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The Library Search Experience: Embracing Simplicity

How do you find information?

Chances are, you probably start with a Google search. Google’s single search box is so easy to use, the results come up in a snap, and the results that it displays are often satisfying, especially for everyday searching. It is no wonder, then, that college students often turn to Google to conduct research for their assignments. Besides, Google is so good at uncovering information about everyday things, why wouldn’t it be good at finding resources for college-level research?

It turns out, though, that even though Google works well for everyday information, its virtues quickly dissipate when you try to find the sort of detailed information that students need for their research.

In part, that’s because Google doesn’t allow access to most newspaper articles or scholarly journals (and for you Cornell students who have accessed articles through Google or Google Scholar, you were probably using the Library’s subscription to get access without realizing it).

Furthermore, Google’s simplicity doesn’t allow for targeted information searching — the type of searching library junkies know well. Librarians love the and, not, or, and near functions that databases allow, because they enable specific searching, like a hot knife through butter. But librarians also have so much practice in finding information that they have developed a deep understanding of how to successfully find what they want. Most college students, on the other hand, don’t typically have the luxury of such practice and understanding, which is one reason why the research process can be daunting for college students at any level.

How, then, can a library such as Cornell University Library — brimming with articles, encyclopedias, books, theses, music, equipment and the like —provide a tool for finding the information it houses without asking people to learn and use a complex search process that library catalogs have historically required?  In other words, how can the Library enable users to employ a simple search, much like they use in Google, while still allowing them to dive into our vast collection and come out with useful information?

Our solution is to flip the research process on its head – that is, to allow a simple search that yields rich results, rather than requiring the use of a complex search to find specific things. Developers at Cornell University Library have been hard at work designing a new library search tool that enables users to powerfully search with a simple, Google-like search box. This new method of searching will eliminate the need to understand conventions and search techniques that library catalogs and databases traditionally require. Once a user enters a search, results will show up in a compartmentalized way. We call the results display a “bento box,” where results are neatly categorized by format type (e.g. article, book, website) so that the results resemble… well, a bento box.

Bento Box, courtesy of Melissa of and shared via Creative Commons

Bento Box, courtesy of Melissa of and shared via Creative Commons license

But this isn’t just an idea that has come from left field. It’s been a long time coming. Besides the need for a better way to search our collections, the reasons for developing this new library website have to do with changing metadata standards and an aging infrastructure of the catalog that we have been using. Other academic libraries have been blazing a path in simplifying the library search experience, and for them it seems to be paying off; North Carolina State University, Stanford, the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Columbia, and others have already implemented a single-search interface with success.

Cornell is following in their footsteps, but by using open-source solutions, we are building a nimble and comprehensive searching tool that we can customize to work best for our vast collections. The end result is that we are undertaking the effort that will help you, the user, discover what we have in an intuitive and user-friendly way.

To develop this search tool, we’ve taken advantage of our collective expertise by bringing together library staff, IT staff, catalogers, and many others. The forthcoming tool is the result of continuous research, user testing, and feedback. But we need more. Do you want to be a part of the search experience at Cornell University Library?  Take a look at our beta site here:  Send any feedback to


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