April 15-18, 2009
Indianapolis, Indiana, USA

Collection Effects: Examining the Actual Use of On-Line Archival Images

Brian Dawson, Marc Ladouceur, Marcia Rak, Canada Science and Technology Museum Corporation, Canada


On-line collection access is a mainstay of museum offerings on the Web. Museums offer a wide range of collections, including digitized representations of art, natural history, material culture, and historical archival photographs. Virtual access has become a vital means of both enabling collection access and facilitating outreach beyond the physical museum. But how much do we know of our audiences, and how do they make use of such collections? What are their motivations and behaviours?

The importance of evaluating on-line collection offerings has been noted in several recent studies. A clearer understanding of just how and why on-line collections are used is vital if we are to appropriately plan enhancements to collection access, such as visitor tagging, visitor contributed content, and other Web 2.0 features.

In examining the use of the CN Images of Canada Gallery, an on-line archival collection, this paper explores the practical application of analytical approaches that may be broadly applicable to on-line collections as a whole. Making use of common data sources, the case study creates a rounded picture of how a collection is actually used by visitors. The findings should be broadly usable as a basis of comparison with other collections and their use, as institutions prepare for the next iteration of their on-line offerings.

Keywords: on-line collection, evaluation, situated identity, motivations, Web analytics, Web site renewal, on-line experiences


With the easy access to Web Analytics data, on-line visitors are frequently reduced to a series of statistics: Web visits, page views, conversions and the like. These readily-produced statistics are often used in place of a true understanding of visitors. But a meaningful consideration of on-line visitors and audiences is not so straightforward. Web site audiences are elusive – perhaps even mythical (Peacock & Brownbill, 2007). To understand them clearly takes thought and effort to work through.

What is the story behind the statistics? Just who is it that is using a given Web site feature, and why? What are their motivations? What are they getting out of the experience? And what of the collections that museums present on-line. Are these collection databases used information resource? Are they edutainment for the curious browser? Are they something else?

And what of the collections that museums present on-line.   Are these collection databases used information resource?  Are they edutainment for the curious browser?  Are they something else?

Where should the museum Web practitioner turn in attempting to answer these questions?

The practice of visitor studies is well defined, factoring in demographics, psychographics, environmental factors and the perspectives of the individual (Soren, 1999). Evaluation in physical museums is similarly well defined – a methodology that includes front-end, formative, summative analysis (Soren, 1999; Bull, 1994).

However, for the Web the approaches are less clearly defined. As Peacock and Brownbill have noted (2007), the approach toward Web offerings seems a bit more ad-hoc. Different studies often draw on different paradigms, such as audience and visitor studies, marketing, evaluation, and usability analysis, but using them in isolation. Peacock and Brownbill advocate a broader, systematic approach that factors four levels of analysis, spanning market, user, interaction, and product.

In reviewing an existing Web offering, the present study also attempts a broader view, focusing on three major questions:

  1. Motivations: who uses the site and why?
  2. Use: how do they use the site?
  3. Outcomes: what is the result of their visit?

This study will look closely at the use of a specific on-line collection of archival images. This effort is rooted in the goal of making decisions on how to present such on-line product offerings more effectively in the future. It is hoped that this study may also be a comparison point, both with other collection offerings and with museum Web sites in general.

Highlights from the Literature

There is a significant body of literature on the evaluation of Museum Web sites as a whole, exploring both quantitative and qualitative approaches. For example, Peacock (2002) developed a framework of assessing whether a Web site meets user needs, based on Web log-based metrics. Soren and Lemelin (2004) added survey methods to Web log analysis, in looking at a range of Museum Web sites. Kravchyna and Hastings (2002) focused on survey methods to examine in detail the information needs and information-seeking behaviours of Museum Web site visitors, considering museum Web sites as a whole, including on-line collections and images.

There are also examples of thorough evaluation of on-line exhibits; for example, Dalrymple, et. al. (2004) conduct front-end, formative and summative analyses of a virtual exhibition.

Some studies have focused on the on-line collection. Fiona Cameron (2003) discusses the evolution of on-line collections through multiple generations. In considering the needs of on-line users, she develops a model to categorize users into four broad user groups: curators, collection managers, educators, and non-specialists.

