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Common User Interface software


This research project examines various common user interface products in the library software market today. The Public Library Directors’ at their retreat in May, 2004 requested that Provincial Library conduct preliminary research into new software services being developed. The new software would provide users with a web-based single point of access to e-library resources based on user and/or institutional recognition. Vendors, in particular AG Canada, have also been aggressively promoting their new AGent suite of modules in the province. The AGent modules claim to provide a single search interface to multiple electronic library services including library catalogues, interlibrary loan, access to databases, virtual reference while providing local views where desired.

Libraries have long been searching for methods of providing a “one stop” single point of access for local electronic resources. Presently, there is a different search interface for every electronic resource. With the coming of the Internet and the expectations surrounding instant and easy access, patrons are demanding “one stop” single point of access searching. As librarians, it is natural for us to want to bring order to disparate information sources and to simplify the search process. Payette and Reiger outlined this desire when they stated “There is great interest in library communities in designing and implementing digital library systems that conceal the complexities of an information landscape characterized by numerous, disparate information resources”.

In the past five years library software companies have reacted to this desire for “one stop” searching by introducing to the market “metasearch or federated search” products. This software is designed to link multiple electronic database search and retrieval environments into one search screen. The software conducts a “Federated Search” which is defined by Fryer as aggregating “multiple channels of information into a single searchable point. This blends e-journals, subscription databases, electronic print collections, other digital repositories, and the Internet. Federated searching reduces the time it takes to search and usually displays results in a common format.”

The relationship between common user interface and federated (metasearch) software is best described in the following illustration:

The research in this document was based on the analysis of product brochures and technical information available on vendors’ web sites. Provincial Library did not substantiate the claims made from this material or evaluate how well the products work.

The analysis of software products consists of three parts:

  • A spreadsheet of vendor’s products compared to a desired list of features.
  • An overview of the findings.
  • A technical considerations list for future evaluation of products.

The relationship between common user interface and federated (metasearch) software is best described in the following illustration:

Analysis of Common User Interface Products

  1. Spreadsheet Analysis

A selection of common user interface products on the market today were analyzed against the following criteria and placed in a spreadsheet that is included in Appendix A:

  1. Single Search Screen

  • Databases and catalogues searched in a single interface.

  1. Authentication all services, all vendors

  • Patrons can login to protected resources.

  1. Multiple Catalogue Searching

  • More than one catalogue can be searched at a time.

  1. Z39.50

  • Vendor uses Z39.50 as a standard for searching catalogues.
  • Note if this is the standard used for the database server.

  1. Serials Databases Searching

  • Vendor created licensed databases can be searched.
  • Includes current multitype database licensing suite.

  1. In-house Database Searching

  • In-house databases can be searched.
  • Includes access to web sites and relational databases.

  1. Virtual Reference

  • Has reference capability or can link to online reference software.

  1. IPatron ILL Interfac

  • Patrons can initiate requests online or the software can link into resource requesting software.

  1. ILL Request Management

  • Vendor offers a staff ILL management tool.

  1. ILS

  • Vendor offers an integrated library system that includes cataloguing, acquisitions and circulation.

  1. Partner Recognition

  • More than one library ‘look and feel’ can be supported.
  • Note if consortia are using this software.

  1. Multilingual Display

  • Character sets are supported by the Unicode standard.

  1. Accessibility Standards

  • Vendor supports web accessibility standards, i.e. adaptive technologies such as screen readers, etc.

  1. Spreadsheet Overview

The vendors have been arranged into two groups. Vendors in Group “A” meet all the core criteria in columns 1- 6 (starting with “Single Search Screen” and ending with “In-house Database Seaching”). Vendors in Group “B” are a combination of current vendors and vendors that do not meet the core criteria of columns 1- 6.

The following information was obtained from an analysis of product brochures and vendor websites,

  1. Group A Criteria:

Single Search Screen:

  • 13 out of 13 vendors in Group A claim to have this capability.
  • 5 out of 7 vendors in Group B claim to have this capability. The exceptions are Webclarity’s “Gateway” and BrightPlanet’s “DQM”. The Webclarity “Gateway” product appears to be a desktop client and not web-based software. BrightPlanet’s “DQM” product may have this capability but it is not immediately evident from the product literature.

