As technology advances, university libraries are blazing their way to better search capabilities.
Changes to search technology have allowed users to find research material faster and easier over the past five years.
Villanova University in Pennsylvania helped liberate library search by developing an open-source discovery service called VuFind that it first released in 2010. A second release of the software within the last year allowed VuFind to become more flexible so that university libraries can hook third-party discovery services into it, said Demian Katz, lead VuFind developer at Falvey Memorial Library.
VuFind sits on top of and connects to other discovery systems, online public access catalogs, library guides and databases, just to name a few. By mining the data found in these various places, VuFind can return results to users from the entire library collection.
Previously, the library's website would connect users with its 70 to 90 different databases, which covered different subject areas and types of material. Users would often see zero results returned for their query because the search function was so complicated.
Now users can write like a human when they search and press "enter" to start their hunt. Because the 2.0 version of VuFind is the interface that users see, a change in third-party commercial vendors won't affect the way users do their search.
"Your user interface and experience appears the same, but the data's coming from somewhere else," Katz said. "So it gives more local control and also more flexibility to make changes."
One of the big issues with library search is that different types of resources are siloed. With VuFind's latest release, users see a split screen with one side that includes print resources and the other shows digital resources.
"While it might have been one small step for discovery, I think it was one giant step for library services and patron satisfaction," said Judith Brink-Drescher, director of James E. Tobin Library at Molloy College in Long Island, N.Y.
It's much easier for students to search now because they don't have to be taught to talk in search language. That's especially helpful for non-traditional students who already have limited time due to their job and family responsibilities.
"Having to learn a whole bunch of difficult ways to search isn't as good of an investment as just being able to type in what you're thinking," said Benjamin Mosior, junior Keystone Library Network systems administrator at Shippensburg University in Pennsylvania.
As digital content becomes more prevalent, university libraries are trying to figure out how to handle it in search. The Villanova developers installed another instance of VuFind at their library just for digital content.
This instance allows users to search the full text of digital material down to the page level. The other instance gives users the ability to search the whole library catalog, but only returns high-level data about digital materials so users can see that they're available and do a more detailed search in the other instance.
This points out an interesting search challenge: How granular does a search need to be in any given context? The answer to that remains to be seen.