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What Is A Collection?

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This briefing document provides a brief introduction to the concept of Collections.

What Is A Collection?

A collection is a group of resources that are related to each other in some identifiable way. The relationship might be through a topic, a place, a person, an organisation or a type of object.

A collection may be divided into smaller parts, or sub-collections, which may in turn be divided into smaller parts. For example, a library collection might be divided into fiction and non-fiction stock, with the non-fiction stock divided into lending and reference stock, while a museum might have collections of ceramics, textiles, coins and silverware, with the coins divided into categories or sub-collections by time period - Roman, Anglo-Saxon, medieval, etc.

How Many Items Make a Collection?

There is no minimum number of items for a collection - in theory it is possible to have a collection containing only one item! Collections can also be very large and, typically, large collections will divided into a number of sub-collections.

Physical or Digital?

The items in a collection can be physical (books, objects, paintings, etc.) or digital (e-books, digital images, databases). It is also possible for collections to be hybrids, and contain both physical and digital items. A collection may also contain digital items that are surrogates of physical items in that collection.

Whether physical, digital or a combination, the items do not have to be in the same location and can be distributed over multiple locations. Locations may also be a factor in creating sub-collections; a public library may have a number of branch libraries each with its own stock collection.

Permanent or Temporary?

A collection, whether physical, digital or combined, does not have to be a permanent resource. For example a collection of digital items may:

  • exist only for the duration of a search - the results display
  • be limited for a current subscription - an e-journals bundle

A collection of physical items may:

  • have existed in the past but the individual items have been distributed to other permanent collections - the findings from an archaeological excavation
  • be brought together from other collections on a temporary basis - an exhibition

Exclusive or Inclusive?

Items can belong to more than one collection or sub-collection at a time, although placed in a single physical location. A coin can be designated as part of a coin collection and part of the Roman collection. Likewise, a map could simultaneously be part of a library local studies collection, part of a maps collection and / or part of the reference collection. A donor bequest collection that either has no topic focus or has several could be split into several collections (theology, natural history, railways) but still retain its identity as a set of items collected and donated by someone.

Describing Collections using Metadata

The digitisation strand of the Research Support Libraries Programme (RSLP) identified a need to describe resources at a collection level. An entity-relationship model for collections, created by Michael Heaney, was used as the theoretical basis for a metadata schema for collection description

Further information on the model is available in the document "An Analytical Model Of Collections And Their Catalogues" by Michael Heaney. This can be accessed at the URL: <>

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