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New Expectations for Search Functionality Bring Challenges

by on June 29, 2018

In the past few weeks I’ve come across two articles that predict the imminent rise of voice-searching as the preferred method to seek information. My immediate reaction was a sinking feeling of discouragement when I consider how clunky searching for library materials already feels, let alone how it would feel if this new expectation comes to fruition. I often think that if the library were invented today our search mechanisms through our integrated library systems would function very differently. Much like a quick search on Amazon usually gives you what you’re looking for, linked data would be the key to our success. Unfortunately, a half-century of MARC records are firmly anchoring us to the past. How often does a search for a title come up empty only to realize you’ve forgotten the colon between the title and subtitle? I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again, you should not need an MLS to search a library catalog.

This challenge is certainly being discussed in the ILS world. BIBFRAME seems to be the tool which will overlay MARC to allow bibliographic records to have life outside the library world. Both Innovative Interfaces1 and SirsiDynix2 are rolling out products to convert MARC records to BIBFRAME. My hesitation is that since BIBFRAME is built on the bones of MARC data, we’re not really breaking free of the shackles. For example, those using Google no longer need to consider the right keywords for a search. Google’s algorithm, RankBrain, has the ability to decipher a complex query and break it into something easy to search.3 I don’t know if BIBFRAME will get us there, but if not, we’ll still be behind.

I was very intrigued when I came across Wise, a new tool from OCLC.4 This product is marketed as a “community engagement tool.” Wise aims to completely redefine the library catalog by building it around the patron experience, rather than around the bibliographic record. Currently, libraries in the Netherlands operate on this system. Interestingly, the Netherlands charge a fee to patrons for library services which therefore exerts more pressure on the need for an effortless patron experience. OCLC will be rolling this new tool out in the US in 2019 through seven pilot library systems. I’m encouraged by the fact that a product like this is making its way to our shores and will be closely watching its implementation.

It is without question that the digital presence of public libraries needs to be overhauled. We currently operate on too many different systems, with too many rules, with too few successes. You might scoff at a world where Alexa can search a library catalog and place a hold for you, after all, how different is that from just calling a library? The reality is… very different. Voice searching and home assistants are quickly becoming the standard for information retrieval. While this may paint a bleak picture of the future of human interaction, it certainly poses an interesting challenge to the future of public libraries.


[1] https://www.iii.com/products/metadata-management/#linked-data

[2] http://www.sirsidynix.com/blog/2016/05/26/linked-data-faq

[3] https://www.forbes.com/sites/jaysondemers/2018/01/09/why-you-need-to-prepare-for-a-voice-search-revolution/2/#1080e0ede65e

[4] https://www.oclc.org/en/wise.html