Innovative catalogue search engine represents a Canadian first

Over the past 50 years, the York Libraries have grown and changed in lockstep with the University’s expansion and with innovations made possible by the Internet. 

For students and researchers looking for information, a search of all of York Libraries’ print and electronic resources often meant looking in a number of different places. Added to this conundrum was the physical location of library holdings in eight different libraries housed in different buildings, plus departments and research centres located on two geographically distinct campuses.

Pulling all of these resources together was becoming more cumbersome by the day for librarians, students and researchers. Now all of that has changed with the introduction on Jan. 4 of what the York Libraries are calling a “next generation catalogue” or “discovery layer" which offers a comprehensive made-in-York solution that is proving to be a Canadian first.

The libraries’ new discovery layer merges all of the different catalogues and holdings into one seamless interface using open source software application. “It brings together what were two separate silos: the catalogue, which has print material, CDs, DVDs and a lot of electronic resources, with our electronic resources listings,” says William Denton, York’s Web Librarian. “It used to be that to find something, you had to look in both places to be sure nothing had been missed. It was confusing and complicated, and it made it harder for people to find what they needed. On top of that, other material, like the YorkSpace digital repository and the York Digital Journals, were somewhere else entirely.”

Denton says the introduction of the libraries’ new discovery layer allows users to search all of the York Libraries’ holdings, including the digital journals and YorkSpace, at one time. From traditional printed journals to online eResources, everything is now readily available through a new and improved search, which is built on the open source system called VuFind. "York University is a leader in this field," says Denton. "A lot of interest has been expressed by other Canadian universities in what we are doing with VuFind."

A plain-text search for "earthquake" yields information and resources from all of York’s libraries and electronic holdings. Included are 660 references from the Scott Library, 557 from the Steacie Science & Engineering Library, 458 from York’s Sound & Moving Image Library and a host of other resources, all ranked by relevancy. A user can then drill down to refine the request using the same search function. Click here to view the results.

The project to develop the discovery layer began last year when a committee was convened to look at ways to rejig the libraries’ catalogue. Added to the mix the committee had to consider was an important consideration that many of today’s students have grown up in a digital age and are programmed and wired differently. "We wanted to implement a search and discovery interface that was intuitive, robust," says Denton. "It had to be something that encompassed our extensive holdings and had the capacity to grow. The goal was to make searching for information less complicated and closer to what students experience when using search engines and Internet resources."

After an extensive search, the libraries settled on VuFind. "There were many advantages to VuFind," says Denton. "It is free and open source, and this fits with our other beliefs about open access, open data, open doors and open minds. VuFind also has many features and it can grow with us. The search engine is very powerful and is built on the best open source tool available.

"Best yet is that it gives us just one place to search with no more silos of information. Everything in our catalogue, eResources list, YorkSpace and the York Digital Journals is searchable at once," he says.

The old catalogue will remain in place while the new system is tweaked and perfected, says Denton. "We still have work to do to let people construct a complex search, but right now the actual search is a basic keyword, and while this makes it easier for students and researchers to find exactly what they need, there is sometimes a need to generate more precise search results and that’s where the older catalogue will come in handy," says Denton.

But like a great wine, the new discovery layer catalogue will get better as it ages and develops. "This is just the first step in a series of improvements which will continue to be implemented throughout the year," says Denton. "The next version will include the advanced search function and another round of usability testing will soon be underway.

"We plan to include things from outside of York, such as the millions of articles in the thousands of journals we subscribe to, but it will be a little while until everything is in place to make that happen," adds Denton. "That’s very high on our list of major improvements, though.

"In May and September, more new features will be added, including subject guides for courses," says Denton. "Plans include making it so that when a student logs into the York Libraries through Passport York, we will know what they need. For example, if the student was enrolled in Anthropology 3000, the library would serve up a personalized, customized experience for the student that includes all the resources they need for the course."

The York Libraries are encouraging feedback from the community and have a feedback page that can be accessed from the new catalogue interface. For more information on the new system, or to provide feedback, visit the York University Libraries Web site.