About “Digital Collections”

When users see the phrase “Digital Collections” how are they to know it’s where they’ll find these photos of Fidel Castro looking in his fridge for leftovers?
We have a problem with “Digital Collections.” It’s a phrase that’s exclusive to libraries and librarians, mysterious to patrons and web site users, and inadequate for its purpose. It describes what it references with about the same precision that “athletic endeavor” describes a Duke-UNC basketball game.

Yet it seems a given that libraries use the phrase to refer to their online installations of digitized primary sources from unique or rare collections. I remember talking about “digital collections” when I was a graduate student in Information and Library Science in the 1990s; the phrase just seemed to stick in our field, despite having almost no meaning outside of it.

We use it at Duke, and our usability studies show  time and again that it’s one of the least understood things on our web site. People tend to be excited when they find our collections and understand what they are. We just seem to have a problem providing the context they need to get there.

I don’t  have the answer to the problem today, but I’ve begun to do some thinking on how libraries cue web site users on their digitized collections, how we describe the resources, and how we might better convey what we’re doing for our audience. At Duke, we’re preparing to update our design for our “Digital Collections,” and my hope is that when we’ve finished, we’re calling it something entirely different.