Spanish Libraries in Mexico: Shift from Religious and Private to Secular and Public

History of Libraries in Mexico Part 1

The first Spanish libraries in Mexico were located in monasteries. Their collections served an almost exclusively religious mission, as the majority of the books held “dealt with ecclesiastical or philosophical subjects; heretical or liberal works were excluded” (Peñalosa 116). To refer to these colonial libraries as non-circulating would be an understatement, as taking works from the library was an offense punishable by excommunication. These monastic libraries served a very elite clientele, not just in its active exclusion of Indians and Mestizos[1], but even among Spaniards and Creoles[2]. The only individuals deemed fit to use the collections were preachers, along with some “doctors of law, who sought out quotations to use in their lengthy harangues,” and by historians documenting the Spaniards’ evangelical mission (Peñalosa 116).

Over the course of the next two centuries, libraries in colonial Mexico would begin to shift from private, religious institutions to open, public resources funded by local and national government. Despite serving as some of the earliest examples of public libraries, their limitations, along with a marked gap between theory and practice, would turn out to be a continuing theme of Mexican libraries for three centuries.

After flourishing during the earlier colonial period, the missionary libraries began to disappear in the eighteenth century. Peñalosa recounts this period of decline, very much a result of diminished motivation and financial problems in the religious orders, and the resulting loss of much of Mexico’s library holdings:

The initial impetus of conquest and colonization was spent. Gold and other precious commodities were no longer easy to come by, and the mother-country depleted its gold supply in fruitless wars with dire economic consequences. Intellectual inquiry was stifled by state and church. The great missionary zeal of the early friars was virtually gone, and the religious orders suffered from the general economic and intellectual depression. Monastic libraries were often left utterly unattended, and many books and manuscripts were stolen or sent to Spain. Some books were even sold as scrap paper to makers of firecrackers. Valiant efforts on the part of some librarians to save the literary and historic treasures in the monastic libraries were largely without effect. (118)

In their place, increasingly secular libraries intended for use by the public began to be founded, although their status as “public libraries” by contemporary standards is debatable.  Although Peñalosa refers to the library of the Convent of San Agustín as “semipublic,” and the monastic Bibliteca Palafoxiana founded back in 1646 would later become a public institution, the first library agreed upon among scholars as “public” (Zamora 1997, Lau 2010a, Jones) was founded in 1788, after the monastic libraries were in decline. This library, the Biblioteca Turriana was founded with the donation of the Torres family, a vast collection explicitly designated by priest Cayetano Torres to be made available for use by the public (Pagaza García 56). The location was the Cathedral of Mexico in Mexico City, and the Torres collection was supplemented by an endowment of 20,000 pesos by the municipal government to purchase materials. The Biblioteca Turriana was a free library, but its access policies were still very discriminatory. Romero argues that Mexican libraries “served an oligarchic white social class” and the book in general was a gateway to European culture and “another privilege of the white population during the colonial period” (257). Native and mestizo populations were allowed no access to the collections of the Biblioteca Turriana or any other library (Lau 2010a 3625). It is also important to note that all education in Mexico at this time was still being provided exclusively by the Catholic Church, with the intention of spreading Spanish culture and Christian religion (Jones 270). All in all, colonial libraries were a key institution for the Spaniards in their subjugation of the indigenous cultures of Mexico, even towards the end of the period when the library was beginning to become more of a public institution.

Keep reading Part 3: Libraries at the Time of Mexico’s War of Independence

[1] Individuals of mixed descent, with one European and one indigenous parent

[2] Individuals of entirely European descent who were born in the New World

The History of Libraries in Mexico: For All or For Some?

Throughout Latin America, libraries have faced significant challenges in their development, including high rates of illiteracy, uneven population distribution and political and social instability (Zamora 1991 45). Mexico is a country which exemplifies these major problems, although it is also the site of several significant events in library history in the region, dating back to the colonial period. The journey of the Mexican library has been a long, gradual shift from a selective, restricted institution serving only an elite group to one that served the general public. From the early years as a colony of Spain, to an independent nation, and finally to the revolution in the early 20th century and the subsequent democratization movements, some important questions guide our understanding of the Mexican libraries. What was their official status? What types materials did they collect? Who was allowed to use them? Who actually used them? What factors impeded their development?

Libraries have been a crucial part of Mexico’s larger, long-term struggle to establish democracy and provide education for the masses, and many of the same themes of subjugation and restricted access hold true across diverse periods of time, even up to the present day, where internet access has overwhelmingly become the key. Although libraries in Mexico have encountered many challenges, with promising initiatives failing to materialize on a number of occasions after independence, they have nevertheless made major strides, especially in recent decades. As this paper is primarily concerned with libraries as they affect the general population in Mexico, the focus will be on public libraries and the National Library.

