Library Experience in Online Searching

A Position Paper for the Query Languages Workshop

Ralph LeVan

OCLC Online Computer Library Center, Inc.



The library community has supported online searching since before the Internet. It has used its experience to develop a number of standards to support searching. While those standards may not be adopted by the Web community, the experience reflected in those standards is important.

Libraries have been doing standards-based electronic commerce for more than thirty years.

Libraries have been exchanging electronic data for more than thirty years. To facilitate this exchange, the library community developed the MARC (Machine-Readable Cataloging) standard in 1967. The library community has been making its data available electronically to its users for more than twenty-five years. Before there was an Internet, libraries were supporting searching over networks like Tymshare and Telenet. My company, OCLC, started more than twenty-five years ago when the Ohio State University put its collection of three million catalog cards online. That collection now contains nearly forty million records and is being searched by users around the world.

My professional career began more than twenty years ago working on the National Library of Medicine’s Medline retrieval system. The data that libraries search is reasonably complex, semantically rich and contain internal structure that is significant in the searching process. These records are in many languages. The experience of this community in solving the problems of searching this kind of data is pertinent to this workshop.

Libraries have been doing standards-based distributed searching for ten years.

The library community developed a standard for distributed searching in 1988. That standard, Z39.50, is an ANSI standard and was adopted in 1996 as ISO standard 23950. A diverse community of national, academic and public libraries use Z39.50 as part of their daily business activities. The success of the standard is demonstrated by the non-library communities that have adopted Z39.50. The Cultural Heritage Museum community (CIMI) uses Z39.50 to search its databases, as does the Earth Observation Satellite community (CEOS) and the government metadata community (GILS).

Because this standard was developed before the Web, it violates three of the tenants of the Web community. It is stateful, runs directly over TCP/IP and uses a binary encoding scheme. These exceptions to current Web practice make the standard itself unacceptable as a Web searching standard, but the experience of the community, reflected in that standard, is important.

The library community is committed to interoperability.

The library community and the community that has developed around Z39.50 are service oriented. Their products support a diverse user community. The library community will support a common search capability, no matter what its form. The extent to which this new search capability meets known requirements, as seen in Z39.50, will speed its adoption by the library community.