Academic journal article Information Technology and Libraries

Exploratory Subject Searching in Library Catalogs: Reclaiming the Vision

Academic journal article Information Technology and Libraries

Exploratory Subject Searching in Library Catalogs: Reclaiming the Vision

Article excerpt


Reading library literature from the early days of the OPAC era is simultaneously inspiring and depressing. The enthusiasm that some librarians felt in those days about the new possibilities that were being opened by online catalogs is infectious. Elaine Svenonius envisioned a catalog that could interactively guide users from a broad single-word search to the specific topic in which they were really interested. (1) Pauline Cochrane conceived of a catalog that could group results on similar aspects of a given subject, showing the user a "systematic outline" of what was available on the subject and allowing the user to narrow their search easily. (2) Marcia Bates even pondered whether "any indexing/access apparatus that does not stimulate, intrigue, and give pleasure in the hunt is defective," since "people enjoy exploring knowledge, particularly if they can pursue mental associations in the same way they do in their minds ... Should that not also carry over into enjoying exploring an apparatus that reflects knowledge, that suggests paths not thought of, and that shows relationships between topics that are surprising?" (3) However, looking back thirty years later, it is dispiriting to consider how many of these visions have not yet been realized.

The following article reports on one attempt to rectify that situation by radically reenvisioning the library catalog interface, enabling users to interact with and explore their search results in a profoundly different way. The idea is to give users the option of viewing a graphical overview of their results, grouped by discipline and subject. This was achieved by modifying a VuFind-based discovery layer to allow users to choose between a traditional, list-based view of their search results and a visualized view. In the visualized view, results are depicted as a two-level treemap, which gives users a visual representation of the disciplinary perspectives (as represented by the main classes of the Library of Congress Classification [LCC]) and topics (as represented by elements of the Library of Congress Subject Headings [LCSH]) included in the results. An example of this visualized view can be seen in figure 1.

Subsequent sections of this paper summarize the library-science and computer-science literature that provides the theoretical justification this project, explain how the visualizations are created, and report on the results of usability testing of the visual interface with faculty, academic staff, and undergraduate students.


Exploratory Subject Searching in Library Catalogs

Since Charles Ammi Cutter published his Rules for a Printed Dictionary Catalogue in 1876, most library catalogs have been premised on the idea that users have a very good idea of what they are looking for before they begin to interact with the catalog. (4) In this classic view, users are either conducting known-item searches--they know the titles or the author of the books they want to find--or they know the exact subject on which they are interested in finding books. Yet research has shown that known-item searches are only about half of catalog searches, (5) and that users often have a very difficult time expressing their information needs with enough detail to construct a specific subject search. Instead, much of the time, users approach the catalog with only a vaguely formulated information need and an even vaguer sense of what words to type into the catalog to get the resources that would solve their information need. (6)

Even in the earliest days of the OPAC era, librarians were aware of this problem. Some of them, including Elaine Svenonius and Pauline Cochrane, speculated about better use of subject and classification data to try to help users who enter too-short, overly broad searches focus their results on the information that they truly want. One of Cochrane's many ideas on this topic was to use subject and classification data "to present a systematic outline of a subject," which would let users see all of the different aspects of that subject, as reflected in the library's classification system and subject headings, and the various locations where those materials could be found in the library. …

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