Authentication all services, all vendors:

  • 11 out of 13 vendors claim to have patron authentication functionality in Group A. The exceptions are Muse Global’s “MuseSearch” and VTLS’s iChameleon which make reference to patron authentication but do not make a claim that they have this functionality.
  • From Group B only Dynix’s “Horizon Information Portal” claims this functionality. BrightPlanet’s “DQM” only makes reference to patron authentication but it is difficult to tell if this functionality is embedded in the product.

Multiple Catalogue Searching:

  • 13 out of 13 vendors in Group A claim this functionality.
  • 5 out of 7 vendors in Group B make this claim. The exceptions are BrightPlanet’s “DQM” and “Open Text’s “Livelink” who do not specifically make this claim but could have this functionality.


  • 13 out of 13 vendors in Group A claim this functionality.
  • Only 4 out of 7 vendors make this claim in Group B.

Serials Databases Searching:

  • 13 out of 13 vendors in Group A claim this functionality.
  • Only 3 out of 7 positively make this claim. Two vendors, Blue Angel’s “Meta Star Harvester” and BrightPlanet’s “DQM” only allude to this functionality briefly in their literature.

In-house Database Searching:

  • 13 out of 13 vendors in Group A claim this functionality.
  • 4 out of 7 vendors in Group B make this claim. Blue Angel’s “Meta Star Harvester” appears to reference custom databases but does not list it as part of the core functionality.

  1. Group B Criteria

Virtual Reference:

  • 2 out of 13 vendors in Group A claim this functionality.
  • No vendors in Group B make this claim. Blue Angel’s “Meta Star Harvester” could possibly be used for this purpose with customization.

Patron ILL Interface:

  • 7 out of 13 vendors in Group A declare this functionality.
  • 2 out of 7 vendors in Group B declare this functionality.

ILL Request Management:

  • 5 out of 13 vendors in Group A claim this functionality. However, exlibris’ Metalib literature states that they have a patron ILL interface, but makes no direct claim to having an ILL request management system.
  • Only Dynix’s Horizon Information Portal literature makes this claim in Group B.


  • 6 out of 13 vendors in Group A maintain this functionality. Index Data’s “Keystone DSL” Zebra database module is presently being used as an ILS system by several European libraries. However, Index Data does not openly advertise this functionality in their documentation.
  • From Group B, Dynix an ILS vendor claims metasearching functionality with their Horizon Information Portal. Bibliomondo’s “Zone Pro” alludes to ILS functionality but does not list it specifically in the brochure. Blue Angel Technologies does not have an ILS module for their metastar products.

Partner Recognition:

  • 2 out of 13 vendors in Group A maintain this functionality. exlibris’ “Metalib” and VTLS’s “iChameleon” allude to this functionality but make no direct claim.
  • 2 out of 7 vendors in Group B claim this functionality. Bibliomondo’s “Zone Pro” only makes reference to it but it is difficult to determine from the product literature if it is part of the core functionality.

Multilingual Display:

  • Only 3 out of 13 vendors in Group A claim to provide this functionality.
  • Only Dynix’s Horizon Information Portal’s literature in Group B claims this functionality.

Accessibility Standards:

  • Only OCLC’s “Open Site Search” declares this functionality from Group A.
  • Bibliomondo’s “Zone Pro” is the sole vendor to declare this functionality in Group B.

Further research on interesting and unique features about each product is contained in Appendix B.

Technical Considerations for Future Evaluation

It appears that tremendous technical challenges must be overcome in order for common user interface software to perform search and retrieval on disparate databases. Future evaluation of a vendor’s common user interface product must be weighed against four critical technical challenges:

  1. Database Access

How exactly is the software able to access disparate databases and combine them into one result set? What are the “nuts and bolts” behind this process? Specifically the following questions:

  • What are the database access protocols used by the software in the search and retrieval process against the target database (Z39.50, SQL XML, SRW, etc.)?

  • Does the target database have a corresponding protocol server that can deliver search results from the software?

  • If the software utilizes a login ID and a “screen scrape” process to retrieve data from a target database, has the vendor accounted for copyright issues?

  • Has the vendor accounted for the fact that many commercial databases already have exclusive Internet access agreements to information carriers (such as Dialog or Ebsco)? For example, Canada Law Book has exclusive arrangements with Quicklaw to provide Internet access to its databases. A third party vendor would need to purchase these rights to legally provide Internet access to the databases through their software.

