Collections Website 2.0

July 11, 2012

“The function of good software is to make the complex appear to be simple.”
(Grady Booch)

In December 2011 we launched the Penn Museum Collections Website which gave the world access to more than 665,000 objects. It was the culmination of a massive effort from museum collections staff, I.T. staff, the Registrars Office and upper Management to get the data migrated from one collections management system to another and have it be available via the World Wide Web. I was very pleased when we accomplished that initial goal, but even before the launch we knew that there was so much more functionality we could offer and improve upon.

In the last six months, we prioritized and implemented improvements like:

  • Advanced query parser for high relevancy results from user-entered queries
  • Faceted search and filtering
  • “More Like This” suggestions for given object
  • Advanced full-text search capabilities
  • Query result, query filter and object caching

Some of these improvements necessitated user-interface changes, so you will see our faceted browsing show up on the left side of search results. You will see filtered search terms above search results that you can also click and negate. You may have noticed that we changed from three Search Results Views to two (3-column and single row). These are just a couple of small changes we made to the site while still trying to keep the interface as familiar as possible to our regular users.

One of the changes that I’m most happy about is the query speed and page loading speed after we re-launched in early June. It’s about 70% faster than it’s predecessor. Not only is the Collections Website faster, but the results returned are more relevant.  Through a term Thesaurus we were able to link equivalent terms, cultures, people and places during queries. So that if you searched for “Istanbul” you would also find records associated with “Constantinople.” This was a major gripe with some museum staff on the initial launch of the Collections Website (and a legitimate one).

Probably the biggest change going forward for our Collections Website will be variety. Currently we have only Museum Collections Objects and Images of those Objects available to search against. On a project-by-project basis, we will begin to add a host of other archival images, archival films, finding aids, data sets and possibly Expedition magazine Articles.

While all of this is a giant step in the right direction, we will continually try to improve the Collections Website in terms of functionality and content.  In the near future, I hope to tackle “Suggested Search” and SpellCheck functionality: “Did You Mean….”

Finally, I’d like to talk a little about analyitics and who uses the site. Approximately 25% of our Collections Website traffic comes from outside of the United States. Australia, Brazil, Italy, Netherlands, France, Japan, Russia, China, Poland, India, United Kingdom, Ireland, Spain, Germany, Bulgaria, Belgium and Egypt are just a few of the 70 or so countries that visit Penn Museums Online Collections frequently. It’s not always easy or economical to jump on a plane and cross an ocean to view something that fascinates you. Heck, it may not even be on display at the Penn Museum for you to see. However, through the internet we are able to share our collection all over the world with a couple of mouse clicks or touch-screen presses. That alone makes the Collection Website one of the coolest projects I’ve ever worked on.

Happy Searching!