Searching the stacks

Feb. 2, 2012, 1:00 a.m.

Picture yourself in a library. As you walk down row after row of books, panic begins to set in. If this were the moment for a casual stroll through  the stacks, breathing in the smell of weathered pages and perusing an intriguingly titled volume, perhaps you would enjoy the sight of such grandeur, but at this moment, all you can think about is the 10-page paper you have due tomorrow and how you have no idea where to find your next source.


This is where SearchWorks enters the picture.


“One of the primary functions of a library is to enable people to discover information that might be useful,” said Tom Cramer ’94, associate director of digital library systems and services at Stanford.

Searching the stacks
(SERENITY NGUYEN/The Stanford Daily)


This is an especially demanding job at Stanford, a university with collections made of 6,825,821 information resources. To organize such a vast quantity of information, librarians have needed to collaborate and think creatively. The result is SearchWorks, Stanford’s next-generation library catalog.


At the heart of SearchWorks is Blacklight, a software project developed at the University of Virginia. Blacklight is powered by Apache Solr and Apache Lucene, the same open-source search engine software used by Netflix and Ticketmaster. While Stanford was the first university outside of Virginia to adopt Blacklight, about eight other universities, including Columbia, Johns Hopkins and the University of Wisconsin, now use the project.


At first, libraries relied on commercial software, which often simply replicated the traditional card catalog in an online form. These commercial solutions proved inadequate, however, so libraries decided to collaborate and create new software for themselves. This approach matches the historical behavior of libraries, according to Cramer.


“There are more books than librarians in the world, and labor is expensive, so libraries have been very good about figuring out how to share and cooperate with each other for centuries,” he said.


“I represent the scholar’s point of view, the student’s point of view,” Bourg M.A. ’98 Ph.D. ’03 said.


A feature SearchWorks has that Socrates lacked is relevancy ranking, which makes results appear in order of their relevance to a search. Because SearchWorks is open-source, librarians can tweak the ranking to suit an academic environment.


“For example, journal titles show up higher in the list than they would otherwise; they get a little boost,” Bourg said.


A student who runs a search using the keyword “science,” therefore, will find the journal “Science” included near the top of the results.


Faceted search, another important feature, allows users to limit their search to particular kinds of items. For example, a user can search only for videos located in the music library.


“If you look at the interface, it has a similar feel to Amazon or Zappos, or other kinds of online shopping,” Bourg said. “We’re making the library catalog experience similar to other experiences that people have online.”


Features particularly useful to students include the “cite this” button, which produces a bibliographic citation in MLA, APA or Chicago format. Users with smart phones can also store information about a book by taking a photo of its QR code or sending an automatically generated text message to their cell phone.


Some may argue that the efficiency of SearchWorks takes away from the library browsing experience.


“There’s this [lost] notion of serendipity, where if I’m walking down the library stacks I can find a book just by looking at the books to the left or the right,” Cramer said, highlighting the “spark of discovery.”


However, the reception from users of the new catalog has been positive, as students usually need to find sources immediately for projects.


SearchWorks is not a one-time project but rather an ongoing program. One new aspect of the SearchWorks team is the addition of more images to the catalog.


“By the end of this year, there will be something like 50,000 [digitized images] in there,” Cramer said.


Another area of future development would enable users to search in non-Roman scripts, such as Chinese, Japanese and Korean. This addition would benefit speakers of foreign languages and allow the catalog to be more user-inclusive. The key to the continued improvement of SearchWorks, according to Cramer and Bourg, is feedback from users.


“What I hope students and faculty know, is that [SearchWorks] evolves based on what’s needed by students and faculty,” Bourg said.

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