Your Research Variable Solved: LibX

The British Library[This is a guest post by Cindy Fisher, the First-year Experience Librarian at the University of Texas at Austin. You can follow her on twitter @cynth.--@jbj.]

There have been a few recent articles, such as this one, that try to dispel stereotypes of what the typical librarian does or does not do as part of their daily routine. I like to think that a large part of what I do is teaching people the skills or tools to make their research (in or out of the classroom) more efficient. (Recent guest author Caro Pinto described a similar goal in her library classes.)

To this end, each semester a colleague and I teach a one-hour workshop called Work Smarter which, as you might guess, highlights and demonstrates tools that facilitate easier research and collaboration. Each time we show the LibX browser extension, the audience erupts in an audible cheer. Why? Think back to what browsing the Internet was like before tabs came standard with your browser. When those handy add-ons were unveiled, they were revolutionary despite their seeming obviousness. LibX’s functionality isn’t quite as revolutionary, but what it will do is save you time and help you explore your local library’s collection—a needed, if obvious, advance.

And, just for the record: I have never been affiliated with the project or its founders, Annette Bailey, Digital Assets Librarian, and Godmar Back, Assistant Professor in Computer Science, both of whom are based out of Virginia Tech and have been working on LibX since 2006.

My effusive statements come simply because I am amazed at how little this tool is used outside of librarian circles. Because it can be a difficult tool to explain (and it can be tough to find a quick moment for a demo during a library session), I hope the following tour will persuade you to test it out.

LibX was born out of the observation that users were simply bypassing library resources that they could easily retrieve for free via their library. The idea is to bring the library’s collection to you wherever you are online. Plus, why do more work or pay extra, if your library provides it for free?

LibX is a browser add-on. This means that it lives inside your web browser, much like another ProfHacker favorite, Zotero. There, it does its work either at your prompting, or when it senses readable information on the page.

LibX offers multiple ways to access your library’s holdings as you go about your business online: a browser toolbar, contextual menus that change according to the content sensed on the page, embedded clues, off-campus support and a “magic button” that appears during Google Scholar searches. It’s available on Firefox, Chrome, and Internet Explorer (though documentation on the LibX website is conflicting as to whether or not IE’s version works as well as versions for other browsers).

For simplicity’s sake, all of the following screenshots are from the FF version.

Let’s take a look in further depth at how LibX makes your library’s holdings visible:

LibX toolbar

Click for full-size

1. Browser toolbar: The LibX toolbar provides a drop-down menu which allows you to customize the location (library catalog, electronic resources) and which fields (keyword, author, title) you’ll use to perform your search (keyword, author, title). You can select additional search boxes for a narrower query, or you can hide the toolbar all together, since it may take up valuable screen space–especially if you’re working on a netbook.

LibX screenshot

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2. Contextual menu: This is a personal favorite because I love anything that means less typing. With the LibX add-on enabled, anytime you right-click or press control-click while on a page or in conjunction with highlighted text, LibX will provide you with a menu of options based on the text you’ve selected. I almost always search my library’s collection via keyword as I’ve noticed this has the highest search rate success, likely because keyword searching is just more flexible.

LibX screenshot

Click for full-size

3. Embedded clues: This is LibX’s way of hinting that there is information on the page that could be found in your library’s collection. If you’ve used Zotero, you’ll note that there is a similarity in the way that these two tools work to alert you that something is happening behind the scenes. When LibX senses that there is information on a page – an ISBN, a DOI – a clickable icon appears beside the content which will launch you into your library’s collection for that material. For instance, a search in my local bookstore’s catalog hyperlinks the ISBN-X. When I click on the link LibX reads the ISBN-X and immediately performs a search in my library’s catalog. Some resources have multiple ISBN or ISBNx numbers, which means you often might not get connected to the resource you’re looking for on the first try. To remedy this, LibX provides a list of other possible ISBN’s on the left side of your screen in the event that the original ISBN isn’t found. Because library catalogs differ, you may have varying degrees of success (a problem which I’ve encountered, and which has led me to rely on the contextual menus).

LibX also senses Digital Object Identifiers or DOIs when listed in citations. The icon that appears here is called Find it at UT– and links to online journals within our subscription databases. This button is especially helpful for guiding students to original content using the citations in Wikipedia entries!

LibX enables embedded clues within Google Scholar. (This is what ends up drawing the gasps of delight.) When authenticated through your institution, you can have almost instantaneous access to journal articles found through this service. Simply select your institution within the Google Scholar preferences and from then on you will see a “Get This Article” link (again, this likely is customized) to directly download the article from your library’s collection directly from the Google Scholar page.

4. Off-campus access: Perhaps you’ve found an article while internet searching at home or off-campus, and you find yourself faced with a $25 dollar fee to download it as a PDF. Instead of going through the multi-step process of trying to find the journal electronically via your library’s database subscriptions — often an unfortunate maze — you can reload the page via your institution’s proxy. This makes it appear as if you are on campus and automatically authenticates by simply entering your campus login information. It will show your affiliated campus’s names somewhere on the page, and, if your library subscribes to that journal and issue, you’ll be able to download, email, save, or bookmark the article as if you were on campus.

Can it all be this simple? Well, yes and no. Certain aspects of LibX are more reliable than others: Sure, the toolbar, contextual menu and off-campus access via a proxy consistently get me to the materials the fastest without having to try a workaround. However, the embedded clues assume a perfect match that is often impossible to deliver when there are multiple ISBN numbers, incomplete citations, or other specific data to trigger the clues. Google Scholar is generally very reliable, but because Google can change the way it indexes a library’s holdings, it’s always possible that Google will incorrectly state that an article isn’t available.

So I’ve convinced you to try LibX, right? There are currently 932 editions of LibX, each of which is tailored to a specific institution’s collection. It’s very likely that your institution already has one for you to install. You can search LibX’s directory or try searching your library’s webpage for LibX. Alternately, you can always get in touch with one of your favorite librarians to ask if it exists. And if it doesn’t, it’s a perfect opportunity to start a conversation with your library about what tools are available to revolutionize your research.

If you’re already using LibX, how has it worked for you? If you use it frequently, what’s your favorite method of access? And if you haven’t tried it before but decide to install, please come back to comment!

Photo by Flickr user stevecadman / Creative Commons licensed

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