Building a Better Library Search Experience

By Suzanne Wones and Amy Deschenes 

How do you provide access to every resource that may be helpful to a researcher without making them feel overwhelmed? How do you help researchers quickly find what they’re looking for while also leaving room for discovery of unexpected treasures? How do you make sure researchers know about all the library services and tools available to help them? 

It all comes down to search. And that’s why we’re using the launch of our beta site to test a new search tool. 

At Harvard Library, we subscribe to tens of thousands of journals, databases, newspapers, indexes and other types of content. These subscriptions in turn provide you with access to millions of articles, stories, songs, performances and much more -- all using varying bits of data to describe each item. That’s in addition to the millions of physical items the library holds.  

To help you find what you need, we pull all these items together to create a single index -- consolidating all the content and normalizing the data used to describe it. That’s how your HOLLIS+ search results are able to show you relevant information from across this large spectrum of resources. 

But what we keep hearing is that all those results can be overwhelming. 

Over the past few weeks, we’ve been conducting user interviews to better understand how you conduct your research. We’re asking where you start your research and how you use the library’s search tools, as well as what features you’d like to see the library offer. 

Our early findings confirm and formalize a lot of the information library staff already know anecdotally from their own interactions with users. Here’s some of what we’ve learned so far: 

  • Users tend to bounce between the open web searches (like Google, Google Scholar, and Wikipedia) and the library catalog, HOLLIS+ 

"If I’m searching for background information on a topic, HOLLIS doesn’t work very well. But it’s great for finding full-text once I have the titles of the articles that I want to read. I’d love the ability to sort articles by popularity or number of citations."
— Grad student

  • Users who are critical of HOLLIS+ or avoid it all together do so because it presents an overwhelming amount of information that they then need to sift through. Users sometimes see the filters as cumbersome or time-consuming to work with. 

“I’d want to see results sorted into categories like books, articles, etc. rather than just a long list of results.”
— Ph.D. student

  • Users don’t know how, or don’t want to use the library to find background information on a topic. 

“I’ll start at Google to get a general summary of the topic.”
— Undergraduate student

Based on our research so far, ideas for enhancing library searching include grouping items in search results by format, providing different sorting and filtering options for online articles, and reducing the amount of time users spend bouncing back and forth from Google or Wikipedia to Harvard Library. 

We’re also looking for opportunities to better deliver information about library services and tools when and where it is most helpful – like the Harvard Library Bookmarklet and Lean Library Extension, which provide direct access to Harvard subscriptions from the open web. 

The launch of this beta search tool is the first step in our journey of iterative improvement of search at Harvard Library. We’ll be gathering data about how users use this new tool, and we’ll be asking for feedback every step of the way. So let us know what you think, what’s working and what’s not, and how we can help you with your research in both the short and long term. Your feedback will help us build a better library search experience.

(See the above photo -- and find others -- via HOLLIS Images)