Several more recent studies have closely examined the potential benefits of folksonomies to facilitate the description and discovery of on-line collections (for example, Trant et. al, 2007). One of these studies has included an in-depth analysis of searches of art museum collections (Trant, 2006). Others have examined how folksonomies can enhance the findability and browsability of on-line collections (Chan, 2007).

There is also consideration of the role that collections play in learning. For example, Green et. al. (2007) examined various facets of how on-line collection images can meet the needs of educators and users in higher education.

There are a variety of studies on the motivations behind museum Web visits. Some, looking at museum Web sites in general, focus on information-seeking behaviours of visitors (Kravchyna & Hastings, 2002). Others studies focus on the motivations behind education and informal learning in a museum Web site context (for example, Haley Goldman & Schaller, 2004).

Meanwhile, Paul Marty (2008), as part of an ongoing study, has looked at the use of digital resources in the overall lives of visitors, examining the changing needs and expectations of on-line visitors, the continuity in their on-line and in-museum experiences, and the implications for museum practitioners.

Analytical Approach

In examining the use of the CN Images of Canada Gallery, our study has three primary thrusts: to explore motivations of visitors using the site (who they are and why they came), the behaviour of these visitors (what they do on the site), and the outcomes of their visit (what impact the visit had on them).

To assess motivations, we use the concept of situated identity as a key factor in determining visitor motivations. We draw on Falk’s (2006) categories of identity-based motivations: the Explorer, the Facilitator, the Professional/Hobbyist, the Experience Seeker, and the Spiritual Pilgrim.

To assess behaviour, we make use of a variety of information sources, from Web analytics data, to surveys, to transactions with users, to look for clues as to how people used the site and what they were looking for.

To assess outcomes, we use qualitative sources to illustrate the tangible impacts that the site has on visitors. We do this first through the lens of situated identity categories, and then consider more broadly the nature of on-line experiences.

This investigation has used a deductive approach (Packer, 2008), in that we are applying existing theoretical frameworks from audience & visitor studies and museum evaluation to a Web context. It is important to note that these frameworks have been developed in a physical museum context – we want to recognize the cautions of other authors (Peacock & Brownbill, 2007; Ellenbogen, Falk & Goldman, 2008) that models developed in the physical museum may not necessarily apply to the Web. We hope to discover and illustrate whether there is value in applying certain models to on-line situations.

The CN Collection

In 2000, Canadian National (CN) donated its Marketing Division photographic collection to the Canada Science and Technology Museum (CSTM). The collection is comprised of an estimated 750,000 images, with additional material donated each year.

Though the bulk of the collection primarily dates between 1920 and 1950, some images are dated as early as the 1850s. The collection is a visual resource documenting two valuable developments in Canadian history:

  • The Crown Corporation – freight and passenger trains, hotels and resorts, ferry services and ocean steamships, telegraph and telecommunications;
  • Canada as an emerging Nation – development of cities and towns, industries and trade, involvement in World War II, etc.

Images were taken to document history for the corporation’s magazine, as promotional material, and for staff morale, but the unexpected result was a valuable visual history of the corporation and the country.

The CN collection consists of negatives, prints, slides and transparencies, both black and white and colour. Prints are located in bound albums that can be taken apart to access the image.

figure 1

Fig 1: A portion of the CN Collection

They are also located on index cards, indexed by subject, topic, location or name.

Negatives are stored in a temperature controlled fridge and are separated by film type; nitrate, acetate, and polyester. Envelopes can contain anywhere from one to twenty negatives. Each image has a catalogue number assigned by CN. When it is catalogued by CSTM, a new catalogue number is assigned, and the two are cross referenced.

Each image has a catalogue number assigned by CN.  When it is catalogued by CSTM, a new catalogue number is assigned, and the two are cross referenced.

The collection also contains logbooks – a detailed handwritten and/or typed description of each image based on CN’s catalogue number.   The logbooks have been transcribed into an MS Word document, making them a very valuable keyword searchable finding aid.   However, these log books are not currently part of the Web site.

Requests primarily come from Canada ,but have also come from all over world. Images are requested for textbooks, various types of publications, Web sites, and exhibits. Requests range in nature from an author writing a book to a coffee shop in Italy requesting images for their café. There are reproduction and collection use fees associated with requesting an image.

