Opening the Door to Digital Collections

Sean Aery

OK, let’s face it. Library website interfaces that provide access to digital library resources generally aren’t as easy to use as they should be—especially when compared to commercial sites. Have you ever had trouble finding something on, Google, or YouTube? Probably not. You don’t have to read a manual or take a special class to know how to browse and search these sites. They just work. Why should library website interfaces be any different?

Libraries, including the Duke Libraries, have to keep pace with the rapidly evolving Web, which is constantly giving people new and more powerful interfaces for finding, creating, organizing, and sharing information. When you search our digital collections site, whether you’re doing research, seeking inspiration for artwork or photography, or simply satisfying your curiosity, we want the experience to be rewarding enough to keep among your favorite sites. Here are a few features we’ve incorporated to keep people coming back:

A single search box. In one search, you can explore a topic across more than 20 collections with content ranging from consumer culture and advertising to women’s history.

Search refinements. As you browse and search the collections, you’ll often encounter hundreds or even thousands of results at a time. Like many online shopping sites, we provide several options that serve as guideposts for narrowing your results—one step at a time—to help you pinpoint the items you seek.

Simple Web addresses. Each of the more than 50,000 items in the digital collections has its own Web address. This means that anyone can find our collections through any Web search engine; access isn’t limited to just those users who visit the Duke Libraries’ website. In fact, search engines drive almost 40% of the visits to our site. This also means that you can easily bookmark any item to return to later, cite, or share with friends and colleagues through social networking and bookmarking services like Facebook, Twitter, and StumbleUpon. These services have driven over 50,000 visits this year—nearly 10% of our inbound traffic—and are often the primary drivers to our most frequently viewed items.

Digital videos. Building on our initial success in creating digital collections of photos, printed advertisements, sheet music, and other materials, we have recently introduced our first two digital video collections: AdViews (thousands of vintage TV commercials) and the Diamonstein-Spielvogel Video Archive (over 100 interviews featuring cultural icons of the 1970s and 80s). These two new collections led us to explore two popular services—YouTube and iTunes—as delivery systems for library digital collections, and the impact has been tremendous. The Diamonstein-Spielvogel collection has attracted over 63,000 viewers in its first year online, and AdViews amassed an astounding half-million views in its first two weeks alone.

photo of the dukemobile app on an iphone

Mobile and interactive access. We have been looking beyond the traditional point-and-click navigational approach and anticipating increased access from devices other than desktops and laptops. This year we became the first library to offer image collections through an iPhone or iPod Touch interface. DukeMobile, a free iPhone ‘app’ with Duke maps, news, directories, and multimedia on-the-go, literally puts our digital collections into the palm of your hand—any time and any place. Another new interface, a ‘3D Wall,’ allows you to view hundreds of images together on a continuous plane while zooming in or out and scrolling quickly through the collections without having to wait for new web pages to load.

We’re excited about what we’ve done so far, but we’re just as excited about what’s ahead for the Digital Collections Program. We’re currently redesigning our Web interface to the digital collections, making changes that are more than cosmetic: Want a printable PDF of a piece of sheet music from 1850? You’ll soon be able to get it with a simple click. Want to flip effortlessly through that 100-page 19th-century cookbook? We’ll make it possible. We’ll provide new search capabilities, better ways to view, export, cite, and embed items, and tighter integration between the collections we’re hosting ourselves and the ones that reside on YouTube and elsewhere.

To increase the distribution of our digital collections, we employ tools such as syndication and aggregation. Syndication means storing and exposing our collections and data so you can find, search, and use them through any number of interfaces, not just our site, and not just Google. Aggregation lets us connect you to relevant information no matter where it resides. Our cross-collection searching is one example of aggregation, but aggregation offers the potential for searching beyond the holdings of a single institution. For example, imagine executing a single search to find digitized Civil War era documents held by ten university libraries (including Duke). Imagine finding an item in our site and in the same record seeing related items, blog posts, videos, and other resources pulled in from around the Web. The more connected our collections are to each other, to other libraries’ collections, and to resources on the open Web, the easier it will be for you to find them.

Sean Aery

Sean Aery is a web designer at the Duke University Libraries.