Access - Discovery

Discovery of information for many library users is (as well noted) increasingly elsewhere. Most don’t come to our eResources as a first resource if they are located only in the library sphere. The catalogue in particular, our traditional discovery tool, is seen by many as limited in scope and bypassed for the web.  And many users have no clear idea of what is provided in collections of eResources so do not recognize them as a useful resource.

In the longer term eResource vendors will increasingly expose their content to web search engines (with link resolvers to lead the user to their local library) but in the interim we need to work on in-library strategies to enhance visibility.  Libraries will have different options based on their level of resourcing and user preferences.   This is an evolving and complex area with few simple solutions.

The following presents an indicative summary of options for libraries to consider across three inter-related areas:  technical solutions; services solutions; and, marketing solutions.  Libraries should pursue ideas with vendors and talk to other libraries that have implemented solutions. 

Technical Solutions

To our users library resources typically appear fragmented, unclear as to content and purpose and often require separate searching of each resource – catalogue, full text databases, digital collections, gateway links and variations on these, each with their own distinct interface and method of searching. And while users may know of relevant journal or reference titles they don’t know in which eResource they can be found.

Technical options to integrating eResources include:

Journal/Title A – Z Lists

Various eResources or third party vendors  (e.g. EBSCO, Proquest) offer such services or libraries can create and maintain their own. The appeal is that users do not need to know in which resource a journal or other source resides as they can search for relevant titles by name, keyword or in some broad subject, link directly to the title in the library catalogue and then access any full-text content.
Decide whether you want a comprehensive compilation of all holdings, a more select listing providing direct access to titles of high appeal, or a particular subject grouping (e.g. consumer magazines, recreation titles, nursing journals…). Public libraries may prefer to provide just indicative rather than full lists. The commercial A-Z solutions are often based on the number of titles listed. If you need to reduce costs consider whether you need to provide all, or just a select listing – you can “deselect” titles from their lists.
Titles can also be directly linked to from your catalogue. Some libraries adopt this strategy to enable name, keyword and subject searching with direct links to their individual eResources and/or select titles within. Most serial titles in an eResource have a “persistent identifier” that can facilitate this.  Persistent identifiers can be of various types, persistent URLs, digital object identifiers, uniform resource names etc.  but all aim to provide access to the resource even if it moves or is accessed from other locations.  They can point to journal or source titles and/or to individual articles. Weigh up the work required to build and maintain this and whether the catalogue really is the preferred tool to make these resources accessible.

Making evident the specific content within eResources this way is a generally well appreciated alternative route to discovery and a powerful means to develop interest and usage.

Vendor Cross-Database Searching

Most of the eResource vendors provide some means of searching across more than one of their resources. The current EBSCO eResources can be searched jointly or separately via the EBSCOHost database menu or by using the free search widget.  See the Further Reading section for information on the free search widget.  If you hold other eResources then those vendors will probably have similar options.
As these services search across resources with common structures and indexing it can be a more functional and reliable solution than “federated” services that attempt to search across quite diverse eResources.
Bring these vendor specific services to the attention of users if it is felt there are common search needs that could be better fulfilled by a wide scope of coverage rather than searching individual resources. Given that such wide searches also have the potential to overwhelm some users, it is preferable to present them as options not the main or only search approach. Preferably offer these options from direct descriptive links from your web pages. Vendors can advise on how these can be set up.

Federated searching

 In 2010 conducted a pilot trial of the EBSCOHost Integrated Search product (EHIS) at three NSW public libraries.  The EHIS product is commonly referred to as a federated search tool.   Federated search solutions act as an intermediary between the client and a predefined selection of information resources

A federated search solution generally uses Z39.50 compatible connectors to facilitate computer to computer communication in order to automate the process of searching multiple digital resources. (See Marshall Breeding’s July/August Technology Report linked below).   By using a federated search platform a library can integrate their library catalogue and key digital information resources into a single search interface.  Federated search technology aims to provide the user with an approximation of the simplicity of a Google style search. 

At the conclusion of the trial it was apparent that the EHIS solution had a positive impact on database usage for all three participating library services.

The feedback also indicated that whilst there were issues encountered during the set-up of EHIS and some compromises noted regarding search functionality and relevancy ranking; overall EHIS did succeed in simplifying the searching process for staff and clients.  The substantial increase in database usage demonstrated the potential of this technology to improve client awareness of eContent resources and in doing so also improve the return on investment for eContent subscriptions.