The CN Images of Canada Gallery Web Site

The CN Images of Canada Gallery, on-line since 2000, was a founding component of the Images Canada consortium (  The Web site was created with a number of initial goals in mind:

  1. Provide wider public access to the CN photograph collection
  2. Help ensure the long term preservation of the collection
  3. Reinforce perception of the Canada Science and Technology Museum Corporation (CSTMC) as a clearing house for resources on the role of science & technology in the development of Canada
  4. Entice the public into asking for more
  5. Offer a gallery experience, a window onto the collection

Though design has not been significantly updated since its launch, it remains the single most popular on-line offering of the Canada Science and Technology Museum, with strong growth in visitation over the past eight years (see figure 2).

figure 2

Fig 2: CN Images of Canada Gallery Web visits, 2000 – 2008

The museum has worked with several theories for the gallery’s popularity; such as, metadata constructs that support browsing and search; an audience hunger for this unique and previously inaccessible collection of rich archival photographs; and the broad relevance of this diverse collection to audiences across Canada and internationally – for even as simple a task as searching for old pictures of one’s home town. But these theories had not undergone a thorough summative analysis. Understanding user motivation and behaviour is now critical, as the museum sets out to re-tool and expand its on-line collection offerings.

Sources of Data

In assessing the CN Gallery, both quantitative and qualitative sources of data were considered. Similar to other Web site evaluation exercises (Peacock, 2002; Gilliland-Swetland, et al, 2004; Peacock & Brownbill, 2007), we are using a wide range of data sources. Table 1 summarizes the range of data sources used in this evaluation.

Data Source

What elements are we using

What does it tell us

Web log analysis (Web Trends web log analyzer)


(While Web logs were an option, we used Google Analytics for most basic Web metrics)

Visits over time, relative to CSTMC’s other Web sites

Google Analytics (Web page tagging)

Visitors: where

Visits: pages/visit, duration

Traffic sources

Search Terms from search engines

Where are visitors geographically located

An approximation of how engaged they are with the site.

How are people finding the site? How do they make their way?

Google Webmaster tools

Inbound links

What are the pathways into the site?

Is the site a reference that others use and “point to?”

Photo requests

Requests through Web site forms, email to the Web master, email to the library, including follow-up correspondence.

Very rich source of qualitative data.

Detailed examples of uses of the Web site and collection.

Can see examples of situated identity, motivations, how people use the site, experience, and outcomes/benefits.

Capturing search terms

Queries captured from both the general search and advanced search

Motivations: What were people looking for when they were on the Web site?

Use: How are people using the site? What sections are used?

Web site survey (Survey Monkey)

In-depth survey, intended to approximate the level of information that might be gleaned from an interview or focus group.

Structured to align with other CSTM Web surveys and market research.

Rich qualitative information on motivations, behaviours, and impacts, and opinions.

Table 1: Sources of data

It should be noted that the Web survey had a small sample size (23 responses as of this writing); hence, any percentages are not statistically valid representations of the overall use of the site. We also expected self-selection bias with the survey, suspecting that a user who is more engaged with the site would be more likely to fill out the survey. However, an in-depth survey was chosen to try to obtain a richer level of information than might otherwise be gathered in an interview or focus group.

Similarly, the photo requests, while far more numerous, are subject to biases, as they are inclined to over-represent those with motivations that require some form of follow-up with the museum (such as researchers of various types). Hence, some motivations (such as general  curiosity) would be under-represented.

Visitors and Their Motivations

As we noted earlier, many of the motivations behind on-line visits have focused on information-seeking behaviours, or on education and informal learning.

We have used the concept of situated identity as a way of exploring the motivations of visitors. Falk (2006) developed this model in the context of a physical museum, and has applied it to a range of institutions (Falk, 2006; Falk, Heimlich and Bronnenkant, 2008).


Description / Notes (adapted from Falk, 2008)


Curiosity driven, with a generic interest in the content.


Socially motivated, focused on primarily enabling the experience and learning of others.


Feel a close tie between the content and their profession. Typically motivated to satisfy a specific content-related objective.


Feel a close tie between the content and their hobby. Typically motivated to satisfy a specific content-related objective.

Experience Seekers

Motivated to visit what they see as an important destination.

Spiritual Pilgrims

Primarily seeking a contemplative, spiritual, or restorative experience. May be reminiscing on their own life experience, or seeking a connection with their personal heritage.

