Discovering Australia (and beyond)


There are some key developments underway in information services and how libraries – and in particular national libraries – deliver to their public in an online digital future. Firstly, catalogues and content are coming together, so that when you search for a title a book, film, journal, object or whatever, the item itself – in digital form – turns up and not just a record describing it. The Fondation Jérôme Seydoux Pathé is a good example of a catalogue on a film subject some of whose records include digitised resources (images).

Secondly, there is the promise of the purely digital library. Examples of these exist in the academic and commercial sectors, where a target audience expects immediate access to tailored content, while Project Gutenberg and the Internet Archive have pioneered the notion of general access to a wide range of digital artefacts in the public domain. The Bibliothèque nationale de France’s Gallica is an example of a national collection’s digital initiative, and internationally UNESCO recently launched the World Digital Library. A significant new step is the Korea’s National Digital Library, which will acquire, hold and deliver purely digital content.

Third, and the subject of this post, is the integration of these elements with content beyond that held by any one institution. In a purely digital and online environment, users are going to be less and less concerned about what any one library, archive or other information organisation has on its shelves, except as a hallmark of quality, and far more interested in finding all that they want in one place. Union catalogues exist which perform this function (for example, Worldcat, or Copac for UK university libraries), but add the content as well and it is not about attracting users to your doors but about delivering the content to wherever those users may be – at home, on the road, at your library, at another library.

This represents a fundamental shift in how knowledge is managed and how major institutions with national responsibility for preserving, describing and making accessible content do so in an environment where they are not necessarily the portal through which the user discovers and makes use of such content.

What do I mean by this? Well, the example to consider is the recently-launched ‘discovery service’ from the National Library of Australia, the SBDS Prototype. It’s unclear what SBDS stands for, but in practice the model is a simple one. It enables you to search across a number of collections, in Australia and beyond it, across books, journals, pictures, photographs, films, music, sound, newspapers, manuscripts, maps and archived websites. At its heart are several services provied by the NLA, including Australian Newspapers, the Pandora web archive and Picture Australia, but there are also general Australian services such as Australian Research Online, and world resources such as OAIster (a union catalogue of digital resources), Hathi Trust (digital books in the public domain), the Library of Congress, the Internet Archive and Wikipedia.

This isn’t a tool for discovering everything about everything. It is “focussed on Australia, Australians, and items found in Australian collecting institutions”. Also it is a work in progress and some elements are not yet functioning, such as Advanced Search. Nor does every record comes with the content in digital form, but it tells you where the content is available online and allows to to restrict searches to online content. So, if we narrow things down to silent cinema, and use our habitual search term for testing out new resource, what do we get when typing in ‘kinetoscope’? These are the results by format:

* Book (169)
o Illustrated (43)
o Audio book (1)
* Video (21)
* Article (8)
o Abstract (1)
o Conference paper (1)
* Art work (5)
* Sheet music (4)
* Photograph (3)
* Conference Proceedings (2)
* Sound (2)
o Audio book (1)
o Recorded music (1)
* Thesis (2)
* Poster, flash card, other (1)

And this is how it looks:


I have to admit to some confusion here, as the number of search results (761) does not match the number of formats supposedly represented (chiefly, it seems, because formats does not include archived webpages, of which ‘kinetoscope’ brings up 462, mostly from Russell Naughton’s Adventures in Cybersound site). But, fine detail aside, the results are plentiful, and can be narrowed down to content available online, or by decade, keyword, author/contributor, language, or from solely Australian sources. Click on any one record, and you are taken to a full catalogue record, which indicates from which participating resource the information came, and a second click takes you to that site directly (click on ‘available online’ and it takes you to the external site directly), though be warned that not everything that is described as being online turns out to be the artefact itself. There is a great deal to be found beyond material of purely Australian interest. Very quickly I found production photographs from Greed at the Online Archive of California, a 1915 song sheet ‘Those Chaplin Feet‘ from John Hopkins University’s JScholarship, and a 2006 lecture on video by Hal S. Barron, ‘Screening the rural: the American countryside in silent film‘, from Claremont Colleges Digital Library.

It’s all a bit bewildering, as well as exciting. It’s a portal designed for Australian interests, but the implications are huge, once all national institutions start to go down this route – and once supra-national resources start opening up valued resources to researchers. Where will ownership then lie? Will anyone care? How will standards be maintained? What competing systems will there be? Who will visit a research library again, except when they fancy a nice day out? Interesting times lie ahead.