Thinking the unthinkable: a library without a catalogue -- Reconsidering the future of discovery tools for Utrecht University library

by Simone Kortekaas


Like every other library, we at Utrecht University Library have always offered our users a catalogue. In 2002 we built our own discovery tool specifically designed for electronic journal articles. We called it Omega and it immediately became a huge success. Explaining this separate tool for e-journals to our users was not difficult. Looking for printed material? Search the WebOPAC. Looking for electronic journals or e-books? Search Omega. Looking for specific disciplines or materials? Search the dedicated electronic databases. This division also determined the layout of our homepage.
In the last few years, things have been changing rapidly. New commercial discovery tools such as Primo and Summon entered the library market and we lost our pioneering role. Meanwhile more and more users are finding their way to our licensed journals through larger and stronger search engines like Google Scholar which is freely available on the Internet and contains massive numbers of scientific material. But our users also switched to databases we subscribed to such as Web of Science and Scopus. Statistics showed that usage of our library catalogue and Omega was stabilising while the usage of our licensed journals was still growing. The time had come to rethink the future of our library discovery tools.
In the summer of 2011 a small study group was set up within Utrecht University Library to look into the future of discovery at our Library. The underlying assumption was that we would not need to develop or acquire a new library discovery tool. Instead of looking for commercial discovery tools, we decided to analyse the  situation from the perspective of our users.
Our users are on the Internet and use Google or Google-like discovery tools. They find the content they need and then expect the library to deliver the content. We concluded that if, indeed, this is the world of our users, if this is reality, if big commercial companies are able to offer freely accessible search engines containing scientific content, there really is no need for libraries to try and pull their users back to the library systems. What would our users miss out on if we should decide to leave the discovery side of our services to parties that are far better equipped to build, keep up and constantly update their products? What would happen if we, as a library, should focus on the delivery side of the job instead?
The questions to be answered were:
1. Are the currently available alternative discovery tools adequate?
2. What are the risks and possible preconditions of relying on these alternative services?
3. What needs to be done to ensure reliable delivery?


International studies and user statistics show that students and scholars are moving away from library websites when they look for scientific information. They use big, strong, freely available search engines like Google. 



Google Scholar was started in 2007 and is highly appreciated by scholars all over the world. We also saw an increase of usage of our licensed bibliographies and abstract databases such as Web of Science and Scopus. And Worldcat is becoming increasingly popular.
Despite the fact that other search engines are becoming increasingly popular we have to take into account that our user statistics still show massive numbers of searches in our own WebOPAC and in Omega: in 2011 there were over 2.5 million searches in our OPAC and over 1.2 million searches in Omega. It is not an argument against the trends, but something to take into account when considering new strategies.
First we had to find out to what extent our journal articles, books and other materials can be found in systems and databases on the Internet. It turned out that discoverability in Google Scholar, Worldcat or other tools depends on the type of material rather than on scientific discipline. Electronic articles can generally be found on the Internet. Google books and Worldcat provide a reasonable alternative to our own catalogue as far as printed books are concerned. However, discoverability of our special collections of maps and manuscripts and special materials like sheet music is more problematic. The same goes for e-books. The explanation for this is simple: these materials have traditionally been locked up in our catalogue.

Counter arguments


After finding that alternatives to the library catalogue are available and sufficiently adequate, we had to deal with often voiced counter arguments, which could still tip the scales in favour of a new library discovery tool:
First-year students want an integral search engine
We think this is the strongest argument in favour of a new library discovery system. It is an attractive thought that a library would be able to offer one simple entry point to all scientific information. However, we think that even the new generation of library discovery tools cannot provide a real and exclusive “one stop shop” for all materials. Search engines like Google Scholar and Worldcat try to fulfil this role as well, so they can serve as good alternatives. For special materials or specific disciplines dedicated databases will still be necessary.
With our own discovery tool we will be in control and not have to depend on the big commercial players
If we buy a discovery tool we will also have to depend on a commercial organisation, and we will have to invest a great deal in configuration and maintenance. In the public cloud there are different companies like Google, Microsoft, OCLC, Elsevier and others who are offering discovery services which can be used, which ensures enough competition for us not to have to depend on one company in particular.
Users, especially first-year students, only want to search the Utrecht collection
This is an important argument we need to take into consideration. This is one of the reasons why our own search engine Omega was appreciated by our students. As far as electronic journal articles are concerned, most articles will be accessible no matter by which means they are discovered. For books we may need to find other solutions.
The library will be less visible to our users
For years we have played an important role as the primary gateway to scientific information through our catalogue or our specific search systems. Users know about library systems or are instructed to use them. Nowadays, this practice is not as self-evident as it used to be, but when you ask users about the role of the library for their work, they will mention the library catalogue as one of the reasons for the existence of the library. In the twentyfirst century, it will be quite a challenge to explain what our role is in giving access to scientific information and to remain visible as a partner in research and education.
There will be less emphasis on our unique materials and scientific output from Utrecht University
So far, the fact that we had our own systems enabled us to put more emphasis on the materials produced by Utrecht scholars (Igitur Repository) and our unique special collections. In the new situation, that becomes much more difficult. We believe, however that for most users the special emphasis on materials from Utrecht University is not relevant.




At the end of 2011 we drew five main conclusions:
1. The Library should not invest in a new library discovery tool. The benefit for our users will be marginal. Instead, we should concentrate on improving delivery of the materials purchased and licensed for Utrecht University users or produced by Utrecht scholars. 
2. Discovery in the public cloud of special collections and certain other special materials is still inadequate. We need to improve findability by adding metadata to national and international initiatives. If necessary we may need to hold on to parts of the current WebOPAC to ensure materials can be found until better solutions will become available. 
3. We should rethink the role of the library in giving access to scientific information.  
Our role in discovery of scientific information has been part of our library identity for years. We realise that relinquishing this role to other players can make us feel naked and uncertain. We have to rethink and redesign the way we offer our services for access to scientific information.
4. We should phase out Omega. For discovery of electronic articles there are sufficient alternatives available. 
5. We should investigate if and how the WebOPAC can serve as a delivery tool for our printed materials. It might be useful as a “known item search”– tool.

Where are we now?

After internal discussions with management and library staff our conclusions and recommendations were adopted. Several working groups were established to explore in more detail which steps have to be taken. 

This post is a summary of the the author’s presentation at the LIBER General Annual Conference 2012. A video of the presentation is available at http://uttv.ee/naita?id=12538 


Back to blog archive