Table 2: Situated identity as a factor in motivation

Note that we have adjusted Falks’s model for this investigation, splitting his Professional/Hobbyist category into two. There are a couple of primary reasons for doing so:

  • With the experience from ongoing photo requests, we were already aware of two major clusters: professionals (including publishers, editors, professional authors, and museum professionals), and hobbyists (amateur authors, model railroaders, and other subject matter enthusiasts). We wanted to develop a clear picture of their distinctive motives and needs.
  • We also wanted to consider differences driven by intrinsic vs. extrinsic motivation (Csikszentmihalyi & Hermanson, 1994). Not only do we expect hobbyists to be more intrinsically motivated, but we also wanted to consider information-seeking behaviours such as self-motivated research vs. assigned research.

We were conscious of the fact that Falk’s model was developed in exploring museum visits. As some writers have noted, “Preliminary research suggests that the motivations of visitors to museum Web sites differ significantly from the motivations of visitors to physical museums” (Ellenbogen, Falk & Goldman, 2008). To account for this, we also considered some of the traditional information-seeking motivations for visiting museum Web sites (listed in Table 4), and mapped them against the same set of data.


Description / Notes (adapted from Haley Goldman & Schaller, 2004; and Ellenbogen, Falk & Haley Goldman, 2008)

Planning a museum visit

Not likely to be a factor for an on-line collection database, but considered for broader comparison with other museum Web site offerings.

Casual browsing

Might be interested to explore. (Expected to correlate with the Explorer identity)

Self-motivated research

Looking for something specific, related to personal interests.

Assigned research

Learning assignments (e.g. from a teacher), work assignment (e.g. looking for learning resources, looking for information for work)

Table 3: Information seeking motivations

Analysis of Motivations and Goals

Using both survey responses and a selection of correspondence from photo and information requests, we categorized a sample of site users into both situated-identity categories and information-seeking motivations. Multiple categories could apply (for example, a number of hobbyists were also found to be spiritual pilgrims, exhibiting intimate, personal connections to the subject matter).

figure 3

Fig 3: Presence of identity-motivation categories and information-seeking goals
(percentage of sample, n=50)

Due to biases in the sources, we believe that the Explorer (the curious and casual browser), while present in our results, is underrepresented. We did not find any evidence of Experience Seekers - in this case, not surprising.

The most unexpected finding is the prominence of spiritual pilgrims within the sample. This suggests that not only is the site meeting information needs of visitors, but that many are also making deep, introspective connections with the collection.

There were strong correlations between some of the situated identities and the information-seeking behaviours. For example, most professionals were engaged in assigned research, while most hobbyists were perusing self-motivated research.

We will look at specific examples of these motivations when we explore impacts (below).

A View on Visitors From Web Analytics

To round out our view of visitors, Web analytics can help us segment visitors on other dimensions. A broader range of information from Web analytics is being used for a full summative evaluation of the CN Gallery site, but for illustrative purposes, we provide a few examples. First, we first consider where visitors are from. Table 4 shows the top countries, and Table 5 shows the top provinces from which visitors come, over an arbitrary three month period. The data is compared with that of the main CSTM Web site, which is used for relative comparisons.


CN Visits (%)


CSTM Visits (%)





United States


United States






United Kingdom


United Kingdom


























Table 4: Comparison of top 10 countries visiting CN Gallery and CSTM Web sites
(source: Google Analytics)

The results show that the CN Gallery is used more predominantly by Canadians than the CSTM Web site. The significant difference with users from France is interesting, perhaps partly explained in that the CSTM Web site has significant French language resources on Science and Technology, and so may be a unique resource in the French speaking world.

Province / Territory

CN Gallery Visits (%)

CSTM Visits (%)







British Columbia






Nova Scotia






New Brunswick



Newfoundland and Labrador






Prince Edward Island



(not set)



Northwest Territories



Yukon Territory






Table 5: Visitation by Canadian province, comparing CN Gallery and CSTM Web sites
(source: Google Analytics)

When one considers the relative population of each province, the results demonstrate a broad reach of the CN Collection across the country. (We note that CSTM has heavier use in Ontario and Quebec, but this is partly due to the role that the site plays in planning museum visits, which would tend to be by people within the region, whether residents or tourists.)

