News & Opinion

Contextualizing Collections

by on November 12, 2013

Of all the programs and services that libraries offer, there are few things more challenging to promote than databases or, even worse, electronic resources. What does that mean to some people, anyway – toasters, wafflemakers, hairdryers? It’s in the DNA of libraries to name and classify materials. The real opportunity, when it comes to databases, is to contextualize materials.

At the Boston Public Library, the path to this opportunity was illuminated through a strategic planning process. Communities of stakeholders helped identify special collections as one of Boston Public Library’s principles for excellence. With 23 million items for library users to choose from in their studies and explorations, identifying which collections are the best of the best, the richest, and most renowned is at the same time entirely necessary and entirely daunting. The result of much analysis and discussion yielded the Collections of Distinction, which were unveiled over the summer. Boston Public Library’s Collections of Distinction are an initial group of eighteen collections that represent the BPL’s most outstanding holdings.

Ranging from medieval manuscripts to John Adams’ personal library to urban maps, these collections have been the subject of significant discussion across all areas of the library. Priority is now given to them, for example, when it comes to preservation and digitization. The establishment of the Collections of Distinction has also had rather unexpected influence on other areas of the library including what sorts of databases and electronic resources are purchased and promoted.

There is quite a range of electronic resources that libraries can invest in. When it was time for Boston Public Library to allocate available funds to databases, the collections and reference teams came to a very thoughtful decision: to purchase databases that supported scholarly study related to the Collections of Distinction. That decision brought to light that what a database relates to is a much more powerful lever to pull in informing library users – and the ever-important potential users – than just a particular database name, whether it can be used remotely, and some of the other more typical ways information about databases is presented.

Armed with powerful thematic ties between the Collections of Distinction and the electronic resources that support them, teams at the library – from reference to communications – have a context within which to place the often dull notion of “database.” That’s because it is not about the database at all. It is about the story the database helps to tell. Library users interested in local and family history now hear about the library’s related collection, lecture series, and online resources. Those doing anti-slavery research are shown digitized manuscripts, broadsides, and other online resources at the same time they are invited to see these items in person in the rare books reading room. Library users are already curious about and searching for these things. Boston Public Library is experimenting with leveraging context as well as integrating content to help connect patrons to designated topics rather than designated databases.


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