First, although some European accounts report that the first proper libraries in the region were established by the Spaniards, indigenous Mesoamerican civilizations had long been collecting and storing their recorded histories long before their arrival. The Aztecs, an umbrella term encompassing several ethnic groups who ruled over a large area including Tenochtitlan, present-day Mexico City, had institutions known as amoxcalli which served the basic functions of a library. The amoxcalli housed the various codices and manuscripts of the civilization, which were heavily archival in nature (Lau 2010a 3624). These works, which contained pictographs and hieroglyphics, served to document the culture of the Aztecs, and typically covered history, social customs, economics, religion and even scientific accomplishments. The Maya, a Mesoamerican civilization which occupied Southern parts of present-day Mexico, known for its fully-developed writing system (Coulmas and Ehlich 7), also had similar institutions located in its urban centers. Unfortunately, these early libraries met their definitive end with the arrival of the Europeans. Since these library institutions represented the core of the Mesoamerican cultures, they were a major target for the Spanish missionaries who were under orders to eradicate the lifestyle and convert the populations to Catholicism. The Aztec amoxcalli were systematically destroyed in the conquest lead by Hernán Cortés in 1519, while in the case of the Maya, the process was more gradual, due to its loose association of independent city-states. In both cases, however, few books escaped burning and total destruction, and the rare few codices that did are now housed in European museums, mostly in fragments (Lau 2010a 3625).

In the colonial period that followed, libraries would come to represent Spanish domination over the native Indian and mestizo cultures. After the conquest and destruction of the Mesoamerican archives, Mexico became the site of several notable library and cultural accomplishments from a European perspective. The first “official” library in the new world was the Library of the Cathedral of Mexico, established in 1534. In addition, the first printing press was established in Mexico by Juan Pablos in 1544 and the first book printed in the new world soon followed. The first title printed in Mexico was “(the) Brief and more compendious Christian doctrine. . .” (Breve y más compendiosa doctrina Cristiana…) by Fray Juan de Zumárraga, the first bishop and archbishop of Mexico (Peñalosa 115). The book’s religious subject well sums up the main theme of these earliest colonial libraries.

Keep Reading Part 2: Spanish Libraries in Mexico: Shift from Religious and Private to Secular and Public

The Importance of Rare Book Libraries: Unique Functions and Special Budget Requirements

This post is an essay on the special functions and unique role of rare books and special collections in the context of a large academic library. Let’s imagine that the Dean of Libraries at the University has reviewed the budget and seen the rare books department is the most expensive. The Dean is looking for places where expenditures can be trimmed, and the following memo explains how the rare books department is unique in its functions and required funding.

TO: Dean of Libraries

FROM: Joseph

RE: Rare Books and Special Collections Budget

DATE: May 18, 2012

Since the Rare Books and Special Collections department plays a unique and vital role in the University Library system, it would frankly be very difficult to cut our budget at this time without compromising our fundamental mission to collect and preserve culturally significant items and make them available for use. Such a trimming in expenditure would not only adversely affect our faculty, students and the local community, but also the greater worldwide research community and scholarship in general.


While we share larger goals with the University Library as a whole, such as providing access to information and supporting scholarship, many factors make our functions distinct from other library departments. For one, many of our 245,000 rare books and manuscripts are unique, meaning ours is the only copy in the world. This means that many of these items are exceedingly valuable, but that is not the most important point. We also must consider the immense academic value of these special items in their original physical form. Primary source research is required in order to further the humanities, social sciences and sciences, and without proper care, these items will disappear, never again to benefit scholarship and future research. Thus, the special collections department budget includes many expenses for both preservation of the collection in general as well as the conservation of specific items. For the former goal, we need to have a secure, climate-controlled space for our collection, and our vault currently has a number high-tech measures to control access and protect against natural disasters. We need to protect against earthquakes, water, and fire damage and well as theft and damage resulting from frequent handling. Our security system requires significant maintenance costs and we also need to constantly evaluate new options and weigh costs and benefits, as the field of security is fast changing. Our Security Planning Group regularly meets to discuss these issues and expresses them in our security policy documentation. To give a specific example, we recently needed to invest in a new biometrics entry system for controlled access to the vault after several manuscripts disappeared from our collection over the course of several months. Even though such costs may seem high up front, they lead to a much longer lifespan for our collection, in comparison to a situation where we are not adequately protected and risk losing our invaluable items in one disastrous event.


Similarly, we incur costs relating to the preservation of specific rare items in addition to the conservation of the collection as a whole. These expenses include replacement bindings and corrugated boxes for damaged and books, as well as shelf folders and binders for manuscripts and other documents. With these early printed books and manuscripts, which are now quite fragile and brittle after centuries, many seemingly minor things prove very important to researchers. This can include types of paper and ink used, the typeface, and even marginalia added by a significant reader. The needs of our unit relate primarily to the idea of the book as object, in contrast to the rest of the  library system where the value of books and other information resources is derived primarily from their content. Both are integral parts of our goals as a major university library, but our missions require vastly different functions and levels of expenditure.


In addition to this physical preservation, we assist in the funding of various digitization projects for our culturally significant items in an effort to preserve for the long-term and make them accessible online through our digital collections website. Not only does this require digitization equipment, but also significant staff time in determining the right procedures, workflows, formats and metadata standards in order to ensure that the items will remain interoperable and able to be found by researchers worldwide. Since our unique holdings are vital for scholarship and belong to our university as well as the worldwide academic community, it is our duty to do all we can to ensure they will continue to be available for study.


