This blog has not focused on non-profit institutions (e.g. museums, historical societies) as enterprises but they are repositories of an extraordinary wealth of information. The past few weeks I’ve been trying, with mixed results, to get a feel for the accessibility of this content through the public Web sites of these organizations. My queries leave me with a keen sense of why search on company intranets also fail.
Most sizable non-profits want their collections of content and other information assets exposed to the public. But each department manages its own content collections with software that is unique to their specific professional methods and practices. In the corporate world the mix will include human resources (HR), enterprise resource management (ERP) systems, customer relationship management (CRM), R & D document management systems and collaboration tools. Many corporations have or “had” library systems that reflected a mix of internally published reports and scholarly collections that support R & D and special areas such as competitive intelligence. Corporations struggle constantly with federating all this content in a single search system.
Non-profit organizations have similar disparate systems constructed for their special domain, museums or research institutions. One area that is similar between the corporate and non-profit sector is libraries, operating with software whose interfaces hearken back to designs of the late 1980s or 90s. Another by-product of that era was the catalog record in a format devised by the Library of Congress for the electronic exchange of records between library systems. It was never intended to be the format for retrieval. It is similar to the metadata in content management systems but is an order of magnitude more complex and arcane to the typical person doing searching. Only librarians and scholars really understand the most effective ways to search most library systems; therein lies the “public access” problem. In a corporation a librarian often does the searching.
However, a visitor to a museum Web site would expect to quickly find a topic for which the museum has exhibit materials, printed literature and other media, all together. This calls for nomenclature that is “public friendly” and reflects the basic “aboutness” of all the materials in museum departments and collections. It is a problem when each library and curatorial department uses a different method of categorizing. Libraries typically use Library of Congress Subject Headings. What makes this problematic is that topics are so numerous. The number of possible subject headings is designed for the entire population of all Library of Congress holdings, not a special collection of a few tens of thousands of materials. Almost no library systems search for words “contained in” the subject headings if you try to browse just the Subject index. If I am searching Subjects for all power generation materials and a heading such as electric power generation is used, it will not be found because the look-up mechanism only looks for headings that “begin with” power generation.
Let’s cut to the chase; mountains of metadata in the form of library cataloging are locked inside library systems within non-profit institutions. It is not being searched at the search box when you go to a museum Web site because it is not accessible to most “enterprise” or “web site” search engines. Therefore, a separate search must be done in the library system using a more complex approach to be truly thorough.
We have a big problem if we are to somehow elevate library collections to the same level of importance as the rest of a museum’s collections and integrate the two. Bigger still is the challenge of getting everything indexed with a normalized vocabulary for the comfort of all audiences. This is something that takes thought and coordination among professionals of diverse competencies. It will not be solved easily but it must be done for institutions to thrive and satisfy all their constituents. Here we have yet another example of where enterprise search will fail to satisfy, not because the search engine is broken but because the underlying data is inappropriately packaged for indexes to work as expected. Yet again, we come to the realization that we need people to recognize and fix the problem.