Background: Expressed sequence tag (EST) datasets represent perhaps the largest collection of genetic information. ESTs can be exploited in a variety of biological experiments and analysis. Here we are interested in the design of overlapping oligonucleotide (overgo) probes from large unigene (EST-contigs) datasets. Results: OLIGOSPAWN is a suite of software tools that offers two complementary services, namely (1) the selection of "unique" oligos each of which appears in one unigene but does not occur (exactly or approximately) in any other and (2) the selection of "popular" oligos each of which occurs (exactly or approximately) in as many unigenes as possible. In this paper, we describe the functionalities of OLIGOSPAWN and the computational methods it employs, and we report on experimental results for the overgo probes designed with it. Conclusion: The algorithms we designed are highly efficient and capable of processing unigene datasets of sizes on the order of several tens of Mb in a few hours on a regular PC. The software has been used to design overgo probes employed to screen a barley BAC library (Hordeum vulgare). OLIGOSPAWN is freely available at http://oligospawn.ucr.edu/.