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Collections of Collections

Life and work and crazy deadlines on massive projects have all been ganging up on me lately to keep me from posting (or cooking, or doing my dishes, or sleeping much, or… really anything that usually makes up the rhythm of my existence). The bad thing about this is that I’ve never felt quite this overwhelmed before (though it sure is making me look forward to having another librarian join our team!). The good thing is that when so many things happen in such a short space of time, I can see patterns in the kinds of confusion my students face much more easily.

One such typical confusion that’s been brought to the fore in the last couple of weeks has to do with the concept of collections of collections. We deal with this concept all the time in libraries, and in academia in general. We know without thinking that special collections, archives, government documents, journal collections, and teaching collections in individual departments all have their own internal coherence. They have their own rules about what constitutes a relevant description and what doesn’t, what finding aids make sense, and what physical or digital organization makes finding and using the information hum along smoothly. Who would use the world “Carleton” to describe anything held in our archives like they would in our regular book collection? And who would organize our regular books by publisher like they do in gov docs, kind of?

Take that a step further and look at all our bibliographic databases. Some are indexing only (like MLA International Bibliography). Some include abstracts. Some search the full text of the article. Some ONLY search the full text of the article. No matter their structure and search philosophy (because I do think choice of primary access comes down to philosophy most of the time), each database has it’s own internal rhythms and vocabularies, strengths and eccentricities. We’re very used to approaching each new collection, probing it for clues to its vocabularies and strengths, and then mining it for insights into our research problems.

And this is just the way it is. (And incidentally, this is what makes federated search such a bear of a concept… but more on that later, maybe.) We are used to this state of affairs and navigate it as easily as we change our wardrobes to fit new seasons. Which is why, when we encounter digitized collections online, we don’t even blink. Of course they’ll have their own internal rhythms. Of course they’ll resonate to their own vocabularies.

But this isn’t the way the search-engine optimized web works. The new default order of things is that for any given search box to search everything under it in exactly the same way with consistent results. (I know, I know. This isn’t how it actually happens. But it is what people think happens, which is more to the point.) So faced with a portal like, for example, American Memory, what are students to think but that entering search terms in that little search box will search through all of the content and bring back relevance-ranked results? And yet, American Memory is a collection of collections, just like our library here on campus is a collection of collections. That search box is almost entirely useless and is causing students no end of frustration. They see result lists that are either 0 or 9 bazillion, and both results bother them so much that they’ve been coming the reference desk in droves to find out what they’re doing wrong. They’re confused and frustrated, and they absolutely “know” that the fault lies with their search abilities rather than with the problem of having a cute little search box that is desperately trying to search the contents of hundreds of collections that have about as much in common as Medline and the MLA International Bibliography, or as our musical recordings and our map collection. Up until this point in their lives, Google has searched web pages for them and delivered understandable results. They’ve never before had to consider the implications and complications that discrete collections present.

(Oh, and in case you’re wondering, explaining the concept of collections of collections, and explaining how to use the cute little search box to find collections rather than items has relieved frustration so far.)

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