Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Zoos: A Historical Perspective

Zoos: A Historical Perspective is "A collection of pamphlets and guide books published by zoos over the past century that has been collected by the National Zoological Park branch of the Smithsonian Institution Libraries." The collection includes objects from zoos and gardens across the world. The introduction to the collection makes grand statements about the purpose and uniqueness of this collection. Unfortunately, an almost complete lack of metadata, searching capabilities or basic organization makes navigating and using this collection a tedious chore.

The introduction clearly states the sort of fields this collection could contribute to, including animal studies, human-animal relationships and graphic design. It does not list any explicit curation or collection policy, mentioning only that the project came about after a massive re-organization of the National Zoological Park's archival collection. It is anyone's guess exactly why they chose to put these objects up. I could not find a date of last update anywhere on the site, but judging from the decidedly web 1.0 feel of the collection it does not look like it has been updated recently.

There is no search function. none. Not even a helpful browsing arrangement. Objects are arranged alphabetically, by the country the pamphlets came from, on one loooong page with click through links to the objects themselves. There is also a woeful lack of metadata. Besides the "author" (more often than not the zoological institution) and name listed above the object, there is a short, sometimes illuminating but mostly redundant description and the indicator From the Collections of the National Zoological Park Library, Smithsonian Institution Libraries  underneath. There is no metadata associated with the objects themselves.

Speaking of the objects, each one is of a fairly large size but there is no ability to zoom in. Most objects from other countries have foreign text underneath them with not translation or explanation. Also, every object has a black frame with a "Smithsonian Institute Libraries" logo underneath. Kudos for avoiding something as ludicrous as a watermark but this additional branding seems unnecessary, especially as there seems to be absolutely no way to stumble upon these objects without coming from the Smithsonian-hosted main site. Interoperability is technically possible, as they have not blocked linking or right clicking, but the collection is of no help in providing a link or even associated data about copyright or legal matters.

All in all there are some interesting objects here. The introduction seems to want the audience to be serious cultural and zoological researchers but the poor design, non-existent metadata and search capabilities and mediocre picture resolutions make it good for not much other than to point out how not to build a digital collection.

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