Our department, however, is not merely a dusty archive filled with valuable books and manuscripts. To truly make our books and special collections worthwhile, we must provide access to them, and this is another area where our unit differs from the rest of the University Library system, in both functions as well as necessary funding. There are two main ways we provide access to our unique items. First, as mentioned in the previous section, our digitization initiatives make our resources available to researchers worldwide, many of whom do not have the means to physically travel to our library. Secondly, we host exhibits, engage in outreach to academic departments, and create online guides and tutorials to make our rare materials more visible to our community. These functions are the product of a relatively recent shift from a collection-centered approach, where simply owning an impressive collection was sufficient, to a user-centered approach, where what we do is intimately tied to the needs of students, faculty, staff, community members and scholars worldwide. In contrast to the rest of the library, our stacks are closed, which means that one cannot simply go into the vault and browse around. Because of this, active promotion of our collections is necessary to ensure that they do not sit unknown on our shelves behind lock and key. We incur costs hosting events for the university community, inviting guest lecturers to campus to speak about particular important items, curating exhibits and displaying them in a way that is educational, interesting, but also safe and secure.

In terms of staff and dedicated functions, there are a number of factors that differentiate our department from the rest of the library system. First, it is a fact that just about all of the library is behind on cataloging and would benefit from additional help in that regard. But rare books cataloging requires a set of more specialized skills, including a close knowledge of descriptive and analytical bibliography as well as multiple foreign languages. Thus, in recruiting part-time and project help, as well as full-time positions, these stricter requirements make it necessary to invest more resources to attract qualified candidates and train them after hiring. We have several parts of our collection sitting in the vault uncatalogued, as do many other library units. But only in our case are some of the items unique, and we feel it is a priority to get them catalogued as soon as possible so that researchers become aware of what even exists in a particular time period.

Our unit also acquires items in a matter wholly distinct from the rest of the library system. Over the years, we have developed particular subject areas where our collection is strongest, and many times an item on the open market fits in perfectly with the rest of our holdings, and thus the best place for it is the university, not a private collection where it will usually be unavailable for use by scholars or the general public. Many times these acquisitions are costly, but they are necessary in enriching our collection and promoting the greater societal good. We also acquire many items through private donations, which requires much labor in both transportation and processing, as well as the contracting of lawyers to draft up policies for storage and ownership concerns.


Libraries are in state of flux today, with many main collections shifting to electronic, subscription-based models. In an era where many library materials are leased, not owned in a physical sense, special collections such as rare books, manuscripts, photographs, maps and artwork, are what sets libraries apart. We collect, preserve, promote and make available fascinating and valuable items where the physical characteristics are just as crucial as the words on the page.

What’s Wrong with Theft and Security in Special Collections? A Study of the RBMS Guidelines

Security in special collections[1] can refer to the prevention of two separate things: the theft of rare materials and incidental damage at the hands of patrons or staff. For the purposes of this paper I will focus on the former, although accidental harm and gradual wear can at times be an even larger concern for a special collections library.

Due to a number of high-profile cases in recent years, these types of cultural thefts have been brought to the attention of the mainstream media, increasing public awareness of the value of the rare items held by special collections libraries. At the same time, the internet age has greatly changed the antiquarian book trade (Rostenberg and Stern), and the newfound ease of reaching a global marketplace can serve as a temptation for potential rare book thieves.

The response from the library community has been quite positive, as the Rare Books and Manuscripts Section of ACRL has published an updated document titled Guidelines Regarding Security and Theft in Special Collections and put together a number of security resources and theft reports on its website.

Current special collections security philosophy, however, as represented in these security guidelines, does not fully address numerous issues including the realities of staffing and budget in special collections libraries, the impact of the digital age, access, and institutional culture. In this paper I will consider the cases of several recent special collections thefts in order to explore the limits of these guidelines and the continuing challenges in the area of special collections security against theft.

First, many of the RBMS security guidelines, although well-intentioned, are impractical, in both terms of available resources and their utility in the event of a real theft. The guidelines advocate the designation of a Library Security Officer (LSO) to oversee the writing of an official security policy to prevent theft as well as an action plan in the event of a theft. Many of the details, though, including increased security staff to monitor patrons, installation of security cameras, full descriptive cataloging and marking of items, are often unrealistic in many special collections due to large collections or staff and budgetary shortages.

Kovarsky points out that these types of procedures “can be a substantial chore in terms of staff time and effort, especially within a very large collection with a substantial cataloging/marking backlog.” Other suggestions, such as the installation of security cameras and other means of physical security, “can be problematic for many less affluent institutions, unable to afford the personnel, technology or physical plant required for the task.”

Other security guidelines relate to things such as the internalization of various local laws, following detailed procedures after a theft, and even having staff “request that the police officer place the suspect under arrest” if they determine there to be probable cause. Not only is a great deal of staff time required in order to get to this level of procedural and legal knowledge, which is unlikely to be prioritized by a supervisor, but during an actual emergency, it is practically impossible to recall and follow such a formal policy.