On the basis of the 2010 trial results negotiated a subsidised consortia opt-in offer for EHIS.  In the first year of the 25 NSW public libraries subscribed to EHIS.  The product continues to be offered, if you are interested in subscribing contact Service Delivery Coordinator, Ross Balharrie:

The limitations of Federated Search   

When deploying federated search technology with the aim of providing patrons with an experience akin to internet searching there are trade-offs which need to be considered.   Federated search is reliant upon API connectors to search licensed databases.  Connector availability is not universal and in circumstances whereby a connector is not available for a database the development costs are often the liability of the library.   In 2014 EBSCO indicated that they would no longer create new EHIS connectors for databases however; they would support the extensive list of established database connectors.   This highlights the evolution of discovery services and the strategic decision of vendors to transition from federated search to web scale discovery solutions as their primary discovery layer offering.  As this transition has occurred the price of web scale discovery services has dropped significantly to be within reach of larger public library services.  

A further limitation of federated search technology relates to relevancy ranking capabilities.  When a query is forwarded to the connected databases the search term is checked for corresponding matches within the article citation records.  The abstract and full text data, as well as the indexing that a database vendor uses to relevancy rank content is unavailable to federated search engines.  The search results are returned to the federated search interface in batches of ten to twenty records.  The speed at which results are returned across all of the connected databases will vary and this will impede the efficiency of the relevancy ranking and the ability of the federated search to remove duplicate results returned from two or more databases which may have the same journal title.   Despite these shortcomings full text download statistics for the statewide licensed databases demonstrate that clients are identifying articles of interest.  Federated search also continues to provide a cost effective single search solution for public libraries with moderate eContent collections (10-20 databases).

What is Web Scale Discovery?

Web scale discovery services rely on massive centralised metadata indexes to replicate the speed and accuracy of conventional internet searching tools.  The indexes are designed to closely match the journal coverage of a diverse range of databases used by libraries (coverage gaps still occur and will vary in size depending on the resources subscribed to by a library).  The web scale discovery vendors form partnerships with publishers and database vendors to secure access to the citation metadata and preferably the full text for relevant publications.  The eContent database subscription profile of the client library service is matched against the central index to ensure that only appropriately licensed content is accessible to the library’s patrons. The advantage of harvesting the full text of applicable content is that every word or phrase becomes a possible point of access (see Marshall Breeding’s book Next-Gen Library Catalogs cited below).   Therefore relevancy ranking capabilities of web scale discovery far exceed those of federated search as the query can be conducted across a single centralized index of enriched metadata as opposed to smaller batches of citation only records sourced from third party server repositories (sometimes federated search connectors are utilized to supplement web scale discovery services in circumstances where the metadata is not within the central index due to licensing issues).   Web scale discovery services also offer a sophisticated mechanism for narrowing search results through the use of faceted navigation.  Once the initial search term has been entered the faceted navigation aids, generally located to the right and left of the results list, provide the user with a number of intuitive options to narrow the search.   


At the 2015 Digital Engagement and User Experience Seminar, Colleen Giles & Jennifer Wilson from Fairfield City Library Services discussed the implementation of the EBSCOhost Discovery Service.  The presentation was recoded on video. 

Ebsco Disovery Presentation by Fairfield Library


The following panel discussion is a 2014 American Libraries Live episode of on web scale discovery services in public libraries and schools. 

For a detailed overview of webscale discover technologies please refer to 

Breeding, M. 2007, “Introduction,” Library Technology Reports, Vol 43, Iss 4, pp. 5-14, EBSCO Academic Search Complete, viewed 24 October 2014,

Breeding, M. 2014, “Library Resource Discovery Products: Context, Library Perspectives and Vendor Positions”, Library Technology Reports, Vol 50, Iss 1, pp. 5-58, EBSCO Academic Search Complete, viewed 19 June 2014,<><><>

Breeding, M. 2010, Next-Gen Library Catalogs (The tech set, #1), Neal Schuman Publishers, New York, New York

Service solutions


Libraries can collate or bring to attention eResources that reflect the known interests of groups of their users. In their simplest form these are annotated lists of resources by interest or need. In more ambitious scope they amount to ‘portals’ or ‘gateways’ that act as filters or channels to a considerable number of eResources placed in a meaningful context with other related digital resources. A “gateway” is typically a presentation of selected, evaluated eResources in a broad subject area; a “portal” may include a search service across resources from single interface.
For some topics pre-existing gateways may be co-opted (with permission) where they meet known needs. The most effective mix may be to include your and other eResources within general aggregations of select websites so that they sit in context.

