How Useful are Library Discovery Tools?

Helen Edwards, Editor Refer


At the OCLC EMEA Regional Council Meeting The Art of Invention (February 2015), at least three speakers used the image of a black hole to describe the problem of finding resources on the web. David Weinberger, Senior Researcher at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society, likened libraries themselves to black holes, pointing out that while it is possible to find out all about any film ever made on the Internet, there is still no reliable way of linking to a book – if you don’t count Amazon. Technology providers have been keen to promote their discovery tools as the answer for librarians, the way out of the black hole. Now that discovery tools have been in use for several years, there is the opportunity to step back and look at their impact and usefulness in libraries. This paper gives a brief overview of the evidence for and against.

Library based web discovery engines – such as Primo from Ex Libris, Summon from Serials Solutions and EDS (EBSCO Discovery Services) from EBSCO – first came into use in 2009 and are now in place in many university libraries worldwide. They are capable of supporting concurrent searching of very large datasets, either licensed or open access. Unlike the federated search tools which preceded them, the web discovery engines work by compiling their own indexes to the major library content sources and then configuring them to match the holdings of the individual library customers and additionally incorporating some local content. This enables them to return a consistent result set neatly in their interface, covering content in multiple formats (books, articles, media etc.)

Introducing discovery tools at the UCL seminar on Discovery and Discoverability in December 2014 (from which this issue of Refer borrowed the name) Professor John Ackroyd identified their key features:

  • Simple interface including a Google like search box.
  • Ranking algorithms to organise results.
  • Use of facets: authors, formats, main topics.
  • Enhanced searchability: fuzzy searching, concept searching.
  • Click through to full text content.
  • Branding and customization opportunities for the library.
  • Some personalisation features – saved searches and email – and social discovery – integration with Twitter, tools for sharing and discussion, recommender functions.
  • Single sign on to all databases.


Those libraries that have implemented discovery tools generally report increased use of library resources. Statistics also show a more even use of resources by exposing more specialized / lesser known products to more users. This is especially so at undergraduate level and especially also when users are looking for known items, ie where the user has the reference for a specific book or article.

Speaking at the Discovery and Discoverability seminar Dave Pattern from the University of Huddersfield finds that many students take the “fast food” approach to research. They use the most convenient method to search and stop when they reach minimally acceptable results. Pattern’s experience of Summon at Huddersfield reflects the general trend of search volumes increasing and a more even spread of database use. However it is also possible for usage for a specific database to fall. This is often because students previously confined their research to a single key tool – recommended by their teachers – and now are getting their content from a wider range of sources.

Matthew Reidsma, Web Services Librarian at Grand Valley State University Libraries Michigan and the very first customer for Summon in 2009, describes how he believes discovery tools alleviate the friction libraries have traditionally added to the search process: The library with 1000 databases. He thinks the problems users often have using library resources is more about familiarity than complexity, which is why the single search box offered by discovery tools can be less daunting than a list of options. He concludes, based on several years experience with his users: Web scale discovery isn’t perfect, of course, but it’s an effective way to help patrons feel more comfortable and to keep the focus on what they really need to do.


However many libraries are finding that, while useful, discovery tools have not reached the inflated expectations of early adopters and replaced all other methods of searching for information.

Research quoted by Aaron Tay from the National University of Singapore shows that on average about 40% of hits of databases come from discovery tools, meaning that 60% come from other routes. Faculty and research staff are also much less likely to use discovery tools, often preferring either open web sources such as Google Scholar or Mendelay or searching publisher databases directly. and indeed Tate quotes recent research to show faculty use is actually falling in recent years. Tay identifies four possible scenarios for the future of library discovery tools:

Discovery Dominant – Web Scale Discovery continues to grow and become the prime source of discovery displacing Google, Google Scholar and other external sources (Unlikely)

II Discovery Deferred – Web Scale Discovery continues to be used alongside other non-library tools. Most often it will be used as a secondary source after looking at other places first (Possible)

III Discovery Diminished – In this scenario, Web scale discovery services have been displaced in their discovery role, and are used for known item search only. Kind of like a glorified catalogue, except it includes article, conference etc. titles (Perhaps)

IV Discovery Decommissioned – This is the most extreme scenario, where the whole system is removed and doesn’t even play a role in known item searching. (Unlikely) (7 December 2014)

Tay’s views about the limited utility of discovery tools also seem to be shared by many members of faculty, especially in the sciences.   The most public stance against discovery tools has been taken by the University of Utrecht Library, which decommissioned their OMEGA discovery tool in 2012 stating: At Utrecht University we strongly believe that academic libraries have lost their role in the discovery of scientific information and should focus on delivery instead. The Utrecht librarians found that while usage of Google Scholar and Web of Science / SCOPUS increased rapidly year on year, usage of the discovery tools remained steady and did not justify continued investment. Instead they focus on making sure that users can access the full text of content the library pays for.   They offer the library’s SFX Open URL knowledge base to Google Scholar so that it knows to which journals users have access to full text and thus links to this rather that a pay wall. Utrecht has also developed a Javascript bookmarklet which can be added to a browser so users can enter their username and password to access the databases without having to go through library pages


The art of invention: culture, technology and user engagement in the digital age

OCLC EMEA Regional Council Meeting 2015, Florence, 10–11 February 2015.

Discovery and discoverability

UCL Department of Information Studies, 3 December 2014.

 Thinking the unthinkable: doing away with the library catalogue

  1. Kortekaas and B Kramer

Insights 2014


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