Title:Scholarly Information-Seeking Behaviour in the British Museum Online Collection
Authors:Claire Ross, Melissa Terras
Publication:MW2011: Museums and the Web 2011

The vast amounts of digital museum resources available to support scholarship are changing the ways researchers work, offering convenient quick access to a wide selection of cultural heritage content. However, finding information in museums, as well as libraries and archives, is not an easy task.  Collections database information systems can be overwhelming and daunting to many users. Designing intuitive systems that meet researcher's needs requires a thorough understanding of the information seeking behaviour of collection database users. A proper understanding of how museum visitors use digital museum resources is critical for the success of museums in the information age. As museums cope with the challenges of 'being digital' (Hamma 2004), meeting the information requirements of online visitors has become an important part of the museum's role (Marty 2004) and it is now critical for researchers and museum professionals to explore the use of museum digital resources, both in-house and online (Booth 1998; Sarraf 1999).

The British Museum shows continuing commitment to providing as wide virtual and physical access to their collections as possible, utilising different mediums to open up the museum collections to a wider, more diverse audience. This commitment is expressed in the British Museum's online collection database. In October 2007, the British Museum launched Collection Online (COL[1]), an online version of the collection database. By the end of 2009, nearly 2 million records from the museum collections had been made available to the public worldwide. Despite the online availability of the British Museum Collection, very little is known about the COL's users and whether and how they utilise the material provided, or if the online collection makes possible new kinds of engagement with museum objects.   

This paper presents a collaborative study between UCL Centre for Digital Humanities[2] and the British Museum. This study considers the use and information seeking behaviour by scholars of the British Museum's Collection Online. From May to September 2010 a series of analyses of users of the British Museum's COL was undertaken: including log analysis and targeted surveys.  This paper is predominately focused on the results of the survey of academic users.  The online survey concentrated on gathering data specifically on users of the British Museum's Collection Online; focusing on user perspectives of their use of the Collection Online, search strategies and general use of museum digital resources.

This paper explores the findings of the research so far, highlights the scholarly value of museum digital resources, examines the existing structures of presentation and representation of the British Museum Collection Online for aiding academic information seeking. This study  provides an example of how a thorough detailed analysis of user survey data museums can acquire an awareness of the perceptions that academic user groups hold of the museum collection information environment, as well as understanding how the functionality and usability of museum's digital collection aids individual's information searching. Additionally, we show how such user studies can provide concrete evidence to improve the functionality of online collections databases. 


Booth, B. 1999. Understanding the information needs of visitors to museums. Museum Management and Curatorship 17:2 , pp. 139-157.

Hamma, K. 2004. Becoming digital. Bulletin of the American Society for Information Science and Technology 30:5 , pp. 11-13.

Marty, P. F. 2008. Museum websites and museum visitors: digital museum resources and their use. Museum Management and Curatorship, 23:1, 81 - 99

Sarraf, S. (1999) A survey of museums on the web: Who uses museum websites?. Curator 42 , pp. 231-243.