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Navigating the "if you build it, they will come" mentality in digital libraries

Lately, I've been thinking a lot about how users come to find our digital content, and how we can improve the ways users find, navigate and interact with our content. We are in the midst of a re-design of Digital Collections for Special Collections and Archives at Kent, moving to an open source Omeka option. I'm most excited about the enhanced search and browse features, and also in using OAI-PMH to further open our collections online. I will be tracking use over the next year and looking to see how users find our collections (open Google search? From our homepage?), and then what they do once they have found what they are looking for. But this all assumes that people have found a way to search the digital collections- how can we highlight certain features that are currently hidden and buried away?

Our staff and faculty have used some social media tools in the past, but are these a lasting mechanism? Omeka has a digital exhibit function, which I hope will be quite useful as the collections grow. I think sometimes the most difficult part of creating a successful digital repository is finding ways to promote its use. One main component is of course the content itself- There has to be a compelling reason to not only digitize collections, but find a value and worth in their online consumption and use. But how does one measure this? And how does this guide future decisions?

One interesting project I had an opportunity to work with at my last job was a way that digital archives were put to an interesting test to virtually connect leaves from a medieval set of manuscripts that had been separated years before. This was an interesting way that a digital library served to provide a meaningful connection to a project:

This was an unusual project in that the researchers succeeded in creating a virtual "master" of a previous split and disbound set of pages. Having an open, harvestable digital library helped make the connection for these researchers, bring them from the search to the full resolution image. This is ultimately my goal for every project- make things as discoverable and easy to find as possible, but how on earth do we predict researcher need?

Another one of my first projects was to scan a small collection of rehearsal booklets from a puppet play, in German. I had an intern work on describing the images and put them online, and within weeks a German repository had somehow found the record, and in turn, made a record from their end:, and oddly also been picked up in an Australian repository: (under diaries, letters and archives). I think the thing that has amazed me since loading these online in 2008 is the unexpected ways that other people will incorporate your collection, and how can you back track these collections and find how people use and link to your collections? Sometimes it's as easy as doing a few searches, while other times, we are at the mercy of how people will use and re-use digital media. It does keep things interesting- to see how content will be incorporated, re-distributed and interpreted elsewhere. It's difficult to predict these patterns, but is sure gratifying the moments when you do realize all your hard work has gone somewhere.


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