Information Today
Volume 17, Issue 8 • September 2000
• Database Review •
FirstSearch Revitalizes Supermarket Concept
This newly made-over service fills an important information need 
by Mick O'Leary

It wasn’t that long ago (although it does seem like it) when the comprehensive online services—the so-called “supermarket” services—reigned supreme. Today, their dominance has been eroded by direct database access, subject-oriented database services, and of course the Web. To see just how much times have changed, recall the excitement that accompanied the sale of Dialog, the prototype supermarket service. The first two times it changed hands, in 1988 and 1997, there was loud and vibrant discussion about the implications. Compare that clamor to this year’s ho-hum reaction to Thomson’s purchase of Dialog.

Thus with Dialog’s future uncertain, the title of “leading, comprehensive online service” may be inherited by OCLC’s FirstSearch. FirstSearch retains the supermarket concept by including databases that represent every area of knowledge. Last month OCLC completed a thorough makeover and rejuvenation of FirstSearch, giving it a new look and feel, new search capabilities, and vastly expanded integration among its many databases. The supermarket concept may be receding elsewhere, but OCLC has demonstrated that FirstSearch is a product for today.

Databases Across the Board
FirstSearch has the most wide-ranging topical collection of databases outside of Dialog. Its 80-plus categories cover science, technology, social science, arts, humanities, business, and current events. It offers the principal databases in many of these subjects, as well as multidisciplinary databases such as Periodical Abstracts and Wilson Select. Although not usually thought of as a business service, FirstSearch offers ABI/INFORM, Business & Industry, Business & Management Practices, Disclosure, and Worldscope.

The FirstSearch collection also includes the following prominent databases produced by OCLC itself:

Although FirstSearch is used by libraries of every kind, the majority of its subscribers are academic and public libraries. There are several pricing plans based on flat-rate and per-search charging methods.

Time for a Makeover
FirstSearch was introduced in 1991 and lately had been showing its age. The original search system lacked some important features, and it didn’t keep up with today’s technology-enabled connectivity opportunities. The new FirstSearch is improved and updated in every respect. It has a new, appealing look and feel that enhances the search process at each step. Commands and search options have been strengthened and new ones have been added. The old FirstSearch was a collection of separate databases; the updated one employs several kinds of cross-database integration to leverage the value of its content.

A New Look and Feel
The new look and feel is leaner, yet more informative and intuitive. The principal improvement is the display of more search options per screen, which makes the search process more apparent and reduces the number of clicks to carry out a step. Clarity is maintained by crisp screen layouts and the frequent use of pull-down menus. As the search moves from one stage to another, the option display rotates so that only enabled commands are shown. Starting a new search and changing databases could be handled more smoothly, but overall it’s easier and faster to navigate back and forth throughout the search process.

The updated system retains its Basic and Advanced search levels, and adds a new Expert level. The Basic and Advanced levels have been streamlined, without sacrificing options. The Expert level provides full-scale command searching, which will be welcomed by the many expert searchers who use FirstSearch. (FirstSearch was created as an end-user service. For experts, OCLC offered the command-driven Epic service. However, Epic was withdrawn in 1999, leaving proficient searchers with the unappealing alternative of using FirstSearch’s easy but constraining pre-formatted search methods.)

Search Operations
FirstSearch’s basic search functionality has been enhanced in the following ways, benefiting both novice and skilled searchers:

Bridging Gaps
All of these search enhancements are welcome, some are overdue, and altogether they are news—but not big news. What turns the new FirstSearch into a big story is its suite of connectivity features, which makes many individual databases, and the service itself, greater than the sum of their individual parts. They connect citations with full text, records with collections, and subject-related material from disparate sources. These new features greatly enrich the old supermarket idea in the following ways:

The New Supermarket
One of the Web’s great contributions has been to embody the potential of hypertext. Of course, as with everything else on the Web, link-following is erratic, chaotic, sometimes serendipitous, and very often a waste of time. This is because the content of the Web itself is—to be polite about it—eclectic. However, within a large, rich, quality-controlled collection of data like FirstSearch, hypertext is a much more precise information-finding technique.

The new FirstSearch unites the virtues of the classic online database collection with the powerful connectivity of hypertext. The result is a powerful, disciplined information tool that surmounts the old, online limitations and the chaos of the Web. The new FirstSearch is a supermarket service for the Web age.

Mick O’Leary is the director of the library at Frederick, Maryland; a principal in The Data Brokers; and a columnist for Information Today. His e-mail address is

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