Implementing Primo in Reference & Instruction

By Christal Young, Reference & Instruction Librarian, University of Southern California

The Integrated Library System (ILS) is the lifeblood of the academic library.  Through it, students, staff, and faculty are able to access the wealth of information necessary for their research endeavors.  In 2016, the University of Southern California (USC) acquired the ExLibris Alma/Primo ILS in order to better meet the needs of its users.  As one of the few institutions that currently utilize Primo VE, this article will address the changes made by the libraries that service the USC University Park and Health Science campuses. I will provide a brief overview of how these changes impacted the way in which we view and approach reference and instruction services. Throughout, you will find links to the CCL Primo VE Workshops conducted in October 2019 as well as examples of workshops/trainings conducted at USC during the implementation project in 2017.

As my job title suggests, a large percentage of my job is dedicated to the promotion of public services through reference and instruction.  As a member of the ad hoc USC Libraries Reference Taskforce, I help tackle issues that affect our reference librarians and advance our virtual and in-person reference services.  During the implementation project for the ExLibris platform launch, the Reference Taskforce took on various tasks to ensure a smooth transition to the new ILS. The following efforts were executed in anticipation of this transition.

Usability Testing

While not required, we found usability testing to be valuable in our attempt to anticipate patron questions and challenges when using the new search engine. The Reference Taskforce developed a Usability Testing Questionnaire that was administered to various users including a faculty professor in Music, a senior majoring in Business, a graduate student majoring in Education, a faculty professor in the Writing Program, and so on. The responses allowed us to better understand how users navigated and searched within the library’s impending ILS. We presented our findings to the larger ExLibris implementation team and also utilized these responses to develop training scenarios to incorporate into workshops for librarians.  Even if you decide not to conduct usability testing, I highly recommend that you dedicate time toward forecasting the various questions, expectations, and pain points your specific user groups may encounter as a result of the new system.

Librarian Training

The Reference Taskforce developed and led multiple Primo trainings for librarians. The trainings served as an opportunity for all USC librarians who provided reference and/or instruction services to contribute to decisions regarding configuration settings such as naming conventions (the first thing they wanted changed was Tweak my Results!), placement of icons, and the activation/deactivation of various features available in Primo.  The first training, Primo Part 1 Training: Configuring Options, allowed librarians to become familiar with the basic layout of the Primo interface, ask questions, and provide input on how the system would eventually be displayed and utilized for reference and instruction transactions. After this initial training, the Reference Taskforce made recommendations to the ILS implementation team based on librarian feedback. A second training: Primo Part 2 Training, was conducted shortly before the ExLibris Go Live date. This training focused on using Primo for reference and allowed librarians to practice hands-on activities in order to become more familiar with the results and special features within Primo. Librarians were able to see their input from the initial training materialized in the second training.  Including all librarians in the decision-making process allows them to have a more vested interest in the success and increased use of the system.

During the same week of the Primo Part 2 trainings, a specific Primo for Instructors training was also offered.  Led by the Head of Instruction (who is also a member of the Reference Taskforce) this workshop centered around the teachable elements within Primo which included an overview of Primo’s algorithm, an example of what students could expect to see in the results list, the prominently displayed access points for each database within an item record, and the various ways to save or export citation information from item records or directly on the results page.  This training allowed library instructors to know what to expect once inside of a classroom setting and know how to troubleshoot issues that may arise.  

Moving Forward with Flexibility

I don’t believe that there is one perfect ILS for any one library and I anticipate that we will continue to experience challenges and frustrations with this or any other system we acquire in the future. But we make course corrections and do the best that we can with what we have. In the Summer of 2019, we launched a new USC Libraries’ website interface in part as an attempt to help patrons navigate the libraries website with more ease.  Using a bento-box approach, this overlay reveals to users the number of results we have based on categories such as Articles, Books, Databases, and Other Materials. While this might not be ideal for your library, there may be other ways that you can share information with your patrons.  Research Guides such as the User Guide and Searching Solutions guide have proven to be useful resources for our patrons and librarians alike. We continue ongoing evaluation of our ExLibris ILS and will continue to anticipate new ways to engage our patrons with helpful tips.  Be flexible with this system and know that you have at least one other academic institution that has been where you are going.  

For questions, please contact Christal Young at or Win Shih, Director of Integrated Library Systems, at  

Further Readings and Resources:

Primo VE for Instruction Workshop Presentation Recording and Slides: 
Primo VE for Reference Workshop Presentation Recording and Slides:

Galbreath, B., Johnson, C., & Hvizdak, E. (2018). Primo New User Interface: Usability Testing
    and Local Customizations Implemented in Response. (Report). Information Technology 
    and Libraries, 37(2), 10–35.

Valentine, B., & West, B. (2016). Improving Primo Usability and Teachability with Help from the
    Users. Journal of Web Librarianship, 10(3), 176–196.

Editor's Note:

Christal Young was a presenter at CCL's Fall 2019 workshops. Materials from two other presenters are available below: