Open URL – What is it and why every librarian should know about it

(This is a long post, but I was hesitant about breaking it up.)

There has been some discussion on Open URL in the LISBlogosphere, but most of the discussions have not scratched the surface and it is apparent to me that many librarians do not fully comprehend exactly what Open URL can do for information.

Open URL is a protocol in which certain elements of a citation are contained within the URL of a particular journal article. The metadata of the article is contained directly in the link itself. Think of the contents of the Open URL like a basic MARC record converted into a URL. They usually look something like this: (the URL keeps displaying funny, but you get the idea)
0023-1940&title=Kiva&atitle=Distinctive bone disks from Utah Valley:
evidence of Basketmaker connections in North Central Utah&volume=68&issue=4&spage= 305&epage=22&pages=305-22&date=2003

You can see in the URL the following elements: the institution, the type of information, the authors, the article title, the journal title, the volume and number, and the pages on which the article occurs. This allows the information to be viewed by other systems and information gathering tools.

Now that we have Open URL, what can we do with it?

A library uses databases that are Open URL compliant in conjunction with two products, an EJM Service and a Link Resolver. EJM stands for Electronic Journal Management Service and this product holds all of a library’s journal subscriptions in its “knowledge base” or memory. A Link Resolver retrieves the article information from the EJM. The process looks like this:

A user goes to a database and does a search. They locate an article they would like to read. Below the citation for the article there is a link that says something like “Find This Article” and they click on the article. At this point, the Link Resolver goes to the EJM and searches through the holdings to find the full text availability of the article. The user sees a box open on their screen that says “access the full-text of this article”, they click, and the article is given to them. This process takes the user about 4 steps.

If the EJM does not find a full-text copy of the article in the library’s holdings, the Link Resolver will also have a link to the catalog, so the user can check for print holdings. Most Link Resolver products also have the ability to integrate with ILL programs and will contain a link that says “Request this item from another library” which will populate the fields in the ILL system.

EJM Services come in different forms. Some require a library to do most or all of the back end work while some are housed off-site and require the library to send subscription updates to the company, who then does all the heavy lifting. Many of the Link Resolver screens and wording can be customized per institution.

Google recently announced that they will allow libraries to load their subscriptions into their databases, so that a user searching from a campus/local IP will be presented with links to the holdings of local libraries.

Now that we know what it can do, why should it be really important to librarians?

  • It saves the time of the user. Using Open URL, EJM, and a link Resolver reduces the amount of steps it takes to get an article from about 8 to about 4. Users, young and old, expect to be presented with a set of choices directly after performing their search. They expect to be given the article right away, like online search engines, and are confused and irritated when they are expected to perform many more steps before finding the correct article, occasionally performing the search all over again in another database.
  • Paths can now be created between all those databases we pay for and some might actually get used more often. A user can search one interface and still have access to all the library’s holdings.
  • It saves the time of the user. Librarians keep discussing the fact that our users want us to be more like Google, with quicker access to items. This is one step forward in the right direction.
  • (IMHO)Libraries and databases (listen up Lexis Nexis!) not taking steps to employ Open URL will lose more people to federated searching, Google, and more forward thinking companies with information that is as good or better and easier to find.
  • It saves the time of the user. Period.

At MPOW, we are testing a couple EJM and Link Resolver products. I am on a committee that has been organizing the charge, so to speak. In the course of coming up with a very extensive list of requirements, one of my colleagues gathered the best of what we had read and created this bibliography, which we handed out to the other librarians. I received the group’s blessing to post it here.

Boyd, M. (2004). NASIGuide: OpenURL. (

Crawford, W. (2004). OpenURL. (

Dahl, M. (2004). Building an OpenURL resolver in your own workshop. Computers in Libraries, 24(2), 6-8.

Ferguson, C. L., & Grogg, J. E. (2004). October: OpenURL link resolvers. Computers in Libraries, 24(9), 17-24.

Grogg, J. E. (2004). Linking in the traditional online world. Searcher, 12(6), 34-40.

McDonald, J., & Van de Velde, E. F. (2004). The lure of linking. Library Journal, 129(6), 32-34.

Vogt, S. (2003). Resolving the links. Information Today, 20(4), 25-26.

Zhu, Q. (2004). Understanding OpenURL standard and electronic resources: Effective use of available resources. Program: Electronic Library and Information Systems, 38(4), 251-256.

–Jane, saves the time of the user