Visitor Behaviour and Use of the Site

Visitor engagement

Web Analytics can also shed light on the way that people make use of the site. For example, we looked at a couple of common metrics to help us assess the level of engagement.




Pages / Visit



Average Duration



Table 6: Measures of Engagement

Note that the numbers for the CSTM Web site should only be considered a benchmark. The CSTM site plays many roles, and some visits, such as looking for the museum hours, should be very short, perhaps being a single page view from a Google search. Across a large and multi-purpose site, much of the story is hidden by averages.

The CN collection, however, is a more focused, information-rich Web offering. These measures indicate a high level of engagement.

Searching and search term analysis

We also examined search terms in detail. We are using the off-site search terms to indicate what visitors were looking for before they reached the site, and how it was that many of them found the site, while the on-site search terms indicate what they were looking for once they were there.

There is relatively little data available regarding the use of local search facilities generally (Katz & Byrne, 2003), and museum collection search specifically (Trant, 2006). Following Trant (2006), we identified a set of categories to help determine the nature of searches.





Nonsense, garbled, cannot determine


Catalogue No

The number assigned by CSTM when cataloguing the image



Names of companies, often manufacturers or operating companies

Canadian National, Kodak, CBC


Dates or periods of time, including events that definitively mark a given period

1930’s, 50’s, 1939, Pioneer days, The Great Depression, World War Two


The type of resource being sought

photo, drawing, painting, video, jpg, tiff, image, essay

Museum Name

Variations on “Canada Science and Technology Museum”

National Science and Technology Museum, Canadian Museum of Science and Technology


Tangible things, articles that could be museum collection artifacts

locomotive, canoe, streetcars, iron, camera MV Bluenose


A person, a people, a nation, a race, demographic categories, profession

women, youth, Ojibwa, Canadian, firefighters, Churchill, Bing Crosby


City, province, landmark, fort, park, or proper name of a geographic feature

Calgary, Fort Garry, St. Lawrence River

Question / info

A search string that was phrased as a question or expression of specific information sought

list of trains at the science and tech museum, article on technological development in Canada in the 1850s


Curatorial area, activities, phenomenon, geographic features, materials, events, etc.

industry, agriculture, fishing, lighting, mountain, steel, The Great Depression, World War Two

Web site name

Variations on "CN Images of Canada Gallery" (including the URL)

CN Gallery, CN Image Gallery, imagescn

Table 7: Categories for search term analysis

A given search could be allocated to more than one applicable category.

Off-site searching

Categorizing top Google searches resulted in the distribution shown in figure 4.

figure 4

Fig 4: Google search terms by category (percentage)

Subject-related searches were prominent in searches that brought people to the site. Searches related to specific objects and places were also significant. It is also interesting to note the number of searches that alluded to the name of the museum or the name of the Web site.

On-site searching

Searches from the on-site search feature were also categorized, including both the basic and advanced searches. The distribution across categories is shown in figure 5.

figure 5

Fig 5: On-site search terms by category (percentage)

Subject searches were the by far the most common, with more than 60% of searches including a subject term. Somewhat surprisingly, searches for specific objects were not as common in on-site searches. This suggests a significant degree of browsing results based on subject terms, as opposed to searching for something specific. (Not surprisingly, searches museum and Web site name were not a factor in on-site searches.)

With the survey, we asked users about whether they used the search feature, browsed, or did both (Table 8).

Survey Question: How did you look for photos within the site?


Response count


a) I used the search form in the site



b) I browsed the different topics and sub-topics



c) I did both – I browsed the topics and I also used the search form



Table 8: Survey responses on browsing vs. searching (n=20)

While not statistically relevant enough to assert a preference for browsing over a hybrid approach, the responses are still sufficient to suggest that most visitors rely on the browsing mechanisms to some degree (i.e. very few rely exclusively on search alone).

We also asked what search strategies visitors may have used (Table 9).

Survey Question: Did you use any particular search strategies? (select all that apply)

Option (multiple choice)

Response count


I focused my search on specific topics/subject terms



I focused on a specific place



I made use of image descriptions and captions



I relied on the visual images to focus my search



I used the catalogue number



I simply browsed around to see what I could find



I didn’t have any specific approach for searching



I used a different search strategy



Table 9: Survey responses on search strategies (n=19)

The responses largely correspond to the on-site search term analysis – respondents used subject terms in their queries. It is also worth noting the degree to which respondents relied on the visual image to focus their search, or did not have a specific approach. All these factors support the significance of browsing features for users of the site.

