Indexing and searching the Alex Catalogue

The Alex Catalogue of Electronic Texts uses state-of-the-art software to index both the metadata and full text of its content. While the interface accepts complex Boolean queries, it is easier to enter a single word, a number of words, or a phrase. The underlying software will interpret what you enter and do much of hard query syntax work for you.


The Catalogue consists of a number of different types of content harvested from different repositories. Most of the content is in the form of electronic texts (“etexts” as opposed to “ebooks”). Think Project Gutenberg, but also items from a defunct gopher archive from Virginia Tech, and more recently digitized materials from the Internet Archive. All of these items benefit from metadata and full text indexing. In other words, things like title words, author names, and computer-generated subject tags are made searchable as well as the full texts of the items.

The collection is supplemented with additional materials such as open access journal titles, open access journal article titles, some content from the HaitiTrust, as well as photographs taken by myself. Presently the full text of these secondary items is not included, just metadata: titles, authors, notes, and subjects. Search results return pointers to the full texts.

Regardless of content type, all metadata and full text is managed in an underlying MyLibrary database. To make the content searchable reports are written against the database and fed to Solr/Lucene for indexing. The Solr/Lucene data structure is rather simple consisting only of a number of Dublin Core-like fields, a default search field, and three facets (creator, subject/tag, and sub-collection). From a 30,000 foot view, this is the process used to index the content of the Catalogue:

  1. extract metadata and full text records from the database
  2. map each record’s fields to the Solr/Lucene data structure
  3. insert each record into Solr/Lucene; index the record
  4. go to Step #1 until all records have been indexed
  5. optimize the index for faster retrieval

Solr/Lucene works pretty well, and interfacing with it was made much simpler through the use of a set of Perl modules called WebService::Solr. On the other hand, there are many ways the index could be improved such as implementing facilitates for sorting and adding weights to various fields. An indexer’s work is never done.


Because of people’s expectations, searching the index is a bit more complicated and not as straight-forward, but only because the interface is trying to do you some favors.

Solr/Lucene supports single-word, multiple-word, and phrase searches through the use of single or double quote marks. If multi-word queries are entered without Boolean operators, then a Boolean and is assumed.

Since people often enter multiple-word queries, and it is difficult to know whether or not they are really wanting to do a phrase search, the Alex Catalogue converts ambiguous multiple-word queries into more robust Boolean queries. For example a search for “william shakespeare” (sans the quote marks) will get converted into “(william AND shakespeare) OR ‘william shakespeare'” (again, sans the double quote marks) on behalf of the user. This is considered a feature of the Catalogue.

To some degree Solr/Lucene tokenizes query terms, and consequently searches for “book” and “books” return the same number of hits.

Search results are returned in a relevance ranked order. Some time in the future there will be the option of sorting results by date, author, title, and/or a couple of other criteria. Unlike other catalogs, Alex only has a single display — search results. There is no intermediary detailed display; the Catalogue only displays search results or the full text of the item.

In the hopes of making it easier for the user to refine their search, the results page allows the user to automatically turn queries into subject, author, or title searches. It takes advantage of a thesaurus (WordNet) to suggest alternative queries. The system returns “facets” (author names, subject tags, or material types) allowing the user to limit their query with additional terms and narrow search results. The process is not perfect and there are always ways of improving the interface. Usability is never done either.


Do not try to out think the Alex Catalogue. Enter a word or two. Refine your query using the links on the resulting page. Read & enjoy the discovered texts. Repeat.

Published by

Eric Lease Morgan

Artist- and Librarian-At-Large