In a 2004 case at Transylvania University, for example, in which students stole a number of rare books from the special collections library, physical force was used as the special collections librarian was zapped with a stun gun. The situation led to a foot chase, “with (head librarian) Ms. (Susan) Brown and other librarians in hot pursuit” of the thieves, before they eventually escaped in a van. Later, the police were called but were unable to document the crime scene as the items taken from special collections but left in the building had already been “collected and returned to their proper places” by librarians (United States v. Allen et al).

This ugly situation raises a number of questions that cannot neatly be answered: what are librarians to do in the event of a theft-in-progress? Should they pursue an escaping suspect, even if he or she may be armed or dangerous? The guidelines only say to “follow institutional policies and applicable state laws concerning the incident,” but in the Transylvania case, the librarians were clearly shaken and acting in the heat of the moment, as is only natural in such a situation. Similarly, their decision to return the materials to their proper places was likely a result of the stress of the events, even if the “correct” response was to leave the crime scene intact for law enforcement.

This example is not meant to suggest that such thefts are typical, or that special collections librarians should fear being physically assaulted, as the use of force is extremely rare in cultural heritage thefts, but it does help demonstrate the wide-ranging techniques of thieves, which can be impossible to capture in a written security policy. In addition to the Transylvania students who used a stun pen, Daniel Spiegelman climbed up an old dumbwaiter in the stacks and unscrewed a wall in order to get into the special collections at Columbia University, where he stole rare books, maps and letters (McDade). David Breithaupt convinced Kenyon College security guards and cleaning staff to let him into the special collections where he would steal upwards of 250 rare books, manuscripts and letters (McDade 24). The suggestions for securing the facility in the guidelines—minimizing access points, designating an easily observed reading room, controlling key checkout—can always be circumvented by a dedicated enough thief. And as demonstrated in the Kenyon case, the security policy often needs to be understood by staff in other campus departments to be effective, which is not usually a realistic scenario.

So of what use, then, is an LSO and a formal security policy if it is not useful in a the event of a real theft?

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How Four Databases Index Articles (Part 2)

This is the second part of an article about database indexing practices. View part one

Finally, the ERIC database serves a very different user group, so it features a fundamentally different indexing scheme. ERIC is the largest database of educational literature, so it focuses on issues in education research and policy instead of library and information science. It indexes many of the same journals as LISA, LISTA and Library Lit, but it often does so selectively, so as only to include articles that are specifically relevant to education. As such, the descriptors used are much different than both the library science databases and my own keyword terms. In addition to subject differences, the ERIC indexing staff has provided a much more thorough and detailed system of subject headings. Compared to LISA (3), LISTA (4) and Library Lit (2), ERIC features 18 descriptors. Interestingly, some of these keyword phrases are specific to education (class activities, teacher attitudes), but others are the same as the descriptors in the library science databases (information seeking, library instruction). This is most likely due to the overlap in education and library services and the importance that each plays in the other’s field of study.

As well as having more descriptors which lead to more subject entry points into the article, the language used in ERIC appears to correspond very well to likely user queries and some test searches helped confirmed that the system was effective for leading user s to relevant material through subject headings. A subject search for “information seeking” returned 2780 results, which is appropriate due to the broad nature of the phrase. Combining it with the subject phrase “undergraduate students” narrows the results to a very manageable 74.

All of this said, the effectiveness of any of these retrieval systems assumes a certain level of competence by the user. He or she must know the basics of how indexing works, how to search by subject headings, and what, if any, faceted search mechanisms are offered by the particular retrieval system. Any search system which features human chosen subject keywords is going to be different from all others; this is a result of both subtleties inherent in language as well as the various ways of interpreting an author’s intentions. The important part is that the retrieval systems strive to offer additional mechanisms to guide their users to the material that is most useful to them.

Works Cited

Leckie, G. J. “Desperately Seeking Citations: Uncovering Faculty Assumptions about the Undergraduate Research Process.” Journal of Academic Librarianship 22.3 (1996): 201-8. 16 Nov. 2010

An Investigation into the Indexing Practices of Four Databases: Part One

After reading a paper by Gloria Leckie titled “Desperately Seeking Citations,” I assigned it three keyword terms I thought were representative of the subject matter. These terms were “information seeking behavior-undergraduates,” “scholarly research” and “academic libraries-role.” [1] After comparing these to four databases, LISTA, LISA, Library Lit and ERIC, results showed five very different systems of subject headings.

My own terms were most similar to those of LISA, but the simple fact that the article’s message is inexact and can be interpreted in multiple ways means that no two systems will ever be exactly the same as long as the terms are applied by human indexers. In addition, some of the differences can partially be explained by the subject coverage of the databases, while others are simply due to individual indexing behavior and preferences by the organizations. Overall, they correspond to varying levels of effectiveness for their user groups, and Library Lit and ERIC were observed to be the most useful.

