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Collection Description: Why, and Whither?. Ronald Milne. Collection Description. The concept is not new Archivists have been compiling collection descriptions of archival collections for many years (fonds level description)

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Collection Description:

Why, and Whither?

Ronald Milne

Weimar 23 November 2005

collection description
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
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 rslp
Research Support Libraries Programme (RSLP)
  • 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
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 why1
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 why2
Collection description – why?
  • General public also interested in collections
  • Apart from discovering the collections and checking on their content one could, for example:
    • Check in advance to avoid unfruitful visits to libraries/archives
    • Check to learn about restrictions on materials
development of rslp collection description work
Development of RSLP Collection Description work
  • Important to describe collections in a consistent and machine-readable way
  • Talked to archivists – made clear that we were not seeking to push out ISAD(G)/EAD
  • 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
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
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
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
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

[email protected]

+44 (0) 1865 287107