We also asked if visitors made use of the advanced search engine (Table 10).

Survey Question: Did you use the “advanced search?”


Response count


(a) yes



(b) no



Table 10: (advanced search engine) (n=19)

Most respondents relied on the basic keyword search. Cross-tabulation showed that researchers were most inclined to use the advanced search.

Findings and interpretation

The above data provides a wealth of information against which we can assess how the site is being used, and judge whether the site is successful in meeting its original goals.

Searching vs. browsing

Almost a decade ago, Jacob Nielson (2000) suggested that “slightly more than half of all users are search-dominant, about a fifth of the users are link-dominant, and the rest exhibit mixed behavior.” While our survey sample does not have the statistical relevance to dispute this claim, it is sufficient to raise some important observations.

As Table 8 indicated, roughly half of survey respondents browsed, and half both browsed and searched. Only one respondent used just the search form. Coupled with the responses on search strategies, this suggests that browsing capabilities are very important for an on-line collection, even for visitors who are inclined to make use of search mechanisms. Such browsing features also provide more opportunity for serendipity and chance discovery (Chan, 2007).

However, the design of the CN Gallery should also be considered. The site was designed with a hierarchy of subject categories, around which the core navigation was built. These categories form the backbone for the navigation throughout the site. Katz & Byrne (2003), in examining the use of e-commerce sites, used the foraging theory concept of an “information scent,” referring to “the amount of remote information a user can derive regarding the location of information based on the design or labeling of the information structure.” “Category labels … on a site can be more or less distinctive resulting in differing degrees of information scent.” Further, they found that the “design and structure” of “particular sites play a critical role in determining searching behavior.” The prominence of the subject categories in the CN Gallery may partly explain the tendency toward browsing seen in survey respondents.

Usability issues are also another factor. Specific survey comments also suggest that some users have difficulty finding the search feature; this confirms design issues apparent from a visual inspection of the site.

Metaphor and Genre

As mentioned in the goals for the Web site, a “gallery” was chosen as the guiding metaphor. In the survey, we asked respondents about a range of genres, each with its own conventions.

Survey Question: Which best describes your experience of visiting this Web site?


Response count


(a) looking at pages in a photo album



(b) exploring rooms in a gallery or exhibition



(c) browsing a book using its table of contents or index



(d) examining a collection of archival records



(e) searching a database of information



(f) following a story or narrative



(g) shopping for photos



(h) Other



Table 11: survey respondents’ sense of design metaphor/genre (n=18)

Interestingly, no survey respondents chose the gallery metaphor as best representing their experience, in spite of the original conception of the site, and the word gallery appearing in the site name. While we need to be cautious given the small sample size, some tentative observations are worth noting.

Genre can have a powerful influence on how people engage with an on-line resource. Establishing a clear genre can facilitate effective use by conveying a set of expectations and conventions for interaction to users (Dawson et al, 2008). A clear genre or paradigm (Cameron, 2003) is also important for on-line collections. In fact, the database itself can be seen as a distinct form of genre (Manovich, 2000).

These preliminary findings suggest that the CN Gallery site may not be successful in meeting the goal of offering a “gallery” experience, despite the term’s being used in the name of the site. It also suggests that with a collection of this nature, users have a strong sense of examining an archive. It is worth further consideration as to whether the chosen genre is supporting or working against the actual use of the site by visitors.

Interest in user contributed content

We also asked two survey questions to indicate whether there was interest among visitors in user contributed content.


Count (%)

Count (%)

If you knew something about a photograph, would you contribute a comment or post information to share with other website visitors?

16 (94.1%)

1 (5.9%)

Would you be interested in reading posts from other website visitors about a photo?

14 (93.3%)

1 (6.7%)

Table 12: Interest in user contributed content (n=17, n=15)

Responses clearly indicate that there is interest. This is further substantiated by the number of visitors that provided their own information about images, via feedback forms, email, and their ongoing interaction with the museum. Several such cases are illustrated among the examples that follow.