Current Awareness Services

Current awareness or alerting services can be a persuasive way to bring eResources to the attention of users in a sea of competing sources, as well as repeatedly convey their value. The effort required to produce such products can be well repaid, particularly for special libraries.   And, those without the capacity to produce in-house services can at minimum educate their users on how to set up the alerting services available within many of the eResources.
Current awareness bulletins can provide a regular visible presence and, if delivered online, integrate direct links to selected or highlighted full text items of interest. In all cases ensure you are inserting a persistent identifier to a source not just a temporary session URL .  And, keep them focused on topics of known interest - don’t overload the content or the bulletins won’t be read. Having been exposed (by a link) to a database, many users will be tempted to explore and carry out searches on their own behalf.
If you don’t want to ‘push’ products directly to clients then an increasingly popular medium is to present such updating or alerting in the form of a blog which can act (amongst other aims) as a trusted referral site to selected current sources. Users can be invited to set up an RSS feed to notify them of updates to the blog.
eResources generally provide two options for receiving alerts: email alerts and/or RSS feeds.
A variation on this personalized alerting is automated provision of table of contents (TOC) of current issues of nominated journals as they arrive in an eResource.  For further advice on how to access and set up alerting services look at the online help files in the eResources.
Public libraries could consider regular small guides (‘pathfinders’) on popular topics that include eResources alongside other information sources. These could be in the form of a website page, email bulletins of developments and/or printed sheets/pamphlets. The web pages will allow insertion of direct links but if used make clear to users that there will be an authentication step before accessing any full text. Such vehicles should concentrate on new, current sources and highlight specific articles or magazine titles, not just the eResources in general.

Staff as Educators and Gatekeepers

People, as others have noted in regard to social networking, “are entry points”. Staff can be your most effective interpreters and pointers to appropriate resources as they can engage with users to determine their needs and make clear the relevance of using a resource. Ensure staff at all levels have the requisite understanding and commitment to fulfil this role.  
Personal (individually on demand) and/or public (guidance, promotions) recommendation can,  if well done, be the most effective approach to conveying to users the value of eResources. Connections can be made that are often not evident to users. But be careful not oversell an eResource’s value or suggest they have relevance for every info need (they don’t!).


Marketing Solutions

Research and web analytics indicate users are increasingly coming to our site by links and referrals from other resources or search engines, rather than through the front door of our home or portal pages. This reinforces that fewer users are seeing library web sites as their first resort for information sources. Their first choice is commonly sites and resources they use for everyday search, work or play. Accordingly libraries need to make efforts to enhance the visibility of eResources in any spaces – virtual or physical -where they might be pertinent to users. Don’t limit the placement of eResources to sites or pages dedicated to them alone:

Public libraries have a range of potential areas to increase awareness and raise visibility: study areas, relevant points in the stacks, magazine racks etc.  Within the library website itself relevant resources should be embedded in areas that relate to customer segments or interests (teens, kids, seniors, fiction pages).

Libraries that implement “discovery layers” have a potentially high value tool to exploit in that it may be feasible to install a search box to the discovery software in institutional, community, elearning or any relevant website.

Some eResource vendors also provide embeddable search “widgets”.  These can expose the resource/s where users more commonly roam and potentially bring them to the library’s eResources without their having to be first aware of, or explicitly enter, the library domain.

For those who lack the resources (or confidence) to develop their own Web-based guides there are Web 2.0 services such as LibGuides that enable you to build them with their tools and then embed into your website or even other locations where users may have a presence such as social media. User research and a degree of caution are prudent though before using social media as library discovery or promotion spaces. Users, especially students, shift allegiances between “brands” quite quickly and many do not view favourably institutions that invade ‘their’ social space.

Print pamphlets and guides that present eResources according to need and/or interest can serve to raise awareness particularly if individual, high quality sources are exemplified. Possibilities include developing a series of guides with a common format but varying themes e.g. “eResources for historians, genealogists, nurses, biologists” etc.). Once done aim to get them into the user’s space - disseminate to institutional staff, relevant community organisations, students etc.