Monday, May 23, 2005

"In Search of the Single Search Box"

Whew! It sure has been a while since I've posted. When starting this blog, finding the time to post on it was one of my major concerns. I'd been doing pretty well, but I recently hit a stretch where I was traveling more than home for about 6 weeks, and I moved in there as well! But I'm back now, and should be closer to home for a large portion of the summer. Here's to keeping up the blog while sitting on my new patio with a frosty beverage!

I heard an excellent presentation recently at the Digital Library Federation Spring Forum, which has been referenced recently on a library mailing list (WEB4LIB?). Staff at NC State have developed some methods for a single search box on the library's web site actually providing relevant information for all the many types of queries users type in that box no matter how much explanatory information indicating what resources that box searches is present on the page. The presentation was titled "In Search of the Single Search Box: Building a 'First Step' Library Search Tool." (Firefox users beware: the presentation is in HTML-ized Powerpoint and will look really strange in your browser!) Their video demo does an excellent job of illustrating the types of information needs to which the tool can respond. As the presentation suggests, this box doesn't search inside absolutely everything, but is intended to be a first step from which users can see some ideas and choose among them for continuing their journey.

As I recall (this is what I get for waiting this long to post on the topic...), the tool presents results in four major categories:

1) FAQ for the libraries
2) Library web pages
3) Links to perform the same search in some databases (the catalog, Academic Search Premier, list of journal titles, etc.)
4) Related subject categories

The FAQs meet needs where somebody wants to know the library hours or where the closest computer lab is. The library web pages results are Google-driven, so a page excerpt appears that a user might find helpful in selecting a result when they want some contextual information about a resource. The "search the collection" links make catalog or database search results an extra click away if that was the desired search, but that click is simply moved from the beginning of the process (click a catalog link on the home page, or, alternatively, take a few minutes to figure out which box on the front page to type in!) to this stage.

The "Browse Subjects" area, where a list of potentially relevant subjects is displayed, peaks my interest most about this project. The presentation didn't have a ton of information about where these links go and how the logic to develop them is created, and unfortunately I didn't have a chance to ask the NC State folks in person more about it. But from the presentation and the demo video, it looks like these links go to pathfinder-style pages where "selected" resources (selected how and by who would presumably be a local implementation decision) are displayed or linked. The presentation slides state that journal article titles and course descriptions are currently used to provide the connections between search terms and the pre-defined subjects. That's a great place to start! One can imagine a host of other options, including subject authority files, those same library web pages indexed elsewhere, and periodic looks at search logs for this box. Oh, and I see now one of the final slides in the presentation talks about some other sources - I'd forgotten that! I find the huge amount of potential here very exciting.

This tool isn't currently deployed on the NC State Libraries Web site, but I hope to see it soon. I don't recall if they plan to release any of their source code, but it sure would be nice if this was possible. I'll be keeping an eye on developments in this area.

Oh, and by the way. Never. Moving. Again. :-)

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