First, the LISTA and LISA databases featured rather similar descriptor systems, and initially seemed to be more effective than Library Lit; however, upon further investigation, Library Lit’s mechanisms for user discovery by subject appear to be superior. LISTA’s keyword terms were “information retrieval, report writing and library orientation for college students,” while LISA featured the descriptors “libraries, undergraduates, information seeking behaviour, and Faculty.” The subject coverage of the three databases is quite similar, but LISTA’s focus on technology may be reflected in their choice of “information retrieval.” Library Lit, on the other hand, used the keyword terms “bibliographic instruction/college and university students” and “college and university libraries/relations with faculty and curriculum.”

I initially thought that these terms made Library Lit less effective because they were not likely to correspond to search terms users would actually use. For example, I found it much less likely for a user to come up with terms like “bibliographic instruction” or “libraries/relations with faculty” on their own in a subject search than “undergraduates” or “information retrieval” which I thought were quite plausible. After performing some test searches, however, I changed my opinion. Regarding the LISA descriptors, the article only comes up if “behaviour” is spelled in the British manner including the “u,” a search query which returns 1176 peer-reviewed articles. However, a search for “information seeking behavior” returns two article citations containing that descriptor. This suggests that LISA has problems with indexing inconsistencies.

Also, after a closer examination, LISTA’s keyword phrases do not appear to be very effective. Users are not likely to use the term “library orientation” to describe the research process described in the article, and it did not appear to me that “information retrieval” was as significant a part of its subject matter as “faculty” or “information seeking,” two terms which it did not include in their indexing. Also, the subject phrases included are very broad, leading the user to over 20,000 articles and there does not appear to be an effective way to narrow your results if you begin with a subject search. Because of this, the effectiveness of subject headings for resource discovery is low.

On the other hand, Library Lit’s descriptors, which initially appeared to correspond poorly with actual user queries, actually function quite effectively in the context of the content discovery keys they provide. For example, a search for “undergraduate students” a likely user query which does not appear as a descriptor in the Leckie article citation, brings up several relevant subject phrases in the left sidebar of the page. One of these is “Bibliographic instruction/College and university students” from earlier, which takes the user to a less intimidating 1301 peer-reviewed articles including the Leckie piece. Their system also allows for easy further narrowing.

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[1] For my keyword terms with dashes, I envisioned them as part of a hierarchy. In my hypothetical search system, the Leckie article would show up under a more general query for “information seeking behavior,” and users would see an option to further narrow the search.

Differences Between Library Catalogs and

Introduction: Users may begin their search for information on a topic with a known item, but be interested in expanding their search to locate related material.  In a physical collection, they can do this by locating an item on the shelf and then browsing the titles in proximity to that item to look for other material of potential interest.  In catalogs, retrieval systems, and search engines, other approaches are needed to help the user locate related material once the record describing the initially sought item has been found.  In this assignment you will explore how efficient and effective various search tools are in leading you to material related to the item that is the starting point for your search.  In this case you will be looking for two books: a (non-fiction) book by Lawrence Lessig entitled Remix: Making Art and Commerce Thrive in the Hybrid Economy and a (fiction) book by Richard Powers, Generosity: An Enhancement.

Search and Discovery: Different Methods for Finding Related Items

Three search tools, the UIUC Classic Catalog, and the VuFind Catalog, have disparate visual interfaces and very different mechanisms for locating related material, all with varying degrees of precision and recall. Using a non-fiction work by Lawrence Lessig and a fiction title by Richard Powers as starting points, no absolute conclusions can be made about their effectiveness, although the library catalogs tended to show better precision while had better recall, albeit with some cluttered results.

The Classic Catalog interface is the simplest of the three. It displays descriptive metadata including author, title, publishing information and location, and is almost exclusively plain text on a white background, with the exception of a small cover image.

The interface, on the other hand, immediately makes it clear that it is an exploratory search system with plenty of user interaction. Since it is commercial, price information is displayed most prominently, but there is also much more than just basic book details, including user-created lists and reviews.

Lastly, the VuFind Catalog interface attempts to combine the authority of a library catalog with the attractiveness and interactivity of It includes most of the same metadata at Classic but also Web 2.0 features such as favorites, tagging and comments. None of these features appear to be frequently used, however.

The mechanisms for locating similar items in the three systems were fundamentally different. The Classic Catalog allowed the user to search by LCSH, browse the call number range and retrieve other works by the same author. The VuFind Catalog was similar but did not provide call number searching. It also featured a more precise LCSH search mechanism than Classic in which the user could browse by either a broad or specific heading to control the number of items retrieved. The interface also supports finding related items by user-supplied tags, but as previously stated, this functionality is very rarely used. offered a completely different set of search mechanisms, many of which were based on community-negotiated information instead of expert-supplied controlled vocabulary. There is a system to search for similar books by user-tagged keywords; this even included a method to control relevance by allowing users to vote for or against a particular tag. There were also two mechanisms that suggested related items by displaying the titles most frequently purchased with the original. Another very exciting feature called “Inside this Book” most closely resembles full-text information retrieval. It allows the user to browse for similar titles based on whether they have certain keywords in the author’s name, title or in the body text of a growing collection of books (currently over 120,000 titles). Finally, there is a “Search by Category” function.

