A Great Leap Forward for Searching Music Collections

U.Va. Music Library launches “BlackLight” a new search engine

By Erin Mayhood

Backlight Interface

As the Music Library‘s collections continue to grow, it is becoming more difficult to find things. Of course, finding music has always been difficult, partly because of all the LP’s, CD’s, MP3’s, musical scores and books we need to sort through.  And, especially now that our students arrived versed in the methods of commercial search engines like Google, libraries are under increasing pressure to provide powerful catalog search engines with easy-to-use, elegant interfaces.

Recognizing all of these trends, the Music Library in summer 2007 began a research study to determine what our users require from a library catalog. We recruited participants from among the Music Department graduate students, and found six Ph.D. students, ranging from newcomers to U.Va. (one student had only been in Charlottesville for two days!) to those writing dissertations.  We brought them together to brainstorm on and the following question:

“What characteristics does an ideal music catalog need to have?”

The result of this session (called a “wants and needs analysis,” used to gather information about multiple users simultaneously) was a prioritized list of suggestions for music catalogs. We then asked the students to perform sample searches in some new library catalog systems that were in various stages of development, to see whether what our students said they wanted matched well with the search strategies they were likely to employ.

The results of this study helped guide the development of a new library catalog interface named Blacklight (http://bltest.lib.virginia.edu – currently best viewed in Firefox), so named because it is built upon Solr technology and Ultra Violet-A (UV-A) rays plus solar energy creates ‘black light’ (programmers love their puns!). Blacklight offers some features familiar from commercial search engines, like relevancy ranking (so the items you are most likely to want will appear first) and spelling correction; it also uses ‘facets’, which act like guides to help us formulate searches. Visually Blacklight represents a great stride forward as well: book and CD covers appear when they are retrieved in the catalog.

Although Blacklight is a general library catalog, it also contains a more specific ‘music researcher’ portal inspired by our graduate students. When library users click the ‘Music’ tab at the top of the screen, they are actually using a search interface tailored specifically to music research needs. This interface will allow them to search for library items by musical instrument or date of composition, neither of which can be done with our current catalog. Also for the first time, users can simply press a button to find CD recordings of a score they have located.

Another huge technological leap for Blacklight is the ability to search not only the library catalog but also the University of Virginia Digital Library. And, while many of the books and images already in the Digital Library are of interest to our music users, the potential of this capability is even more exciting: As the Music Library continues to digitize and catalog our renowned 19th Century sheet music collection, these items will start to appear for our users when they search Blacklight.

Blacklight was launched in beta mode for library staff use on November 11th, 2008, and the beta version will be made available to the public in the new year.