Supporting User Search for Discovering Collections of Interest

poster / demo / art installation
  1. 1. George Buchanan

    School of Informatics - City University London

  2. 2. Helen Dodd

    Future Interaction Technology Group - University of Swansea

Work text
This plain text was ingested for the purpose of full-text search, not to preserve original formatting or readability. For the most complete copy, refer to the original conference program.

Supporting User Search for
Discovering Collections of
Buchanan, George
School of Informatics, City University, London
Dodd, Helen
Future Interaction Technology Group, Swansea
University, Swansea
Humanities researchers often draw their
information from a diverse set of sources, which
are unlikely to be found in one digital library or
other collection. Whilst a considerable volume
of technical work has been undertaken to unify
a number of digital libraries into one whole -
“federated” or “distributed” digital libraries - the
real-world adoption of this technique is riddled
with conceptual problems and organisational
practicalities. In consequence, there is little
likelihood of there arising one “super-gateway”
to which an active researcher in the humanities
can turn for the whole of their information
seeking. Indeed, even in the sciences, this
idealised situation is relatively rare. As a result, a
humanities researcher will often need to identify
a number of different collections that serve their
regular information needs well [Buchanan
2005]. Each of these collections would be
likely to provide useful literature relevant to
their field of study. However, constructing this
list is problematic. At present a user can only
generate such a list of ‘good’ collections from
months and years of incidental discovery and
In the past, this need has been addressed
in a number of different ways. The Humbul
humanities hub - later part of Intute - was
started as a human-maintained list of online
resources for the humanities and arts. It
relied upon hand-crafted entries created by
researchers (often postgraduate students) that
described each collection and suggested its
potential uses. One positive advantage of this
method is that it develops a single list of many
collections, and is open-ended. However, there
are problems that emerge when a user tries to
find collections within the hub. This approach
necessarily requires the creator of an entry to
double-guess the likely tasks of another user
and a substantial cumulative effort over many
years. It is resource expensive in terms of
creation, difficult to maintain, and an entry is
very unlikely to be able to cover all likely uses
in exactly the terms that another researcher
may use. Whilst a positive benefit is that the
system provides a ‘human readable’ overview
of each site, if a user provides a search to
the system, it will only use the relatively small
amount of material entered by the researcher
who entered the site onto the system. Compared
to the information available within a single
library, a brief descriptive entry is prone to
have insufficient information, and may overlook
the searcher’s interest altogether, or provide
a disproportionate representation - greater or
lesser - of the volume of material relevant to
their work.
In contrast, highly technical approaches have
been undertaken to create a central, canonical
resource through “metasearch” techniques:
where a central service endeavours to offer a
synthetic unification of a number of DL systems
[Thomas and Hawking 2009]. In these methods,
the user provides a sample query that is then
automatically sent to every individual digital
library. The metasearch engine combines the
results from the separate libraries into one
whole, and returns the unified set of results to
the user.
One limitation to the metasearch approach
is that the list of libraries or search engines
supported is usually fixed. Metasearch on
the web often relies on “reverse-engineering”
the HTML output from each single search
facility that the metasearch system uses. This
requires extensive maintenance work, and lists
of available collections are thus often fixed.
Another concern with this approach is that
from a conceptual view, it is vulnerable to
poor understanding or even utter ignorance of
the operation of each constituent DL. Different
DLs may interpret the same search in radically
different ways. Another issue is that as these
services normally send a search to each of
their constituent DLs for each search given by
a user, and this means a substantial overload
of search activity for each constituent DL.
Practically, this is clearly ineffective and costly in