For non-fiction, such as the Lessig book, the controlled vocabulary in the search mechanisms of the Classic and VuFind catalogs result in a higher precision than Library of Congress Subject Headings are painstakingly applied by professionals and the Dewey Classification system is well organized by classes and detailed subcategories, so only very relevant titles are returned. Actual user information seeking needs, however, do not always correspond to these subject headings or call number ranges. A related item that might be perfect for a user will not show up unless it has been catalogued with these precise headings or numbers. Therefore, while precision may be high, recall is not necessarily so.

Fiction, however, is nearly impossible to classify with any level of detail using the same controlled vocabulary, which results in poorer precision and recall. For the Powers book, for example, the corresponding LCSH keyword “Genetics – Research – Fiction” returns a low number of only 6 results. There is no guarantee of their precision, however, since with fiction it is often elements such as narrative style, form and tone of voice that make an item similar and relevant for users, not extremely broad subject matter. The other LCSH given was “College Teachers – Fiction” which returns 98 results that do not appear to be similar or of much cohesive relevance. In contrast, Amazon’s user tagging mechanism with its system of tag peer-evaluation could potentially improve precision for fiction titles, but it still has not caught on enough to be effective. The Powers book, for example, has yet to be tagged.

On the other hand,’s related item mechanisms generally brought lower precision and higher recall. The “Frequently Bought Together” and “Items Customers Also Bought” are based solely on purchasing patterns and not anything to do with the content of the book. While this type of algorithm is improving, at this stage they can be manipulated by too many factors to be considered reliable and as a result their precision is low. Since they lack professionally applied controlled vocabulary such as LCSH, the precision of Amazon’s mechanisms in non-fiction searches is lower than the library catalog. “Inside the Book” could also do wonders for precision and recall for more specific searches, but it will need to continue to increase the size of its index. Most of’s mechanisms return many more items than narrow LCSH searches, suggesting higher recall, but the user would likely be discouraged by the amount of non-relevant sources he or she would have to sift through in the recommended books and extremely broad category searches. In addition, he or she would have to look all over the page to find the different mechanisms and the category search, for example, is buried near the bottom and barely noticeable.

In conclusion, the library catalogs showed fairly good precision, but suffered with finding related items for fiction.’s mechanisms had better recall but tended to clutter the screen. Some of its mechanisms have the potential to significantly improve both precision and recall for both fiction and non-fiction, but they will need the support of a large community in order to do so.

An Analysis of Two Very Different Online Collections: Use, Users and More

The two collections discussed here are the Japanese Woodblock Print collection at the University of California-San Francisco, representing a digitized version of physical holdings, and Arts Journal, a gateway to third-party public domain sources on the internet. While the collections share a few surface similarities, their intended user groups and organizational schemes have little in common. Users navigate them in very different ways, but both collections serve their intended users effectively.

The Woodblock Prints and Arts Journal both deal with themes of art and culture and they feature carefully selected collections that can be either narrowed by category or directly searched by keywords. Beyond that, major differences include scope, layout, organization and methods of accessing the collections.

The Woodblock Print collection, digitized versions of 400 seventeenth- to twentieth-century Japanese woodblock prints depicting health and its relationship with disease, religion and the West, is meant to serve a very specific user base. Intended users include researchers studying Japanese medicine, the history of Asian health practices or old Japanese art. The digitized images pertain to a narrow topic, so the collection would not likely attract many users from outside those areas. However, this unique collection is of interest to scholars worldwide, and its online presence means that researchers who are not able to travel to California are still able to benefit from it.

Arts Journal, on the other hand, appeals to a completely different type of user. The collection consists of links to articles taken from nearly 200 online newspapers that have been hand-selected by the editorial team. These articles cover a wide variety of topics in fine arts and culture in nine major categories, and new stories are posted every weekday, so the collection is constantly growing. The intended user group includes students, scholars, artists and art enthusiasts browsing for interesting and current news and commentary, most likely not trying to locate a particular article.

A scholar visiting the web site of the Woodblock Print collection would have no trouble understanding the scope of the collection and its organizational scheme, as it is all clearly laid out and well explained. Each of the 400 prints has its own page and all are accompanied by very detailed descriptive metadata. There are multiple ways to access the prints: narrowing by theme, performing a search by keywords or for an artist, or scrolling through a list of all the prints. The collection’s homepage is simple and clearly laid out with a horizontal navigation bar and a right sidebar that show the different ways the collection is arranged and the methods to search it. After browsing, the user will discover that there is some thematic overlap, but this is not problematic since they are all interrelated.

This organizational system serves the needs of the users very well. It is flexible, allowing them to retrieve and view prints using both known item searching (entering a specific artist or title) and exploratory searching (browsing a theme or entering keywords.) Right next to the search box is a link to a page with tips for Boolean and exact phrase searching and truncation. Finally, the homepage for each theme contains a helpful introductory essay describing the historical background and significance.

In contrast, the scope of the Arts Journal collection and its organization is significantly more complex. The outgoing links to the news-selected articles represent only one component, as the collection also includes about 25 in-house blogs written by staff writers and a section for a selected video of the day embedded from YouTube. Both the news articles and the blog posts can be narrowed by topic, but there is not much functionality to support known-item searches (it features only a Custom Google Search box that does not provide good precision due to the high volume of keywords on every page).

