NISO on Digital Collections

By Deane Barker

A Framework of Guidance for Building Good Digital Collections: I really enjoyed this white paper, published by the National Information Standards Organization (NISO). It’s a tour de force around the work of managing digital collections.

The term “collections” is sort of open for interpretation. Their official definition is:

A digital collection consists of digital objects that are selected and organized to facilitate their discovery, access, and use. Objects, metadata, and the user interface together create the user experience of a collection.

Okay, so what’s a “digital object”? Well, they’re a bit quiet on that one, but it seems to be just a generic digital content asset of some sort. The document is obviously geared towards librarians and curators (“cultural heritage institutions”), so one would assume images or scans of documents would most readily fit their definition.

However…would this blog count? Each post could clearly be considered a “digital object,” and the blog as a whole could be a “digital collection.” How about the news archives on your intranet? Do they count?

I’m curious if the definition of “collection” depends on the intended purpose, or use case scenarios associated with the content. Do people need to have a reason to wade back through your content for it to be a “digital collection”? If you’re just holding on to stuff for historical record, does that count? Taken to the absurd extreme, could a web server log be considered a “digital collection” of log entries?

(Does pure text even count? I feel like a scan of a letter from Abraham Lincoln would count, but then you’re really archiving two things: the content of the letter, and the letter itself – the message and the medium, because they’re both interesting for different reasons. But how about an email from Bill Clinton (ha! He didn’t send any!)? The message is interesting, but the medium…is not? Or is it?)

Beyond giving me reason to argue about semantics, the document makes its case as a series of principles about the four major objects it discusses:

  • Collections

  • Objects

  • Metadata (information describing documents)

  • Initiatives (projects related to collections, essentially)

The principles are presented as best practices. For instance:

Collections Principle 1: A good digital collection is created according to an explicit collection development policy.

Collections Principle 6: A good collection has mechanisms to supply usage data and other data that allows standardized measures of usefulness to be recorded.

Objects Principle 4: A good object will be named with a persistent, globally unique identifier that can be resolved to the current address of the object.

Metadata Principle 4: Good metadata includes a clear statement of the conditions and terms of use for the digital object.

Initiatives Principle 4: A good digital initiative has an evaluation component.

Each principle is supported by a narrative and dozens of annotated links, which, frankly, are the real goldmine of the document. If you read this document, then followed all the links in it and read those too, you’d get what amounts to a master course in archival, metadata standards, and digital content preservation.

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