Outcomes and Impact on Visitors

It is worth having a closer look at the outcomes of visitor use of the site. Both the photo request correspondence and the survey provide rich examples of the impacts that the collection has on different types of visitors. We examine these impacts for each of the identity-motivation categories that we saw demonstrated.


We found that explorers were not usually looking for anything specific. Instead, we were able to determine that most of them were casually browsing without any particular goal in mind. They tended to be more interested in the enjoyment and pleasure of just looking at images. They may also have been interested in learning from their experience in the broader sense:

Neat to see some of the old pictures.

Found good pictures and history. Discovered that there is a lot on line that I must make time to explore.


We discovered that facilitators were often parents or teachers who were helping students, children, or other family members do some research or complete a school project (e.g. the child’s assigned research)"

My daughter is doing a report for school and would like to use some of your photographs for her project.

Most of it is easy to navigate and I plan to share the site with my 10 year old son.

Some facilitators were designing educational experiences for others:

My husband and I are from the MS Gulf Coast and work with youth in our city. We are hosting a retreat in a few months and have been looking for images to utilize as illustrations in our teaching. I ran across this picture in the gallery and it really caught my attention. We would like to use the picture on a Tshirt which we will give to the students. We will make no profit on these shirts. The theme of the weekend will be about sowing seed and this beautiful picture will leave a striking impression. Is it possible to use this in the printing of around 50 Tshirts to be given to the students? We will make any reasonable acknowledgements necessary. Please advise to the email address listed above. Thanks for your time.


The professionals that we identified included publishers, authors/writers, historians and researchers. This was the largest group in our sample. These individuals often requested permission to use a photograph in a publication, book, journal or magazine. Other types of requests made by professionals included orders for specific photos or information about a photograph or the content of a photograph.

A large number of interactions are straightforward requests for permissions, from publishers, historians, and museum professionals:

I need rights info for using a couple of your photos in a book that will be published this year.

I am in the process of creating a non-profit website for the CN Pensioners Association of Manitoba. We would like to use some of your wonderful photos in our design. Would this be ok? We will have a links section, and your site clearly defined in there for everyone to know where we got them from.

We have ordered (on May 22nd) this picture among others, to be used in an exhibition at Exporail, the Canadian railway museum. We would like to know if we can use it also for the press kit. Thanks !

Hello, I am the Schenectady County and City Historian and am writing a paper about hay barns. Is it possible to use the photo

There were many examples of professionals looking for a specific image:

The photographs on this site are great! I work at Providence Healthcare and we are celebrating our 150th anniversary in 2007. Do you have archived samples of what train tickets looked like in 1857?

DO you have any colour photos of the Royal Hudson 2850 when it pulled the Royal Train in 1939?

I have a 1942 RAF Fordson N Dual 6x36 tires on the back Would like any pictures that I can get of this tractor .I have not located another one like it as yet .Thankyou [sic]

Some professionals were looking for specific information:

Might you know which Shuswap band this group may have belonged to? Thank you...

Wow, I am really excited as these items fall directly in the subject matter of my project. Thank you! Thank you!

One interesting, albeit less common, thread was a number of professionals from other fields that requested images for use in decor:

What our intent is is to frame them and hang them inside a Starbucks that I am renovating on College Street. We are trying to incorporate more locally relevant art into our stores. I think these prints would look fantastic.

The Transportation Safety Board of Canada is completing some renovation work at their Richmond Hill, Ontario location. In an effort to spruce up the interior besides the obvious painting, I would like to add some new pictures. With this in mind, I am asking if you could provide us with some pictures to adorn our freshly painted walls.


The examples of hobbyist that we identified included train or railway enthusiasts, amateur historians or laypeople who had an avid interest in a given subject matter:

I am interested in learning more about photo number CN002614 in your CN Collection on your website. I was wondering if you had any information regarding the actual train in the photo, such as its consist [sic], and its train number, as well as its origin and destination. Any information would be greatly appreciated, as I am attempting to build a prototypical CNR passenger train for my model railroad.

May I use the Turbo Train image (CN 002250) displayed on your web site … in our newsletter?

I am working on and abaut [sic] complete a Web Site on the American Indians. The Site is meant to divulge scientific knowledge and has no profit scope.
One Image of your Site( Shuswap indian [sic] image), are very useful for my work.
I have unloaded these images from your website but I kindly request your authorization to use them in my Web Site, where I will also disclose the Source and exstended [sic] my gratitude, the way you will prefer.