Arts Journal is also a commercial operation, so there is a separate classified section as well as banner advertisements. These resources, which include job listings and additional arts and culture websites, are often of value to users, but the fact that Arts Journal accepted money for their placement damages the credibility of their inclusion in the collection. Also, the third-party newspaper websites often have their own system of providing links to related articles. These two points reflect the idea that in this type of online gateway, the boundaries of the collection are often difficult to determine (Lee 2000).

All of Art Journal’s different elements are thrown together in a three-column layout that is almost exclusively text, so a user might initially be overwhelmed. The horizontal navigation displays the different topics of the articles, but it does not stand out. To view all the information on the homepage, the user must scroll down a long way, and certain sections including the list of blogs and the day’s headlines by topic are near the bottom.

Despite this home-page clutter, however, Arts Journal serves its users in several other important ways that make it much easier to manage. Users can sign up for an email newsletter covering all the top headlines that can be delivered either daily or in a weekly digest format. There are also various RSS subscription options. Users can sign up using the feed reader of their choice and subscribe to either all articles, articles on a particular topic or one or more of the blogs. The email subscription list boasts 30,000 subscribers, so it appears that the majority of the users are accessing the collection by means other than browsing the webpage.

Despite the major differences between the two collections, both the Woodblock Print collection and Arts Journal serve their user groups in effective ways.



Lee, Hur-Li. “What Is a Collection?” Journal of the American Society for Information Science 51.12 (2000): 1106-1113. Business Source Complete. EBSCO. Web. 27 Sept. 2010.

Marchionini, Gary. “Exploratory Search: From Finding to Understanding.” Communications of the ACM 49.4 (2006): 41-46. Business Source Complete. EBSCO. Web. 27 Sept. 2010.

Media Consolidation and Conglomeration: The LIS Consequences

Over recent decades, consolidation has been a consistent theme in mass media and other types of information providers, with the emergence of large information empires which continuously acquire new subsidiaries. This conglomeration is a challenge to LIS because the values of these companies are directly contrary to many of the core values of librarianship. First, Nichols and McChesney recount that when media companies stepped up their consolidation back in the 1970s, they began to behave no differently than any other corporation, focusing on investors and profit margins instead of balanced, quality reporting. Alternative and minority viewpoints as well as international coverage were soon considered too expensive to produce, and newspapers and broadcasts watered down their coverage.

Consolidated media companies also strove to be the first to break a sensational headline at the expense of journalistic principles, and consequently “blew the coverage of the Iraq invasion, spoon-feeding us lies masquerading as fact-checked verities” (Nichols and McChesney). Also, their corporate ownership lead the mass media to ignore major scandals and misrepresent important economic and financial issues. Schiller adds to this by placing these trends into a broader framework, one in which the entire domains of communication and information have come to be dominated by corporations; an overall “shift from state to private power,” which has potent consequences. Of particular interest to the LIS field is his point that information “that had been in large measure a social good has been transformed into a commodity for sale,” (46) a point which is exemplified by the profit-driven priorities of the mass media and the subsequent declining quality of journalism.

These trends along with the shifting priorities of conglomerated media is a stark contrast to the core values governing libraries, which are key in a democratic information society by providing the public with “all points of view on current and historical issues” for the “interest, information, and enlightenment” of the citizenry, as outlined in the Library Bill of Rights. Librarians go to great lengths to protect intellectual freedom and provide free and equal access to ideas across the political and social spectrum, and they actively assist patrons in the use of those resources so that they can make informed decisions.

When the media of a society share some of these ideals and provide objective coverage and a multiplicity of viewpoints, the public benefits and can form well-informed opinions much easier on their own. As we have seen, however, the current state of mega conglomeration in the United States is quite the opposite. Thus, libraries must take on a much larger information literacy role to combat these strong forces.

Libraries provide access to news in both print and online formats, but they must strive to be an active educator in lieu of a passive provider to ensure that their democratic mission is served in today’s environment. For examples, libraries can highlight alternative media such as independent news organizations, local broadcasting networks and international sources available online that will expose patrons to novel ideas and diverse viewpoints. This can be done in person directly with patrons, but to have a broader effect, libraries can create and market web-based and print handouts to serve as a guide to navigating the media landscape. As a point of comparison, academic libraries invest a lot of resources in educating students how to identify an online source as scholarly by investigating the author’s affiliation and potential biases. This model needs to be adopted by public libraries to ensure that the public is able to make the same types of judgments of corporate-backed news which comes at them on a daily basis, often masquerading as objective reporting.

Despite these possibilities, the battle is becoming increasingly difficult for libraries as the media conglomerates continue to grow in power. The Nation’s telling infographic demonstrates how six giant corporations own a staggering share of news media, ranging from TV shows to radio stations and even niche websites. Many of these subsidiaries would not instinctively seem to be part of a larger entity, and this invisibility of the conglomerates in these situations makes the public less likely to be able to identify their biases; therefore, libraries must protect their values by educating the public in the use of media in all domains.

