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Volume 1 Number 1 July 2000

Accessing the Invisible Digital Collection: A Library School Student's Perspective

By Ann Marie Parsons

The experience of conducting a preliminary survey of all digital collections available in the public domain on DLF member Web sites provided a unique perspective from which to imagine oneself as both creator and user of online material. The distinctive approaches taken by libraries highlight the creativity and technical skill of professionals today. The breadth of useful, credible information that exists online is cause for celebration. In addition to more traditional topics covered by research institutions, DLF members have created innovative collections covering subjects ranging from aerial photography, to audio and visual clips of traditional Jewish music, to instructional exercises regarding the lighting of theatrical scenery. However, the invisibility of these special resources is reason for some concern.

Serendipitous discovery is not always suited to the serious researcher and other library users. Strategies must be formulated in order to make this information discernable to intended audiences. The best collections are presented as clear narratives with established boundaries and are linked to resources within and without the institution responsible for their publication. Two shining examples are the African American Odyssey at the Library of Congress and the Rhone Family of Fayette County, Texas at the University of Texas at Austin. Before users can enjoy these resources, however, they must locate the information. Librarians must work through content and into promotion before a collection can be considered complete.

First, the library must become the primary source users look to for a particular kind or quality of information. Building on its well-known resources the Library of Congress created an image for itself as a trusted source of Americana online. Users come to the Library of Congress to discover its collections.

An appropriate and complete collection of digital information in any single area is vital. In addition, present an obvious and well-documented connection between a library's digital collections and its other more traditional holdings. Where university libraries are concerned, library holdings of all types, institutional teaching, and research strengths can help to build name recognition. Contextualizing digital collections can also help to offset and enhance their importance while providing users with a richer experience. Context can be developed by including pathfinders to other complementary resources, guides to relevant printed collections, interpretations or social commentary, links to museums and other institutions, and bibliographies. For example, the New York Public Library's Early Maps (1660-1850) of the Middle Atlantic Seaboard collection provides related sources, suggested readings, and explanations of how maps are made, read and viewed.

The institution must become synonymous with the study of a particular subject if it is to be consulted. For example, when the general populace wants information on American history they usually stop at the Library of Congress or National Archives. These places have become name brands and thus receive visits from those not affiliated with their institution.

Of course, getting users to your site is only a first step. Having arrived, they will need well-marked signposts into its collections. Here, a number of simple principles suggest themselves from the review of DLF member sites.

There's no place like home. Is the library prominently displayed on the institution's home page? How many clicks does it take to find an overall list of available collections? Can the digital collections be found by the Web site's internal search engine?

Smoke 'em if you got 'em. Librarians cannot be subject experts on every topic the institution covers. They do, however, have a pool of subject experts - faculty and curators - from which to draw. Take advantage of intrinsic resources. Create alliances to further the quality and usability of the collections. Recruit professors and bibliographers, and offer internships and practicums to help get the job done. (After all, who actively dislikes the idea of being published?) Instead of hosting collections on separate departmental web pages, create one repository at which to store all information.

Name your baby. Start by giving the collection a descriptive title. Include proper names wherever possible. Create titles using combinations of vocabulary that may be retrieved by search engines.

Let us begin. Create tables of contents. A user-friendly example of how to present an inclusive list of collections can be found at the Library of Congress American Memory project. Through the table of contents for individual collections a user should be able to decide if that collection will be of use for his purposes or not. Short descriptive paragraphs such as those found on the introductory pages at the National Archives Exhibit Hall are of immense assistance to users searching for summary information. These materials should contain key terms and themes and entice the user to stop for a look. Be consistent in vocabulary and format.

Give it the human touch. Counter online frustration by providing contact information for users to obtain further assistance regarding each collection. Include the library hours, phone number and email address. Of all the Web sites throughout the DLF, none included this. Copyright and citation information are also of the utmost importance to researchers.

A second strategy (both are necessary) is to ensure that collections are readily discovered by those who know little or nothing about the institution that hosts them. Here some further principles emerge from the current review.

Think globally, act locally. Submit pertinent information about collections to multiple search engines. In an admittedly unscientific experiment, this student plugged the names of ten randomly selected DLF members' collections into Google, Yahoo, Excite, and Hotbot. The results were predictable. Those with titles including proper names or clear subject headings were most likely to appear within the first page of results from each of the search engines. Librarians cannot assume a spider will find and understand how to catalog a collection. This is especially true where searchable databases are used. Additional contextualizing of information (tables of contents, links to related resources, interpretive materials) can give a robot more information to capture and add to its search engine. This in turn will increase the odds that the collection will be seen.

Context and Collaboration. Users have no interest in whether this institution or another won the last auction for a coveted item. They just want access to it. Work with "competitors" to provide larger virtual collections whose items are separated by a single mouse click. Joint projects such as the Tebtunis Papyri Collection provide excellent opportunities to form bonds with sister institutions. Linking is free. Take advantage of this promotional outlet.

In the final analysis, it is apparent that digital collections are an evolving form. In order to make them stand out amongst the glut of information available on the Internet, librarians must consider different promotional strategies. They must create order out of chaos, remember their audiences, break new ground and break down barriers, tap underutilized talent pools and collaborate and create connections. Digital collections must be accessible from the inside out.

Please send comments or suggestions.
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