  • How does the software account for disparate databases having different indexing structures for search terms? For example, if a user entered the subject keyword term “Quarter Horses” into the main screen, how would the disparate database know that the search was subject based and not title or author based?

  • How does the software manipulate the results? How is the merging, ranking, de-duping, sorting and limiting of records handled?

  1. Patron Authentication

How exactly is the software able to control patron access to subscription-based databases and Inter-library loan requests? Specifically the following questions:

  • If the software relies on the library’s ILS system to authenticate a patron for entry into a database or initiate an inter-library loan, how does it accomplish this when patron databases have proprietary storage formats? What interoperability standards or protocols are used (e.g. NCIP, SIP1)?

  • If the software accomplishes proprietary patron database access by utilizing SIP1, SIP2 or NCIP access interchange protocols, has this process been tested and documented with ILS vendors?

  • What security facilities does it provide to ensure privacy of patron records?

  • Does the software allow for IP authentication and other methods of guest access to non-residents?

  1. Interlibrary Loan Initiation

In all likelihood, a user will want to generate an ILL request for any materials not in local holdings. This raises the question, how would any common user interface product perform this task? Specifically the following questions:

  • If the software was able to perform search and retrieval on disparate databases and return a result set, how would the software link holdings information from the local ILS to the result set?

  • If the patron did decide to initiate an inter-library loan request how would this be accomplished? Would the ILL request work within software already embedded in the common user interface or would it interface with third party ILL software?

  • Would the ILL request follow recognized protocols (ISO 10160/10161 or Generic Script)?

  1. “Googlification” Trends

Michael Gorman in an address in 2002 noted that one of the key challenges librarians would face in the near future was the onslaught of the “everything is available on the web” concept. While we as librarians can outright dismiss this concept as ridiculous, we cannot as easily dismiss the rapid encroachment of both Yahoo and Google attempting to make this concept a reality. Google flushed with cash from its recent public share offering, has begun to approach both book and database publishers to offer abstracts of their materials on the Internet (indexed by Google). A good example of this is Google’s recent “Book Search” initiative. This initiative allows keyword searches to be matched with both web sites and abstracts of published books . This trend is also growing to include indexing and abstracting databases with the Cros Ref Search pilot project . This pilot project includes 25 publishers (including Blackwell’s, Oxford University Press and John Wiley to name a few) who are allowing Google to webcrawl and index their e-journal databases. OCLC’s Open WorldCat pilot project has also exposed library bibliographic records to Internet searches by allowing both Google and Yahoo to webcrawl and index their holdings databases. For more information on the OCLC Open WorldCat pilot project see Appendix E.

Should this trend continue it could eventually eliminate any need for common user interface software. It would allow the user to rely on Google to find abstracts of material, then use their local library ILS to find local holdings. If ILS software companies correctly read this trend, they will provide Google the API to allow the user to search Google first, then drill from Google into their local ILS to check for local holdings. How Google would handle consortia and partner recognition under this model remains to be seen.

It will be difficult for publishers and ILS software companies to resist the financial windfall that this trend will present. Google could potentially offer royalty and advertising share structures that would add another revenue stream to their bottom line. For database publishers it will decrease expenses in marketing their product by allowing them to concentrate on providing “data” without having to provide a search interface. In the end result, the shareholders of these companies will push for this type of change if it means a healthier balance sheet.

The second phase of “Googlification” is marked by the recent release of its software API package. Google Web API allows for organizations to develop their own customized “Google” interface that searches both local documents and the Internet at the same time. The ease and simplicity of using the Google Web API locally could spell the end of such products as Bibliomondo’s “Zone Pro” and Endeavor’s Encompass, which appear to be little more than “intranet” software. If Google decides to approach database vendors to provide their API for added access to the intranet, this would eliminate the need for any metasearch software.

The larger question to “Googlification” is how will the continued development of common user interface software be affected should this trend continue to grow?


There does appear to be a large number of metasearch products in the library software market today. Continued research will be required to determine if any of the products will meet the needs and priorities of the Saskatchewan public library sector. Should the library directors choose to pursue this, it appears that there is not a full common user interface product ready at this time. Some next steps to begin research would be to invite several vendors to hold demos. The products could then be evaluated against our technical considerations list to determine if there is sufficient functionality to begin a full evaluation process.