog that features flavorings of the popular Web. Search applications, such as those offered by Endeca and AquaBrowser, for example, gathered momentum in the last year as add-on interfaces for library catalogs. Both were developed originally for nonlibrary content but deliver new search models that go beyond the native capability of library catalogs.
A Tastier OPAC
Ex Libris is among the library-software vendors attempting to revitalize the library environment by creating “next-generation” interfaces. With its new offering, Primo, it has put forward its vision in a product libraries can use to revamp their online offerings.
Now in early development, Primo will be a new end-user information-discovery/ delivery tool, delivering access to not only content normally provided by the online catalog, but also other local content, such as digitized collections and that housed in institutional repositories. Additionally, Primo will be designed to offer access to remote collections of interest, e.g., when content is available through protocols such as the Open Archives Initiative Protocol for Metadata Harvesting. Primo further extends its reach to additional resources through a metasearch component, interfacing with the company's MetaLib product. According to Ex Libris, Primo aims to provide services for searching as well as delivering access to all of the library's resources, of the library's resources, whether those resources are maintained and hosted locally or need to be accessed remotely.
Primo reintegrates the silos of library content by creating indexes of all local content—both digital and print. Its user interface lies atop a search environment, the Primo Publishing Platform, that receives metadata harvested from its original source, normalizes it for optimized searching, and enhances it with additional metadata and content when available. The platform creates indexes from these combined resources, and through these indexes, Primo can use sophisticated algorithms to deliver ranked results very quickly. In the traditional metasearch model, with search queries cast to multiple targets, the quality search results vary according to the way that each returns records. Speed may be hampered as well, due to either slowly responding targets or network bottlenecks. But Primo delivers one level of ranked results for the content sources within the preharvested and indexed resources; search results can then be extended to the metasearch resources to expand the scope of the search.
The Primo interface looks less like a traditional library catalog, more like what online searchers see in the e-commerce world every day. It sports a simple search box but also includes panes for faceted browsing and for viewing search results. As items appear in the search-results pane, they display with book jackets or other graphics—as you would expect them to in a modern OPAC—and include helpers, often through the use of SFX (Ex Libris's linkresolver offering) to guide the user directly to the item or the appropriate services needed to access or request it.
Incorporating data from sources such as Syndetic Solutions, Blackwell, Amazon, and others, library catalogs increasingly are offering OPAC users book cover images, tables of contents, reviews, and summaries. Most library catalogs that integrate these features blend them with the data from the library's catalog as records display; however, they tend not to use this enriched content as part of to use this enriched content as part of the search process. With Primo, enrichment data can be incorporated into the indexes to provide additional access points when searching.
Primo's interface also includes capabilities to perform faceted browsing. This method of search navigation breaks away from a strictly hierarchical browsing approach, which does not take into consideration the reality that users like to find items based on combinations of characteristics. Faceted browsing enables users to narrow their searches by combining categories until they retrieve items that match their exact interests.
Today's Web users also expect the items that best match the query to appear at the top of the list. Primo incorporates a ranking scheme that orders search results according to relevancy, and it includes features popular in the e-commerce arena, such as user-supplied reviews, recommendations based on what others that viewed this item also selected, and grouping of like results. Primo, too, will include dictionaries and thesauri to provide search suggestions and structured lists as part of the searching process.
Web Services also on the Menu
One of the key characteristics of current software across industries involves the use of Web services. Based on XML data structures and well-defined protocols, the Web-services architecture allows components of diverse applications to exchange content and services. Primo incorporates Web services in its design so it can be easily extended to incorporate new services and to integrate its capabilities with external applications.
Ex Libris designed Primo to work with any of the major of the major library automation systems, not just its own ALEPH 500 ILS. The company has found great success in selling SFX and MetaLib beyond its ALEPH customer base, so it makes sense that Ex Libris will market Primo to libraries running automation systems provided by its competitors.
On the surface it may seem that Ex Libris offers libraries discrete components that help them manage electronic content. But a deeper look at Ex Libris's product offerings reveals a means to create a new model of library automation, based on the primacy of electronic content in libraries today. With SFX, Metalib (metasearch portal), DigiTool (digital content-creation environment), Verde (electronic-resource management application), and now Primo, Ex Libris is offering its library customers a suite of applications that provide an increasingly comprehensive environment for providing access to and management of library collections with ever-larger digital proportions. This sphere of applications operates in conjunction with the library's ILS, which continues to provide important back-room automation tasks, but that is no longer able to serve as the primary delivery vehicle to end-users.
Ex Libris expects to release Primo in 2006. At the ALA Midwinter Meeting in San Antonio in late January, a prototype of the product was available, and the company was selecting libraries as development partners and test sites.