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The Library in Your Toolbar July 15, 2007
Library toolbars allow users to search the library catalog, find full-text articles, get news, and contact librarians directly. Delivering library services this way adds power and convenience to a user's web explorations.
For years, patrons have been able to access library services from home and in the library building. But in the world of Google, Yahoo, YouTube, MySpace, and Facebook, library web sites and catalogs are too often not the first place people go to look for information. They have what OCLC vice president and chief strategist Lorcan Dempsey calls "a weak gravitational pull" compared with popular web services.
The innovative use of toolbars could change this. Toolbars have been popular for several years, but it is now easier than ever to offer customized search services and tie new library resources like federated search and "ask a librarian" services directly to users.
Google, Yahoo, and Amazon, among others, offer toolbars that put a search box in the browser. This relieves searchers of the need to interrupt their browsing to go to the Google or Yahoo web site. OCLC has partnered with Yahoo and Google to offer a version of WorldCat that can be searched from its co-branded toolbar.
Many libraries use customized toolbars to point to the catalog and popular full-text databases. The Fastjack toolbar has been in use at Stanford University's Jackson Library since October 2004, and Harris County Public Library (HCPL), TX, has offered Internet Explorer and Firefox library toolbars to patrons for two years (see Link List, p. 32).
Online businesses use them to promote their services, identify customers, and keep in touch with potential clients. Libraries also use toolbars for promotional purposes. Stephen Abram, SirsiDynix chief strategist, has pointed out how libraries can use toolbars to reach specific groups, such as homework-focused children and their parents. Some examples: HCPL offers information about children's and young adult services from its toolbar, and the Denver Public Library toolbar offers users a link to its library card information, where users can renew items.
Many companies offer software to create customized Internet Explorer toolbars. Both HCPL and Stanford's Jackson Library used Toolbar Studio/IE Toolbar builder software from Softomate. Conduit offers "free" web-accessible tools for creating community toolbars for Internet Explorer and customization services, working with 100 college and public libraries.
Write your own
Firefox, the open source web browser, was designed to make it easy to create extensions and software plugins that add additional innovative browser features. There are hundreds of freely available add-ons for Firefox, and plugin developers share ideas and build on one another's work at addons.mozilla.org.
Microsoft also provides software and instruction for developers to write extensions for the Internet Explorer browser. It is not as open as Firefox, but library developers can easily create search extensions or toolbar buttons from scratch. My own library has had success programming toolbar extensions for Internet Explorer. However, the latest search customization features using Open Search leave less need for such customized programming.
Firefox was the first to offer a customized search feature. In 2006, Google released its updated toolbar with similar functions. Internet Explorer 7, out last fall, also includes built-in search customization. Each toolbar allows the user to create a keyword search box to search any web page. The URL for sending a search is saved by the browser, and an icon or title for that custom search is displayed. It's easy. Each toolbar works differently, but the principle of saving a URL string for a particular web search is standard.
Browser customization is intended for unsecured publicly available search services such as those of commercial sites like Amazon. It works well for readily available sites like search engines, online bookstores, and even many library catalogs, but secured e-journal databases need federated search to be installed.
This is because licensed databases are often restricted to a particular location by Internet Protocol (IP) ranges like the library building or university campuses. When a user connects to a paid database, several events take place before a search screen appears. Typically, the user's computer asks for IP number authentication to ensure that she comes from a location where database use is authorized. Once the user is authenticated, a session ID may be assigned. The URL that is presented is applicable only for the current search session, so saving it for a customized search from the browser toolbar will not work.
Many e-journal database vendors, including EBSCO and ProQuest, have ways to pass a query to a single URL. Google Toolbar, Firefox, and IE 7 each offer methods to modify the search URL as needed so that many e-content databases can be searched from the browser toolbar. Different searches, such as by author, title, or keyword, can also be created. URLs can also be constructed to use federated search software like MuseGlobal from the browser toolbars.
However, other major library databases cannot be searched with a single URL and therefore cannot be easily customized for toolbar searching. This lack of single URL search-ability is a growing problem, since libraries need to make e-content databases accessible in a greater variety of ways.
Adding customized searches and services to a web browser toolbar requires additional software to be installed on the local PC. At my institution, St. Mary's University, Halifax, NS, we have customized toolbars only on library PCs and in computer labs across the campus, where library staff load and maintain the toolbar additions. Such toolbars have proven to be very useful in settings where the library can get an institution-wide agreement to add common toolbar features to numerous PCs. Many libraries also provide software and download instructions so home users can add library toolbar features to their computers.
