discovery interfaces in the Chronicle

Chronicle of Higher Ed article on discovery layers in library catalogs. Doesn’t say much I haven’t already seen (although if you have no idea what I mean by “discovery layers” do read it; it’s a good overview). I did like this bit, though:

“It’s sort of our answer to, Why it is you need a library when you have Google?” said Ms. Gibbons [vice provost and dean of the University of Rochester’s River Campus Libraries]. “What this is going to do is show how much you’ve been missing.”

Positioning libraries to stay relevant is, of course, a major obsession these days, and I liked how she phrased it — not exactly as “let’s present ourselves in ways that are familiar to the users” (although I do think that matters), but “by presenting ourselves in ways that are familiar to the users, we can better showcase ways that we are already awesome.”

Comments section is kind of disheartening. I shouldn’t be surprised that the demographic that reads the Chronicle is the demographic that is conversant with old-school catalog searching ;), but so many of the comments read as “fix the user, not the catalog” and…that just never works. Even if the user is uneducated about, e.g., subject headings (and let me tell you, one semester of library school showed me it is amazing how undereducated you can be about catalogs after even a humanities MA), even if the existing technology works really well once you put in the time to learn it — fixing users just never works.

It would make me sad if discovery layers made it impossible to do the sort of precise, controlled searching library nerds get good at, but another of the lessons of Google (or, for that matter, of any number of intimidating databases) is that your clean searchbox doesn’t mean you can’t have that functionality. But if you say to users “you can’t even play until you’ve spent a couple hours learning how” — well, just like my last post — that means there will be a lot of users you never get at all.

Make it easy. Or, at least: make the first hit free.

7 thoughts on “discovery interfaces in the Chronicle

  1. Did you know that this post is the only hit for the wordpress tag “discovery layers”? And that there is no Wikipedia entry for “Discovery Layers”? And no mention of “discovery layers” on ILS?

    So what is this technological boon, exactly? My local city library has evolved from requiring labels for mixed-index searching, to requiring them for same-index searching, to not even warning about it with the latest (bibliocommons) layer on top. Nevertheless, the most common way I go to check the catalog is:

    1. Google part of the title and author name
    2. Click the link ( has an inferior catalog, sadly)
    3. Copy the ISBN
    4. Load library front page (slow!)
    5. paste ISBN and search

    Then I get either the book’s page in the library catalog (if present) or an Item Not Found screen.

    It’s not that I don’t ever want to search by subject terms or by keywords; it’s that I much more often want to find a book I have heard about and remember fragments of author and title.


    1. They’re also called “discovery interfaces”, and it is completely lame that there is so little out there about them, because it’s a real term and important phenomenon in the library world. Sigh. But hey, at least it makes people more likely to stumble upon my blog!

      That *is* a sad and roundabout way of searching (and I confess to having done similar on occasion ;). Basically, yeah, discovery layers are catalog front-ends that are meant to allow users to search, and refine searches, in more intuitive ways, without needing to be ninjas with catalog syntax. They borrow heavily from Google and e-commerce ideas that people have gotten familiar with these days. They also tend to include features like spelling correction and “did you mean…?” that older catalogs do not, but which are, as you’ve noticed, important in a lot of real-world searches.

      Here is a list of well-known discovery layers on the market today. If you click on any of the icons you’ll get a list of libraries which use it, if you want to play around. (Look and feel vary tremendously; they tend to be heavily customizable.) But generally what you’ll see with a discovery layer is a single, google-style searchbox (with more or less obvious links to advanced search, and sometimes drop-down menus with search limits). Then your catalog hits tend to include enriched content (e.g. cover images) and there’s typically a sidebar that lets you refine your results in various ways (same thing you see on the sidebar, only typically the facets are more library-centric — format, location, language, date). There may also be other web 2.0ish things like tag clouds.

      I don’t really know about bibliocommons but — *googles* — yeah, looks like an example of a discovery layer. (As you note, it’s layered on top of the catalog — your library may well be running the same catalog software it always has — discovery layers are just for the front end. Which, I mean, is the only end most patrons ever see, so having it act in a way that patrons find intuitive is useful. It is a bummer that it doesn’t suffice for the searches you’re doing, though. I would give your local library feedback on that, not just me. 😉

      *plays around with it more* Yeah, OK, I see what bibliocommons is aiming at, and I see that it seems to totally not deal with fragmentary queries, which is unfortunate. Or, wait, let me amend that — at the test site bibliocommons links to (I don’t know your library, sorry) there’s a small “advanced search” link, and that bit *does* deal with fragments/wildcards, give me a wider variety of search delimiters, etc. So you may have the functionality you’re looking for, but hiding. It’d be nice if they did a better job of integrating it into the main searchbox.


    1. While it would probably be helpful if the page included links to discovery layer info as it’s an important trend related to ILSes, discovery layers are not, in fact, *part* of ILSes — they’re add-on layers often sold by different vendors — so I can see not having that in the page.

      There’s a very primitive page at (although really, they’re next-generation catalog *interfaces*, not catalogs) and a section here: , which is also underserved. Man, now I need to add “get motivated to care about writing wikipedia articles” to my to-do list…


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s