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One Search to Rule Them All

Why you still have to use multiple search engines to find library materials

Research Library Computer Resource Specialist

Scott Martin
Collections, Research, and Instructional Services
A1540 Young Research Library

Why Isn't There One Search Box for Everything?

One Search to rule them all,
One Search to find them,
One Search to bring them all
and in the darkness bind them.

with apologies to J.R.R. Tolkien

Ever since Google became wildly popular, many people asked "Why can't library searching be as simple and easy as Google searching?"

There are actually a couple reasons behind this difference.

  1. Google's budget dwarfs that of every library in the world put together. They've spent a lot of money making a really good search engine. But that's actually a fairly minor issue compared to reason number 2.
  2. Library searching is more complicated because it's more complicated. It's the same reason why the Space Shuttle has more controls than your toaster. Nobody decided "let's make this shuttle really complicated and difficult to use." It's just the nature of reality that a machine capable of flying people to space and back is more difficult to use than a machine designed to heat bread.

Of course, reason #2 still begs the question: why is library searching so much more difficult? Or, put another way, why is Google searching so easy? If you're interested in finding out, read on.

Never Mind, Show Me the Best You've Got

Most of this guide is an explanation of why there isn't (and may never be) a universal search box. But for those who want to skip the explanation and just use the closest engines we've got...

Some Useful Definitions and Comparisons

Catalog Database

An online list of everything owned by a specific library or group of libraries..

An online index of articles, book chapters, primary sources, or just about anything else, usually designed to cover a specific academic field or publisher.
Doesn't actually contain any content, but links to online materials and tells you the location of print materials. A few databases contain the full-text or images they index. Most don't, and index materials that may or may not be online. They will help you identify individual articles, but won't necessarily know if UCLA has them.
Contents are usually described at the book or journal title level. A library catalog will tell you if that library has the Los Angeles Times, and which issues, but will have nothing about the individual articles. Contents are usually described in more detail than a catalog. They'll help you identify individual chapters in books, articles in journals and newspapers, or photos in an archival collection.

Designed and maintained by the library, most are free to use.

Designed and maintained by corporations or academic associations, most require an institutional subscription to use.