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Federated search is a starting point. It's a launching pad for users, a tool to help them identify the databases that are best suited to the subjects they are researching. It has other names as well--meta-search, parallel search, broadcast searching. It allows users to search across multiple resources: subscription databases, library catalogs, and web sites. In fact, chances are you've already used something just like it.
Google Scholar is a federated search-like tool that many librarians are now embracing rather than fearing. WorldCat. org is a more library-oriented example that can search from one box all resources--articles, books, journals, DVDs, and CDs. While Google Scholar doesn't offer much beyond a results list, WorldCat's "Refine Search" column uses faceting to guide users in further narrowing their search. WorldCat even offers plug-ins for Facebook and Firefox, allowing users to connect to resources through a friend's profile, or search for items directly from a web browser search bar.
Many vendors also offer a similar service for searching across their subscription databases. Some examples are EBSCO, CSA, and ProQuest. In fact, many of the subscription vendor products, such as proQuest Research Library, can have a default setting of "search all databases," which many librarians prefer. However, these subscription vendors frequently have an assortment of disparate databases on a variety of topics--everything from the most general of academic databases to ultraspecific topical databases in business and the sciences. And while searching dozens of substantially different databases is beneficial in many contexts, it's important for librarians to keep in mind both the strengths and weaknesses concerning the federated search approach, yet many librarians fail to consider this (see Melissa Rethlefsen's "Easy [not equal to] Right," p. 12, for more on these concerns). Their assumption seems to be that the more you can search at one time, the better the results for the user, which is not always the case.
On the market
Today's marketplace has a number of highly visible products. You've probably heard of several of the more common federated search vendors and products, such as 360 Search by Serials Solutions, which recently acquired WebFeat as well, and MetaLib by Ex Libris. But what you probably don't know is that there are more than a dozen federated search products on the market. Furthermore, many vendors also license their products or connectors to other vendors or resell another product. An example of this is EBSCO's licensing of WebFeat technology. (See the Link List, p. 4, for vendors.)
Last year at the American Library Association annual conference in Washington, DC, we visited the majority of these vendors. We had not heard of many of them, but after visiting with them, we realized why. Many are strong in either academic or public libraries. …