General information

PALNI Investigates the Usability of WorldCAT Discovery

OCLC’s WorldCat Discovery is widely used in academic libraries as a discovery layer, a search tool that attempts to offer the user a comprehensive picture of the library resources available for any given keyword(s).  As more and more of the library seems to exist online, a sometimes loosely connected congeries of third-party databases and tools, many with very different interfaces, librarians are growing more concerned with the quality of the user experience when their patrons encounter these tools.  Thus it is noteworthy when a sizeable consortium such as the Private Academic Library Network of Indiana (PALNI) decides to carefully investigate and report on the usability of WorldCat Discovery.  PALNI has been doing user research on WorldCat Discovery since 2015 and their most recent report appeared in April.  Here we’ll take a look at a few of the more significant findings from their research and give some general tips about how you can get started making customizations to your library’s WorldCat Discovery interface.

The Reports’ Shared Structure

PALNI has released four user research reports to date.  (The third report is not discussed here.)  While the number and identity of participating institutions varies between the studies, each study has a quota of at least two First Year students and two Senior students from each institution.  Most of the reports do not give a specific number for total sample size, seeming to prefer conveying findings as percentages.  Enlightening charts and infographics make it easy to read the reports without being overwhelmed by text.  Each report concludes with two lists of recommendations: one list for PALNI member libraries, and another list for OCLC.

Spring 2015 Findings

In the first study, all participants were able to find books and articles owned by their institution’s library when given the title and author (book), or a topic to research (article).  Most participants were also able to locate the call numbers of books.  The report notes that, “Unless the library had set up a search box on the homepage specifically limiting to books, less than 50% of participants could find a book not owned by the library given the title and author.”  It also notes that most participants were successful in finding articles, “[u]nless the library had set up a search box on the homepage specifically limiting to books, which then eliminated articles….”  Reading between the lines, it seems that some of the institutions in this study provided a single, scoped point of entry for WorldCat Discovery, and that this scoping hampered users looking for material in a format outside of the specified scope.  Thus, the researchers’ recommendation that institutions use tabbed search boxes to make it easier for users to quickly find material in the format which meets their needs.

The study provides additional recommendations to guide library instruction to students and concludes with a wish list of WorldCat Discovery modifications, addressed to OCLC.  The highest priority modification requested is that OCLC provide an option that “would prioritize relevance over ownership” by boosting books owned by another institution to the top of the results list if those books are highly relevant to the user’s search query. 

Fall 2015 Findings

PALNI’s second report, released in February of 2016, found that only 25% of participants were able to “find a book not owned by their library when given the title of the book,” and that 37% of participants were unable to find an alternate edition of a book if that edition was “hidden behind editions and formats.” On a more positive note, 83% of full text article links delivered articles as promised, without any error messages. Interestingly, more than 5 participants in the study did not know what “call number” meant. An appendix of screenshots illustrates some puzzling problems with irrelevant results. In one case, the second result for a search on “physical therapy” is a poem published in a literary journal!

In the report’s closing recommendations, libraries are again urged to provide a tabbed search box for users and to set their default results sorting to “Library and Relevance” so that the top-most results are both relevant and available at the user’s home institution. PALNI reiterates their earlier request to OCLC to provide “a ‘top1,’ ‘top 3,’ or ‘top 5’ option that libraries can turn on that would prioritize relevance over ownership.”  They also ask OCLC to make it easier to find alternate editions of known items. A fascinating insight noted for OCLC, but without any accompanying recommendation, is that many users failed to notice the presence of call numbers and the “view online” button within the brief results page, clicking through to the detailed item record instead before looking for a call number or viewing the online full text.

2019 Findings

PALNI’s most recent usability report was just released in April.  Finding alternate editions of books continues to be challenging for users, with more than one-third of participants failing at this task. Only 14% of users were able to find a given book when it was not owned by their home institution, a significant decrease from fall 2015, when 25% of participants were able to do so. Researchers also observed broad use of facets, with more than 15 participants using them to narrow search results.

PALNI offered two main recommendations for libraries in this report: to use “Best Match” as their default ranking for search results, based on users’ demonstrated facility with using facets to narrow their searches, and to change availability display settings to make it easier to see older physical items that may otherwise be obscured by ebooks or more recent editions. Helpfully the report offers precise directions on where, within OCLC’s Service Configuration portal, these changes may be made.

Among PALNI’s six recommendations to OCLC, they requested that the “Sort By” drop-down menu be included with the facets on the left sidebar, as too many users failed to notice the drop-down in its current top-right corner position. Noting user impatience, researchers asked OCLC to optimize the load time for print book holding information. Researchers also asked for “more seamless transitions to full text sources,” mentioning that some users were taken to yet another item record, in an external database, when clicking on the full-text link for an article.

How You Can Customize WorldCAT Discovery

If, after reading about these studies, you’re motivated to hack, tweak, and improve your library’s version of WorldCAT Discovery, follow these steps to get started!

  1. Create an account for OCLC’s Service Configuration website.
  2. Log into your account on OCLC’s Service Configuration website.
  3. Click on “WorldCat Discovery and WorldCat Local,” at the top of the left-hand column, in order to see all of the menu options for customizing your Discovery instance.
  4. Start by taking a look at your institution’s “Relevancy and Scoping” settings, where you can customize the sort and scope of search results.
  5. You may also wish to change colors or add logos, and you can do this under “User Interface Options.

Don’t know where to find the settings for what you want to change? Ask OCLC!


Bradley, E., Szpunar, R., & West, M. (2015). WorldCat Discovery Usability Report: Study 1: Jan-May 2015. Retrieved from

Bradley, E., Szpunar, R., & West, M. (2016). WorldCat Discovery Usability Report: Study 2: Oct 2015-Jan 2016. Retrieved from

Bradley, E. & Szpunar, R. (2019). WorldCat Discovery Usability Report: Study 4: March 2019. Retrieved from