Toolbar companies like Softomate and Conduit, as well as IE 7 and Firefox, provide simple and increasingly standardized methods for putting search services on a web page. These can be downloaded and installed by users on their local browsers. There are also several XML-based standards for installing and saving search option information on individual browsers. In particular, the Open Search standard is used by both IE 7 and Firefox; search descriptions in this format can be installed by either. The browsers offer long lists of available search plugins. Libraries around the world have created Firefox search plugins for most major ILS products. The Firefox Mycroft Project site, in particular, lists hundreds of library catalog search plugins that can be easily adapted in most libraries.
Firefox and IE 7 offer a search box in the top right corner of the browser toolbar. The default search is most often a search engine like Google or Yahoo, and a dropdown menu displays the different customized searches. Google and Best Toolbar, on the other hand, display a row of search icons next to the search box on the toolbar. The user simply places keywords in the search box and then performs the same search on different sites by clicking the appropriate icon. You can click the Google icon to search Google, then just click an "EBSCO" icon to repeat the search against an EBSCO database that your library has access to, or click a "Science" icon to repeat the same search on a selected group of science databases via a federated search tool. This approach seems considerably more convenient and intuitive for users than selecting from the drop-down menu. Though browser toolbar searches offer only limited functionality compared with the capabilities of the full range of databases and other tools offered by libraries, they are a convenient starting point for much research. They can introduce users to resources and library services and provide an intuitive way for users to explore them.
Concerns remain about security and privacy associated with toolbars, particularly with adding third-party toolbars to web browsers. Google has been criticized recently for updating its toolbar software without notifying the PC user and without providing the means to disable the feature. Many people have continuing concerns about the marketing information Google collects and how the information will be used in the future. Conduit, like some toolbar companies, adds advertising content to search services, and many third-party software browser extensions do the same. Plugins may also make the web browser more vulnerable to virus and spyware intrusion. Companies like Google and Conduit communicate to users what information they are adding and collecting from toolbars. Toolbar Studio, on the other hand, offers software source code so that users can confirm that it doesn't collect information about users' search activities or add advertising content.
Toolbar software and customized searches may also require maintenance, as browser software and search URLs change over time. When users download and install toolbar features to their home PC, libraries must make provisions for updating the toolbar functions as changes take place. These concerns should not prevent libraries from exploring the benefits of reputable toolbar applications, but libraries offering these services need to be aware of the issues.
Many browser software extensions go beyond this search help and can interact with the content of the web pages you are looking at and react accordingly. Firefox offers the capability to program the activities of the browser and react to the HTML that is being displayed. Greasemonkey, a popular Firefox scripting add-on, can make changes to HTML received from particular web sites, adding or removing content or interfacing with that content in some way. For example, Greasemonkey scripts have been used to do lookups to library link resolvers from citations on web pages [see "COinS for the Link Trail," LJ netConnect, Summer 2006, p. 8–10].
Book Burro was one of the first library-related browser plug-in applications to mesh with Amazon and other online bookstore web sites. When a book is displayed on Amazon, a Book Burro window displays price comparison information retrieved from other popular online bookstores. Book Burro can also be customized to search your local library catalog and show if the book is available.
The LibX browser toolbar, developed by Virginia Tech, incorporates interactive features with toolbar search to create the most sophisticated research toolbar yet devised. It offers catalog and library database searching but also automates the checking of references found on any web page against the library catalog. It automatically checks ISSNs and ISBNs found in web page references against the catalog and connects journal references to the library's link resolver. LibX has been customized for use by 55 academic and public libraries. Currently, it is only available for the Firefox web browser, but a version for IE is being developed with a recent Institute of Museum and Library Services grant.
Several library applications, including federated search, work with toolbars to enhance their usefulness further. Toolbar searches that use federated search software like MuseGlobal or Ex Libris's Metalib can search groups of databases or even subject subsets of several databases. For example, a browser search link for "Science databases" can pass search keywords to the library's federated search software to return results from a selected group of science databases.
The library proxy server is another key to creating toolbar searches. A proxy server URL can be attached to search URLs used by the toolbar. The proxy allows database access to computers in the library or off campus. It asks home and distance users for validation, such as a library card number or student ID before allowing access.
With proxy server and federated search software added to the latest custom search capabilities, the library toolbar can offer a wide range of search and information services, becoming a powerful research console built right into the web browser. Libraries and their e-content providers will continue to develop toolbars to put our useful services at the fingertips of users.
Adding Search Providers to Internet Explorer 7
Creating OpenSearch Plugins for Firefox
Customizing the Browser Toolbar
Enter the Library Toolbar
Harris County Public Library
Library search plugins from the Mycroft Project
LibX—a Firefox extension for enhanced library access
Search Provider Extensibility in Internet Explorer 7
Stephen Abram on library toolbars
Toolbar Studio/EI Toolbar Builder
Weak gravitational pull