Open Discovery Interfaces

These open source OPAC discovery layers allow libraries to experiment freely with their user interface

June 1, 2009

Discovery interfaces allow libraries to offer more modern tools to their users for searching library collections. While the ILS serves as the automation environment for library staff, the discovery interface extracts data from the ILS and other repositories and gives end users a centralized index with new search capabilities.

Almost all commercial library automation vendors have offered discovery products for many years, but recently a number of open source alternatives have emerged and are becoming increasingly popular.

These open source products allow libraries to follow a more experimental approach in establishing their next-generation discovery interface strategy. Libraries can download and install the software on a test server, load sample data sets, and customize without the need to make a major commitment or financial outlay. They can even experiment with multiple products without committing to any of them.

The availability of these open source products allows libraries to make an initial investigation of a new generation interface and gain hands-on experience, even if they might eventually decide to purchase a commercial product.
VuFind was one of the first open source discovery interfaces for libraries, and it continues to be the dominant alternative to proprietary products, with several academic libraries having adopted it as their discovery layer. The Falvey Memorial Library at Villanova University, which initiated the creation of Vu Find, continues to lead its ongoing development.

The product is completely modular so that libraries can implement the basic system alone or all the components as well. Also, the modules can be modified, and new ones can be added.

The eXtensible Catalog (or XC) project has also made major strides in creating an open source discovery platform. One of the key concepts behind XC is its approach to metadata: XC includes a Metadata Toolkit for exporting and transforming metadata into forms that make it more effective in a faceted search environment. It also includes toolkits for OAI and NCIP for interacting with ILS systems and other repositories. XC will embrace multiple interface options, including ones that use the open source content management system Drupal.

OpenBib is an open source software product whose original development began in 1997. OpenBib includes the standard features of the current line of library discovery interfaces, including faceted searching, end-user tagging, reviews, tag clouds, and recommendations based on use data. The interface offers a live-search feature, where the system begins to offer terms in a dropdown menu that builds as the user types, saving time in typing and presenting valid terms that might not have otherwise been obvious.

OpenBib also includes the ability to browse collections. Another open source discovery product that has begun to receive attention is Blacklight, a development project at the University of Virginia libraries. Blacklight was created as a research project by the University of Virginia and is not yet in production. Blacklight operates with a variety of international metadata formats, including MARC, EAD, and TEI.

Without a doubt, the number of libraries using open source discovery interfaces is still much smaller than that of those using proprietary products. However, the increasing buzz surrounding the open source products, as well as their adoption by a wide and geographically disparate variety of prestigious institutions, indicates that their popularity is growing rapidly. Given exciting advances continuously being made in developing this software, the trend seems likely to continue.

Marshall Breeding serves as the director for innovative technology and research at the Vanderbilt University Libraries in Nashville, Tennessee.