Archives & Museum Informatics








last updated:
October 7, 2014 2:55 PM

Unifying our cultural memory: Could electronic environments bridge the historical accidents that fragment cultural collections?

in Information Landscapes for a Learning Society, Networking and the Future of Libraries 3, 1998. and presentation at UK Office of Library Networking Conference, July 1998.

David Bearman and Jennifer Trant, Partners, Archives & Museum Informatics, USA

  (Section 7)

Finding Information


Information discovery is the identification and location of relevant resources. An initial query, formulated in the users' space as a "research question", is put to a provider's information. Embedded in the query are the users' schemas and the users purpose in asking the question. These interact with the description of information resources provided by repositories. As pointed out earlier, correspondences between these two schemas, and their exact inter-relationships will often be difficult to identify or extricate.27

Except in the case of "browsing" information discovery is entirely dependent upon metadata, whether that provided by the resource creator, the repository, a subject gateway, or a subsequent documenting agent. As with the traditional library card catalog, repository's holdings are communicated to the researcher by means of the metadata provided about them. The answer to a metadata based discovery query should enable the user to take the next step, and decide whether to obtain some or all of the cited resources.

If the query produces a result which the user cannot interpret or with which the user cannot decide whether to retrieve the cited objects, then another discovery query will follow until the user gives up. If, however, one of the metadata sets returned by a discovery query cites information objects that appear to be promising for the users' purposes, the user will follow it with a retrieval request.


A retrieval request reflects the conscious choice to move a copy or sub-set of a digital source into a user-defined space. Like checking a book out of the library, the retrieval process provides the research with information that can be used (read, played, sorted, integrated, analyzed, refuted...) . Unlike the book, however, the electronic resource need not be 'checked out' in its entirety, may be reformatted in the process of downloading, or may be selectively retrieved from and directly imported into local resource management systems in at any level of granularity. Metadata plays a critical role in a retrieval decision and the ensuring that the resultant request produces a satisfactory result.

Through metadata, a particular resource is identified for retrieval; possibly through unique identifiers, or through a URL. But sometimes, more metadata is required prior to actual retrieval, in order to identify a resource with a particular "fitness for purpose." That purpose may be rendering on available user hardware, in which case metadata about technical formats and required viewers is needed. Indeed, the dialog may need to discover not only the present technical characteristics, but the functionality present at the source system that could enable the resource to be reformatted or an entirely new resource to be generated in response to the users request prior to retrieval. The researcher may wish to assess whether a statistical data set has the coverage required to support his research; a more accurate description may be needed. An art historian may wish to view a work of art from a particular vantage point; descriptive information about an image view would be required. Terms and conditions metadata, including costs and restrictions may come into play. In all these instances, detailed metadata called about specific works prior to their retrieval allows the researcher to identify if a discovered resource is appropriate for use, and if it can be retrieved and used successfully in the researcher's work-space.

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Informatics: The interdisciplinary study of information content, representation, technology and applications,
and the methods and strategies by which information is used in organizations, networks, cultures and societies.