I’ve spent a lot of the past couple of weeks looking at things around library search, partly for the RISE project (where we are looking at developing a service to provide recommendations to users searching our Ebsco Discovery Solution), and partly because I’ve been thinking about how we should be presenting search on our new website. 

So we’ve been looking at examples of approaches from elsewhere, looking at what users have been saying about library search, looking at the data of how people are actually using the search tools on our current website and reading a few reports and documents.  This week there have also been some interesting blog posts about the area of library search and discovery solutions, not least Aaron Tay’s recent post looking at putting LibGuides into Discovery solutions, One Search Box to search them All  and Jane Burke’s series of posts about library search on InfoViews which point to areas where library search doesn’t work.

Approaches to search presentation
Looking at the approach that libraries are taking with the way they present search on their websites then there seems to be a lot of common ground. OU SearchMany have adopted a tabbed approach, where different types of search are nested, (in our case a collections search for articles, a website and a catalogue search).  Examples of this approach include NCSU, Michigan and Auckland.  Others are using radio buttons to do something similar such as Huddersfield.  Even the University of Houston Downtown which offers a single LibSearch box to search everything here offers a tabbed search on their home page.  The single LibSearch search goes to their version of Summon. 

In some ways it’s almost possible to see the slow steps towards a single ‘Google-like’ search for libraries as they start to get to grips with the potential of the new generation of search tools.  And build up confidence that the tool is the right one for users.

So how do users feel about library search?
In last year’s library survey we had quite a lot of feedback about how students found searching for library resources.  Looking at the words used to describe search in the open comments then ‘difficult’ featured prominently.  At the time we were using federated search, which although an improvement on what went before, was hardly an engaging user experience.  Since then we’ve implemented Ebsco Discovery Solution and are doing some work now to evaluate how users are finding it.  But our presentation through the website is still a tabbed search approach that effectively says to the user ‘describe what sort of stuff you want using our language and then pick which one of these boxes might have the answer’  That seems a bit like that TV programme where you pick from a series of red boxes and have to guess what’s inside!

What are users doing?
So we’ve been looking at what searches people are putting into the search boxes to see if we can understand more about search behaviour.  Library search termsWe’ve looked at both our discovery search and the older federated search, and our catalogue and website searches.   Looking at the top 20 results for each type of search then we find that about 40% of them are identical across all the search boxes. That goes up to over 50% if you look at 3 out of 4 search boxes.  The table shows the common search terms with a coloured highlight and the 3 out of 4 terms with a grey background.

The search terms that are being applied to the search boxes suggest that users don’t understand which search boxes to use, so they put them into all of them. Now that may be because users don’t understand the way we label the different search boxes or the terminology we use.    If that’s the case then maybe a single search box is the way to go. 

But does that then open up a presentation issue about how do you show the results?  Which ones come from the website, from library resources or from the catalogue?  But does it actually matter to a user?  Libraries organise content into collections for a variety of reasons and I’m not convinced that users always need to know about how we organise stuff.  We seem to have a whole load of things in between the ‘Have you got this?’ and ‘Here it is’ that aren’t of interest to most users. ‘What type of stuff is it?’, ‘Which collection is it in?’, ‘If it’s this type of stuff look here, or that type look there’. Is that a carry over from the concept of a ‘reference interview’ where we go through an iterative process to connect the user with the content.  In which case I wonder if that is appropriate in the self-service, instant, web world?