terms of computation and, ultimately, hardware
One method proposed to minimise such waste
is to provide a “database selection” algorithm
that pre-selects only the better DLs to search,
and these are then queried by the metasearch
system automatically [Thomas and Hawking
2009, French
et al.
1999]. The metasearch
system then combines the result sets from each
chosen DL and provides a single ranked list
of matching documents. However, the same
problems with general metasearch return: how
results are combined into one remains an issue,
and users are known to be poor at reconstructing
the best sources (i.e. the sites with the largest
volume of relevant material) from such lists.
In our research, we do not attempt to
circumvent the conceptual problems of unifying
search result lists from different libraries with
varying matching algorithms and heterogenous
vocabularies. Rather, we aim to embrace the
diversity of information sources, and suggest
to a user the libraries that are more likely
to contain good-quality information for a
given query. In this regard, our approach is
similar to meta-search. However, there are key
differences in our method: first, we provide
the user with a list of likely “best” DLs, rather
than individual documents; second, we do not
attempt any merging of result lists or other
conceptually fraught manipulation of retrieved
material; thirdly, use DL technologies such
as the OAI protocol for metadata harvesting
(OAI-PMH) to provide an open-ended list of
target collections [Van de Sompel
et al.
in contrast with the fixed list limitation that
is commonplace in metasearch; fourthly, we
are reconsidering the best matching algorithms
from a user-centred perspective, rather than
from currently commonplace information-
retrieval based metrics that may poorly match
a user’s requirements when their aim is to
discover rich, large-scale sources of information
on a particular topic.
Our current research has probed this fourth
and final issue. What we have uncovered is
that many of the current database selection
algorithms privilege two sorts of collections:
first, large collections; second, collections in
which a sought-for term is rare. There are
good reasons why this is appropriate, from a
technical information-retrieval point of view.
For example, a term that provides strong
discrimination within a given collection is likely
to produce a clear, consistent list of matching
documents. However, from the perspective
of a humanities researcher investigating a
new topic, and who is seeking libraries with
good coverage of the topic, these extant IR
measures seem a poor match against their
requirements. A digital library that contains a
high proportion of documents with the sought-
for topic is arguably very likely to be of long-
term value to them. However, this pattern is
exactly the opposite to that desired by the
existing database selection algorithms, where a
strongly distinctive term - i.e. one that matches
only a few documents - is ideal. Similarly,
absolute size is not necessarily a criterion.
Often, a small but specialised high-quality
collection is of critical value in orienting the
humanist in a new domain. Furthermore, our
own previous research suggests that humanities
researchers do not trust computer-based models
of relevance: they prefer computer systems
to err slightly on the side of deferring such
decisions to the user.
In assessing the current state-of-the-art, we
have developed an experimental apparatus
that permits the testing of several algorithms
in parallel. Conceptual, idealised scenarios
can be test-run, and then the same tests
applied to sets of collections gathered by the
researcher to retest the same scenario on real
data. This permits us to assess any algorithm
against nominal and real data, and against a
number of alternatives. This test environment
has already demonstrated that many current
database selection algorithms perform very
poorly against the ideal criteria for the task that
we seek to support, and that even the best are far
from optimal. The bias towards large collections
outlined above has been reiterated in practice,
and we have also uncovered the problem that the
numerical ratings produced by good algorithms
follow unhelpful patterns.
One frequent problem is that subtly different
scores for different collections against a
particular search can be produced from
profoundly different underlying coverage of
search terms in the collections. This underlying
problem is manifested in different ways.
Common oddities include relatively high scores
being given when only one term is matched

(albeit many times) and ‘normalisation’ of
scores meaning that very different matches
between collection and query result in
marginally different final scores. This second
problem means that common methods for
deciding on a list of ‘best’ matches do not work,
and it is difficult to decide the criteria to use to
interpret a score into a final recommendation.
A considerable body of further work is required.
Whilst we are confident, from the current
literature, that our current results are, for
idealised scenarios, closer to what is required,
the problem that we seek to answer is as
yet poorly understood. We need to investigate
further not only the technology, but also the
human context in which it will operate, and
through this develop a more sophisticated and
accurate model of what humanities researchers
would ideally require as the output of our
Buchanan, George, Cunningham, Sally
Jo, Blandford, Ann, Rimmer, Jon,
Warwick, Claire
(2005). 'Information
Seeking by Humanities Scholars'.
9th European
Conference on Research and Advanced
Technology for Digital Libraries (ECDL 2005).
Vienna (Austria), September 18-23, 2005, pp.
Thomas, Paul, Hawking, David
'Server selection methods in personal
metasearch: a comparative empirical study'.
Information Retrieval.
: 581-604.
French, James C., Powell, Alison L.,
Callan, Jamie, Viles, Charles L., Emmitt,
Travis, Prey, Kevin J., Mou, You Y.
(1999). 'Comparing the performance of database
selection algorithms'.
Proceedings of the 22nd
Annual international ACM SIGIR Conference
on Research and Development in information
Retrieval (SIGIR '99).
Berkeley, California,
United States, August 15-19, 1999. New York,
NY: ACM, pp. 238-245.
Van de Sompel, Herbert, Nelson,
Michael L., Lagoze, Carl, Warner,
(2004). 'Resource Harvesting within
the OAI-PMH Framework'.
D-Lib Magazine.

If this content appears in violation of your intellectual property rights, or you see errors or omissions, please reach out to Scott B. Weingart to discuss removing or amending the materials.

Conference Info


ADHO - 2010
"Cultural expression, old and new"

Hosted at King's College London

London, England, United Kingdom

July 7, 2010 - July 10, 2010

142 works by 295 authors indexed

XML available from (still needs to be added)

Conference website:

Series: ADHO (5)

Organizers: ADHO

  • Keywords: None
  • Language: English
  • Topics: None