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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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Ronald milne

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 - )

Ronald milne

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

Ronald Milne

Acting Director of University Library Services

& Bodley’s Librarian

+44 (0) 1865 287107