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Collection Description:
Why, and Whither?
Ronald Milne
Weimar 23 November 2005
Collection Description
• The concept is not new
• Archivists have been compiling collection
descriptions of archival collections for many
years (fonds level description)
• Item descriptions might be preferred in the
library world, but collection descriptions also
have considerable value
• What is a collection?
What is a collection?
The term “collection” can be applied to:
• Any aggregation of physical or digital items
May include manuscripts, archival material,
printed books, CDs, digital surrogates of physical
items, collections of ‘born digital’ material …
Research Support Libraries Programme
A £30M funding programme for UK university libraries with research
collections; financed by the four UK Higher Education Funding Councils
(1998 – 2002)
Promoted collaborative work among research libraries, mainly within higher
education but also with the national libraries and other libraries with
research collections
Attempted to promote a holistic view of library and archive activity
throughout the UK
Funded circa 50 collaborative projects mainly dealing with traditional library
materials, but in almost every case creating an electronic resource.
Outputs included: bibliographic and archival records, collection descriptions,
digitised images and texts, web directories and portals
Collection description – why?
• Guides to special collections already available in print form: eg
Bloomfield's Directory of rare books and special collections in the
United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland
Collection description – why?
• Why not put such a guide on the web?
• Seemed a simple idea, but complexities soon crept in
• RSLP focus groups agreed that collection level
descriptions for print collections would be a good idea
• Increase in inter-disciplinary academic work
• Faculty focused on one particular subject may not be so
well acquainted with other subject areas
Collection description – why?
• General public also interested in collections
• Apart from discovering the collections and
checking on their content one could, for
– Check in advance to avoid unfruitful visits to
– Check to learn about restrictions on materials
Development of RSLP Collection
Description work
• Important to describe collections in a consistent and machinereadable way
• Talked to archivists – made clear that we were not seeking to push out
• Archival profession very supportive
• UK Office for Library Networking (UKOLN) had already undertaken
work using RSLP and OCLC funding: Michael Heaney’s Analytical
model of collections and their catalogues, available through:
• RSLP collection description schema developed: a structured set of
metadata attributes, for describing collections in the RSLP projects
(based on Heaney’s analytical model)
• UKOLN developed a tool that projects could use
• Collection Description Focus set up at UKOLN (June 2001 - )
RSLP Collection description model (simplified view)
See also: Powell, Heaney and Dempsey: RSLP Collection Description D-Lib Magazine September 2000.
Collection description gathers pace
• A number of RSLP-funded projects used the schema and the tool
and the RSLP schema became the emerging or ‘de facto’ standard
• Adopted by the UK New Opportunities Fund for collection
description within the projects it funded
• RSLP fields mapped onto ISAD (G)
• Schema now normally used with any SQL-compliant relational
database, using a webform for data entry
• (Typically) output is XML
Collection Description Projects
• Various approaches:
– Discipline based
• [eg: Mapping Asia (Humanities and Social Sciences
collections relating to Asia, the Middle East and North Africa),
Backstage (Performing Arts), Cecilia (Music), EGIL (Icelandic
Studies), Revelation (Theology), Genesis (Women’s Studies)
– Regional
• [eg: RASCAL (Northern Ireland), Mapio Cymru (Wales)]
– National
• [eg Cornucopia (UK)]
– International
• MICHAEL (Italy, France, UK)
Collection description: some issues
• Issues relating to metadata standards – considerable progress made
towards standardisation (NISO draft standard)
• Taxonomies/subject indexing – clear that this is necessary within a
particular collection description project, but how do you conduct a
metasearch when different thesauri are used in different projects? Use
a common thesaurus (eg UNESCO Thesaurus)?
• Decision on common name authority would also be helpful
• In cross domain projects there are sometimes different emphases –
museums concerned with format type, libraries with named collections
– an issue?
• How does one measure collection strength and collection quality?
(Conspectus? iCAS software)
• How do you know what collection descriptions are available?
• Collection description not necessarily embedded as core work task for
print collections, therefore how does one FUND this activity?
Collection description: whither?
• RSLP schema forms the basis of the Dublin Core Collection
Description Application Profile (DC CD AP)
• NISO Metasearch Initiative has published draft standards for trial
use - largely DC CD AP, with minor differences
• Accessing Collection Descriptions possible via structured network
services protocols:
– Open Archives Initiative Protocol for Metadata Harvesting (OAI PMH)
– Search Retrieve Web (SRW) for distributed searching
• UK Joint Information Systems Committee (JISC) Information
Environment Service Registry Project (IESR) and National Science
Foundation (NSF)-funded OCKHAM project
Ronald Milne
Acting Director of University Library Services
& Bodley’s Librarian
+44 (0) 1865 287107