Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Format, Philosophy Of

I've been working with Clair Meade on how we've mapped formats in Horizon to Summon and have learnt things that make me ponder.

In advanced search Summon lists a bunch of formats you can limit by that our collections do not use. If a user selects one of these they would get zero hits, not because we had nothing that matched their requirement, just that we hadn't applied the same format name.

The format names are open to interpretation, overlap and ambiguity – for example ‘Government Document’ and ‘Report’ and ‘Web Resource’ could all be applied to the same document, but we can only map one to an item.

I’ve realised that many of the formats we haven’t used are listed because they are used in the ‘Beyond your library’s collection’, but as that’s not the default search target I smell misled clients. I've suggested via the Summon Clients list that the ‘Beyond’ box be above the format dropdown and the dropdown be populated with available formats live depending on whether ‘Beyond’ is checked.

What is a Format?

On the Summon Clients list here was some discussion about whether an ebook is a separate format or just a book that’s available fulltext online, and that's the approach Summon takes to journal articles (no distinction made between e and print). Obviously anything can be digitised so every traditional format will have ‘online’ equivalents.

See image in situ at
I think the basic problem is one of philosophical approach. We (‘we’ being librarians overseeing the profession in the evolution from physical to virtual information containers) have accidentally blended two approaches:

  1. The format of the information content (a picture, dictionary, moving image with sound)

  2. The format of delivery (for a picture that could be poster, painting, 800x600px gif; for a dictionary that could a book, a web site (OEDOnline), or an ebook (from say Credo Reference); and for moving image with sound that could be Super8 film, videocassette, DVD, streamed media, or a download of an MP4 file)

I guess I’m wondering how many of our users will be happy to know that limiting to ‘journal article’ will exclude web resources, government documents, and reports that have the same ‘content size and structure’ as a journal article.

I worry that we use one field to describe two very different facets of a piece of information.

Has anyone else pondered this and decided on an approach?