D-Lib Magazine
September 2000

Volume 6 Number 9

ISSN 1082-9873

Collected Wisdom

Some Cross-domain Issues of Collection Level Description


Paul Miller
Interoperability Focus
United Kingdom Office for Library and Information Networking (UKOLN)
[email protected]

Red Line


As the articles in this September 2000 issue of D-Lib Magazine illustrate, the desire to describe collections of material is evident across all our memory institutions: libraries, museums, archives, and beyond. The importance of "the collection", however, and the manner by which it is most often described, differs.

The Collection is King

In the next article in this issue, Sweet and Thomas, for example, demonstrate the fundamental importance of collection description to the explanation of archival resources. In this sector, the large quantities of often similar material have historically made it impractical to catalogue item-level descriptions, and archival resources have more commonly been described at the level of the archive — or collection — itself. Thus, the archive of a famous person might be listed as comprising 230 personal letters, 11 photographs, and two diaries. Most of the other information associated with the archive would be about the person him/herself, rather than about the items physically contained within the archive.

In their article, Sweet and Thomas describe the ways in which modern technology, specifically the Web and the Encoded Archival Description (EAD), allow today's archives to move past this traditional practice and towards description of the individual items for which users so often search.

A Bag Full of Stuff

For museums, too, the notion of the collection has long been important. Indeed, the very structure of a museum is based around collections and their curators, with the coin collection, the ceramic collection, the butterfly collection, and so on. The name given by museums to their equivalent of the library catalogue, too, reflects this viewpoint, as museums have collection management systems.

Amongst the many other meanings given to a "collection" by museums, the most significant in many cases is, perhaps, the notion of a benefactor's collection; thus, the holdings of a museum may largely be comprised of donated bodies of material, each spanning many or all of the subject collections of a museum, but considered as a whole. Examples are the Burrell Collection, donated to the City of Glasgow and now housed in a purpose-built structure, and the Guggenheim Collection at the core of the Guggenheim Museums' current holdings.

In the third article in this magazine, Dunn, looks at museum approaches to collection level description, illustrating this with practical examples from the aggregation work of the Canadian Heritage Information Network (CHIN).

Views from the Library

In the world of libraries, the collection has not traditionally played such a key role. The notion of collection is certainly present (for example, in the Special Collections of unusual or significant material), but the underlying structure of library information tends to follow a different form. With the current interest in building digital libraries, attention is focussing upon new directories describing collections of resources.

In the fourth article in this issue of D-Lib, Pearce outlines some of the initiatives underway to enhance the functionality of these services, and introduces the context within which they might operate. In the next article, Brack, Palmer and Robinson, too, discuss work in this area, focussing upon the development and deployment of the Collection Level Description standard of the UK's Electronic Libraries Programme (eLib).


With the growth of Web-based resources, the various experiences from each sector become increasingly relevant, both within the sectors concerned and for communities newly introduced to the challenges of describing large and diverse bodies of material, who stand to learn a great deal from the three curatorial traditions.

In the final article in this issue, Powell, Heaney and Dempsey introduce the important OCLC-funded work on modelling the nature of collections, and its realisation within the tools of the Research Support Libraries Programme (RSLP) Collection Description Project. Although developed from a library perspective, and subsequently extended to archives within the RSLP work, the model has a great deal to offer museums and other information managing communities.

Towards a Collective View

As the quantity of material available online continues to grow, and services aiming to describe these resources in any meaningful fashion fall further and further behind, the archival community's traditional dependence upon collection level descriptions as a means of managing quantity becomes relevant once more.

In this content-rich online environment, collection level descriptions fulfill important purposes. Firstly, they serve to provide relatively superficial overviews for large bodies of otherwise uncatalogued material. Secondly, they play an important role in reducing the quantity of material returned in the initial response to a broadcast query across multiple services. In this second scenario, where a user might be searching several repositories of high quality resource descriptions (a number of library OPACs, a museum catalogue, and a collection of archival finding aids, for example), the Collection Level Description serves to prevent the return of too many hits by grouping the returned results in various ways, such that numerous examples of one resource do not obscure important, but less numerous, returns. In a variant of this role, collection descriptions may also be used during the process of selecting those services to search in the first place. Here, the notion of collection strengths utilised by Conspectus and the like comes to the fore, with the collection descriptions containing information on the materials most likely to be found within a given collection, such that the National Library of Australia, for example, might be excluded from a search across a number of libraries for items of Canadiana.

Museums, archives and libraries have emerged from very different traditions, yet are increasingly being asked to maximise exploitation of their similarities in working together to deliver content to the user. All three have a shared heritage of considering the grouping of their materials into collections, albeit along notably different lines. Nevertheless, the experiences gained in describing and managing diverse collections of physical material appear highly relevant to today's digital resources. The three sectors stand to benefit from closer examination of practices amongst themselves if they are to adapt most effectively to the new challenges that they face.

Copyright© 2000 Paul Miller

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DOI: 10.1045/september2000-miller