The future of library search

Share this on social media:

Library search tools and services have a bright future – if they can support users in their preferred workflows, writes Matthew Hayes

Most students and researchers now begin their discovery process outside the library – on open discovery tools like Google Scholar. A study of patron practices amongst OhioLINK libraries found that 6 per cent of discovery journeys begin on the library’s discovery service, with more than 40 per cent beginning on Google or Google Scholar.

This does not mean library search tools and services will become redundant, but it does mean striving to put the library ‘in the life of the user’, by taking library services such as library search to ‘where users actually are rather than where libraries would like them to be’ (Pinfield et al., 2017). It also means recognising the value libraries bring to their patrons’ discovery process – and amplifying it.

Library search: much more than a search engine

Library search encompasses much more than the library search engine. I’d like to suggest three core areas: access; curation; and discovery.

Despite rapid growth in OA, substantial variation by discipline and region suggests access to paywalled content will remain a concern for libraries and their patrons over the next few years – it is estimated that 72 per cent of scholarly publications are not yet OA (Day et al. 2020). Covid, and the rapid shift to remote access it necessitated, has further highlighted the cumbersome, time-consuming and often confusing access workflow users have to go through – often giving up or moving to SciHub (Bohannon, 2016). Access workflows remain largely IP and token based and both methods have been increasingly problematic in times when the library’s physical availability has been compromised. Additionally, it is assumed that the library portal is the starting point when, as we have seen, it invariably isn’t.

Setting aside the substantial work that occurs at the library to train, guide and support students and researchers through the access workflow, there are a number of sector-wide initiatives underway to improve the access experience. The big discovery services – EBSCO, OCLC, ExLibris and others – are working directly with key parts of the discovery process, such as Google Scholar, Wikipedia, reading list software and learning management systems, to improve access workflows by embedding their link resolvers into discovery starting points outside the library. Publisher and other community stakeholder initiatives such as GetFTR are working on the means of authentication itself, proposing new ways such as federated authentication. Then there are browser plug-ins such as Lean Library and Clarivate’s EndNote Click that improve access workflows by sitting in the user’s workflow and working behind the scenes by integrating with library systems.

Libraries have a crucial role to play in mediating these initiatives, ensuring questions of user experience, privacy, security and insights are addressed and designing the specific access workflows that best serve the needs of their users.

Libraries should not lose sight of curation of external content

Libraries have put increased resources into the development of institutional repositories and other parts of what Dempsey calls ‘the inside-out collection’ (2016) – the output of the university’s own researchers. Commercial discovery services have made moves in this space, launching new software tools to manage the inside-out collection, whether special collections showcases or preprint servers. Efforts are also being made to embed this institutional content into the workflow. Examples include thesis and special collection records piped directly into Google search results. As less time is spent managing pay-to-read subscriptions and more time managing pay-to-publish deals, it seems natural that libraries would shift focus away from the former and onto the latter.

However, the same market forces that have enabled OA to grow (article processing charges) have also enabled a dramatic rise in predatory publishing. Estimates track a rise from just under 2,000 predatory journals in 2010 to more than 13,000 in 2020 (Linacre, 2020).

Set alongside the broader diffusion of disinformation in the post-truth era, information literacy amongst students and researchers is more important than ever before. As their patrons continue to favour open discovery tools, it will be important that libraries find ways of taking their curation and information literacy expertise into preferred workflows. Not hosted in a detailed library guide on their website – but embedded at critical intervention points. Such developments would be key tools in addressing the issue of reproducibility – ensuring, for example, that retracted papers do not continue to be unknowingly cited and built upon (Schneider, 2020).

Libraries must continue to support quality discovery

As a doctoral researcher, I began using Google Scholar for my literature review, supported by manually tracking the references in key texts in my field. But as with other early-stage researchers, I soon moved on to library search, and other index-based discovery tools like Web of Science and Scopus, for precision-searching and curated browsing. The article-level metadata such tools use, combined with the qualified nature of the index behind them, are essential when it comes to in-depth research. There is also the greater exposure to your library’s print collection you get in the library’s own discovery service.

But need there be such a stark dividing line between open search tools like Google Scholar and library discovery services like those from EBSCO, ExLibris and OCLC? Can we bridge ease with quality? Lean Library is exploring this by integrating major library discovery services with Google Scholar via our browser plug-in, so that patrons can see search results side-by-side – for ease and quality.

Embedding library search in preferred user workflows

It is possible to chart two stages in the development of the library experience for patrons. The first saw the library as a physical building and curated collection. The second saw the library digitise into a platform of resources and services. Both stages were predicated on the library as a destination, as somewhere a user must go to. Can a new stage emerge from the accelerating forces of the Covid experience? One where the library, and its services such as library search, goes to the user – in their workflow – allowing students and researchers to access library services and resources at the point of need?

Achieving this practically will require new innovations, but it begins with the effort to, in the words of Lisa Hinchliffe, Professor for Information Literacy Services at the University of Illinois, ‘operate in the online environments where users work’ (Linacre, 2020). Achieving this could both accelerate learning and discovery, and the library’s impact.

Matthew Hayes is managing director of Lean Library and a doctoral researcher at University College London



Bohannon J. 2016. Who’s downloading pirated papers? Everyone. Science 352(6285):508-512
Carlson, S. ‘Academic Libraries Led Universities Into the Socially Distant Era. Now They’re Planning for What’s Next.’ The Chronicle of Higher Education. Available here:
Day, S., Rennie, S., Luo, D. et al., 2020. ‘Open to the public: paywalls and the public rationale for open access medical research publishing’. Research Involvement and Engagement 6, 8
Dempsey, L., 2016. Library collections in the life of the user: two directions. Liber quarterly, 26(4).
Evans, G., and Schonfeld, R. C., 2020. It’s Not What Libraries Hold; It’s Who Libraries Serve: Seeking a User-Centered Future for Academic Libraries. Ithaka S+R. Available at:
Linacre, S., 2020, ‘Growth of predatory publishing shows no sign of slowing’, The Source. Available here:
Pinfield, S. , Cox, A. and Rutter, S., 2017. Mapping the future of academic libraries: A report for SCONUL. Report. Society of College, National and University Libraries (SCONUL), London.
Schneider, J., Ye, D., Hill, A.M. et al. 2020. ‘Continued post-retraction citation of a fraudulent clinical trial report, 11 years after it was retracted for falsifying data’. Scientometrics 125, 2877–2913 (2020).