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Teaching with Data Collections and Primary Sources: Digital Collections - Info

Resources for introducing students to primary source collections and online archives

Digital Collection: What is it?


A digital collection consists of digital objects that are selected and organized to facilitate their discovery, access, and use. Objects, metadata, and the user interface together create the user experience of a collection.

Adapted from A Framework of Guidance for Building Good Digital Collections: A NISO Recommended Practice. 3rd ed. National Information Standards Organization: Baltimore, December 2007.

provided by the Center for Digital Initiatives (The University of Vermont Libraries)

"A digital collection is any set of documents or multimedia pieces (e.g., images, audio files, videos, etc.) gathered and presented online for the purpose of exchanging resources and ideas."

from "Models of Digital Collection Use in a University"

Other Terms

Digital Library   Digital Collection Digital Archive

may include a number of collections

materials (documents, multimedia items,) selected, gathered, and presented online narrower? not always
a focus on preservation
terminology for digital collections

Digital Library at the Smithsonian
HathiTrust Digital Library

Changing Times: Los Angeles in
Photographs 1920-1990
The Country Doctor Museum
Zora Neale Hurston Digital Archive
South Asian American Digital Archive

Available Content

  • sound recordings e.g. radio broadcasts, interviews, music, nature sounds
  • images e.g. photographs, posters, fan art, postcards
  • documents e.g. newspapers, diaries, pamphlets, recipes

advertisement don't waste food

from Ad*Access, "Our Government Says Don't Waste Food"
from Ladies' Home Journal (Visking Corporation)

snowflake from Rebecca Crown Library, Dominican University

"Diverse Forms of Snow Crystals"
Wilson A. Benley Snowflakes from
Special Collections,
Rebecca Crown Library, Dominican University


Digital Collections tend to be focused around a specific subject such as an

  • event
  • person
  • organization
  • time period


One way to see how a collection is organized is to look for a Browse feature.  This often shows categories.

  • by taxonomy e.g. the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Macaulay Library, divides the collection into Birds, Mammals, Reptiles etc.
  • by format e.g. the Grateful Dead Archive Online includes Media and Fan Art (as well as Artists)
  • by type e.g. in the National Jukebox, one may browse sound recordings which are Vocal, Instrumental, Spoken, Instrumental with vocal refrain
  • by other useful metadata e.g. in AdViews (television commercials), objects are tagged with Company, Title, and Subject

Collections also offer Search functionality.  Metadata (data about data) assigned to a specific item will also offer information about how the collection is organized.

grateful dead archive organization

image from home page of the Grateful Dead Archive

Access & Use


  • Digital = Online
  • Many collections are FREE!  Other collections are subscription based and may be available through your academic institution.


Using / Saving

  • Often the digital objects are available for download. e.g. right click, Save Image As
  • Sometimes you can only use a screenshot or html code to link to or embed the image. e.g. See image at right.

Terms of Use

  • tend to be favorable for research and teaching uses
  • proper attribution is required
  • look for Copyright, Usage, Permissions, or Terms of Use information
  • sample Copyright Information (Duke)
  • post-1923 content is copyrighted (some exceptions); Digital Copyright Slider
  • Fair Use Analysis (Purdue University)
  • Fair Use, consider 4 Factors: purpose and character of the use (e.g. commercial vs. nonprofit education), nature of the copyrighted work, amount and substantiality used, effect of use on potential market

[Morella, Caroon and and the C... Digital ID: 1107545. New York Public Library

Morella, Caroon, and the Cherry
from NYPL Collection
Nature Illustrates: Flowers, Plants,
and Trees, 1550-1900

Finding Content


Since there is so much content freely available, searching the web is valuable.

1) Search using a phrase such as "digital collections" with a subject, person, or event.

Example: "civil war" "digital collection" in Google

"Digital Collections" is common but is not the only phrase used.  Consider using some of these additional terms.

"digital archive" | online | digital | "virtual museum" | "online exhibit" | "digital library"

2) In Google Advanced search, you can choose Any of these words.

Example: farming california "digital archive" OR "digital collection"

3) Consider limiting your search to .edu sites.  Many of these collections are provided by academic institutions.  Other domains that may useful include .gov and .org

Example: "digital collection" "john muir" in Google

Google Advanced Search

Academic Institutions

4) Check your local library's list of databases.

5) If you know an area or school is known for a specific area of study, its library may be providing digital collections on that topic.  Look for content at that institution's web site.

On Display > Special Collections

  • Henry O. Nightingale Civil War Diaries
  • Chinese Seals Online
  • The Clark Center for Japanese Art and Culture Collection

databases by format, word cloud

Ideas for Teaching

enhance a lecture, illustrate a concept, start a discussion, use as a writing prompt

Check for Understanding

Concepts re: Research (being a Scholar)

  • e.g. What are primary sources?
  • e.g. What is credible information?
  • e.g. How is information organized in digital collections in contrast to other types of materials e.g. books, journals?
  • e.g. What are ethical uses of information?

Require Sources from Digital Collections

  • e.g. Ask students to incorporate digital sources into assignments.

Conduct Research around Digital Objects

Use Digital Objects to create another Digital Project

Mission Building - Calisphere

Corner view of San Fernando Rey Mission building,California
by Harry Fenn
from UC Berkeley,

Bancroft Library
available in Calisphere