It is also important to point out that conglomeration of media is not the only type with potent consequences to the field of LIS. In addition, private corporations such as EBSCO, ProQuest and Gale are consolidating and steadily acquiring smaller databases and other information collections. Whereas libraries used to have the power to hand select every resource in their collections, today they are increasingly relying on these third-party vendors to provide them with access to journal articles and ebooks. Similar to the case of media conglomeration, these vendors have the same profit-driven mindset, which causes them to only include resources thought to have the broadest possible appeal in their database packages (Dilevko 698-99). Naturally, these resources are the non-controversial ones and as a result, important alternative and minority points of view are often left out. And like the situation of the media corporations, these information vendor conglomerates do not hold themselves to any code of ethics or share the ALA’s commitment to represent all opinions. In some aspects, this is an even more threatening type of conglomeration for libraries, as it has a larger and more noticeable effect on the collections of resources that are made available to patrons. Abbott said of online article databases that “whoever controls them will control much about the structure of knowledge,” (436) and as libraries continue to rely on vendors more and more to provide them with serials and monographs, they are at the mercy of those companies’ priorities. The business model of a major database conglomerate will simply not have room to include a balance of viewpoints, because those uncommon opinions are not cost-efficient on a mass scale. Libraries need to work to balance out these forces by exerting their power of expert selection and principles of intellectual freedom.  They need to make it a priority to add alternative media to their collections whenever possible, for example by subscribing to databases such as the Alternative Press Index, and need to continue to find the most effective ways to educate their communities about the effects that major information conglomerates have on information.


Dilevko, Juris. “An Alternative Vision of Librarianship: James Danky and the Socio-cultural Politics of Collection Development.” Library Trends, 56 (2008): 678-704.

Library Bill of Rights. American Library Association. Web. 11 May 2011.

Nichols, John, and Robert W. McChesney. “The Death and Life of Great American Newspapers.” The Nation. 6 April 2009. 12 May 2011.

John Stuart Mill on Intellectual Freedom: His Thoughts Applied to Today’s Information Landscape

In his essay On Liberty, published in 1859, philosopher John Stuart Mill makes a strong case for the necessity of intellectual freedom in society, outlining four points that would have a profound effect on librarianship. He argued that any and all opinions that are not heard may in fact contain truth; that the “collision of adverse opinions” is necessary in order to clarify truth; and that truth must be contested in order to be accepted.

Mill’s points are seen as a direct influence on the Bill of Rights of the American Library Association, which charges libraries to provide materials representing all opinions and points of view, so that people are free to compare and contrast them in order to find truth. Although these undoubtedly remain the guiding principles of librarianship, a number of factors bring significant challenges in a contemporary context.

First, in today’s information landscape, several types of censorship threaten Mill’s vision. Libraries and their communities often object to and ban particular titles based on perceived “inappropriate” subject matter (Asheim, West Bend). More importantly, however, librarians themselves often find it difficult to hold true to their values of intellectual freedom when faced with extreme situations, such as holocaust denial literature (Wolkoff). It is a temptation to censor opinions which represent blatantly hurtful and harmful ideas, but Mill preaches that these obscure ideas must be heard, and even that they help readers find and clarify truth, a point strongly supported by the Library Bill of Rights.

In addition, there is a less overt form of censorship that results from the commodification of information and the increasing reliance of libraries on third-party information vendors to provide them with article databases and ebook packages. Dilevko explains how these companies operate on a profit-motive, and since the most broadly profitable opinions are common ones, they frequently exclude alternative viewpoints (698). When libraries do not have the final word on all of the individual resource in their collections, it becomes more difficult to ensure that the communities they serve have access to the wide-range of divergent opinions advocated by Mill.

Finally, Mill never could have envisioned the vast platform of the World Wide Web which today connects our global society. His points about the necessity of considering all opinions and juxtaposing them before making conclusions are based on a much smaller-scale model of the print book trade and personal debates that was all that was possible at the time. For a key political or social issue, for example, only a select group of upper-class individuals were able to publish their opinions and any debates would be limited to individuals in close geographical proximity. Today, however, any individual can publish their opinions at the push of a button using blogs and other social networking platforms, and can immediately reach a worldwide audience. Today there are over 156 million blogs in existence (Nielsen), so for an important issue with national or global importance, the sheer enormity of opinions makes it impossible to consider all of them before making conclusions. Thus, the issue instead becomes how to effectively synthesize and gauge consensus among the public.


Asheim, Lester. “Selection and Censorship: A Reappraisal” Wilson Library Bulletin 58.3 (1983): 180-84.

Banned in West Bend. Web. 12 May 2011.

“BlogPulse”. The Nielsen Company. 16 February, 2011.

Dilevko, Juris. “An Alternative Vision of Librarianship: James Danky and the Socio-cultural Politics of Collection Development.” Library Trends, 56 (2008): 678-704.

Mill, John Stuart. ” On the Liberty of Thought and Discussion .” On Liberty. Chapter 2. Web. 11 May 2011.

Wolkoff, Kathleen N. “The problem of holocaust denial literature in libraries.” Library Trends 45.1 (1996): 87-96.