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:
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.)
FirstSearch’s basic search functionality has been enhanced in the following ways, benefiting both novice and skilled searchers:
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 email@example.com.
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