We also found examples of researchers (both professional and amateur) who planned a visit to the museum based on their interactions with the collection. The following examples are from hobbyist researchers:

I am researching the tourism industry in Muskoka Ontario and wondering if it is possible to book a time to come into the Sciecne [sic] and Technology Museum to view the CN Photo Gallery's Muskoka hodlings [sic].

Marcia, does the museum have the ability for me to view the photos on site, and then select the ones that would suit me. If so I would make the trip to Ottawa on a Thurs/Fri when you are at the museum. I am interested in the photos of the Inn itself and not necessarily the events being held there. As well do you have any info on its owners after CN as well as it demolition.

Thank you so much for all your assistance yesterday. [We] enjoyed the tour so much - we are both interested in history. [We] wanted to know if you can make an appointment to see the collection anytime, how often you are allowed to see it and for what length of time.

Spiritual Pilgrims

A common thread that we found among the Spiritual Pilgrims is the connection that they often made between personal or family history and some of the images they viewed on the Web site. Many were touched or moved by certain images and the memories associated with them. Although there is no Web 2.0 mechanism on the Web site to allow users to provide content, some visitors use the request form or e-mail to provide additional information about certain images.

Many spiritual pilgrims were engaged in self-motivated research:

I saw [the Royal Train] in Hamilton in 1939 when it stopped here for the Royal Visit when I was a young boy.

The prints are solely for a nostalgic purpose. My family and I used to take the M.V. Bluenose on summers to visit Nova Scotia, which is where my mother was from.

Could you please send me any information or pic's that you would have of the CN Railroad at Touchwood Sask.I lived there as achild [sic] all my family worked for the railroad there and I have no pic's of Touchwood Thamk [sic] you very much

I am making my mother a memory scrapbook for Christmas. I am trying to put a picture of the train she was on in 1946 from Pier 21 as she was a war bride. Do you have any documenation [sic] of this that I can print off of my computer? I would appreciate it a.s.a.p. as I am participating in a marathon scrapbooking fundraiser where we hope to raise over $20,000.00 for breast cancer.

I believe the man driving the ore car (a.k.a. the "motorman") was my dad. I would like to be certain. Do you have any additional details on the photo?

I am building a community website for Portugal Cove, Newfoundland. I found three pictures on your site that would be perfect as they are taken from my town. I would love to put them on my site as I am trying to collect photos of our town from days gone by. Needless to say they are hard to find.

I am researching my background and blackfoot is part of that on my paternal and maternal heritage. Do you have anymore info on this photo or do you have any other photos of blackfoot indians.

the Cannington Historical society would like to order a copy of this photograph. It will be framed and placed inside our 1906 GTR Station as part of an exhibit of the trains that once upon a time came through our village.

There were numerous examples of visitors sharing what they knew about a given photograph:

This was the first ship my Dad built at Yarrows. I have one picture of it, but this one is great. We're wondering if we can order a copy?

My grandfather was a CNSS Capt of Canadian Cruiser in 1937, the ships Official Number: 150463
This ship was Sunk by German pocket battleship Admiral Scheer 21 Feb 1941 06-36S 47-18E Indian Ocean All of the 36 crew were taken prisoner. One man later escaped from the POW camp to Spain.
The date your photo was taken says 1947, but ship was sunk 1941.
Any info on this would be appreciated.

Many also wanted to purchase a photograph as a gift:

I would like to purchase this photograph as well as others displayed on this site. I would like to know how to do this. I want reproduce & frame the photo(s) as a gift

Satisfying On-Line Museum Experiences

We have used situated identity to examine the motivations behind visits to the CN Gallery Web site. We have also demonstrated the range of impacts on visitors, across the field of motivational categories. With these impact statements in mind, we would like to reflect a little more broadly on the nature of the on-line museum experiences that visitors have.

The important role that museums play as places of learning is clearly established and has been widely recognized over the past two decades (for example, Falk & Dierking, 2000; Hein, 1998; Hooper-Greenhill, 1994). Given the significance of this role, it is understandable that, when considering museum experiences, “museum practitioners tended to focus on the education experience” (Pekarik, Doering & Karns, 1999). This focus was part of the broader changes taking place within museums:

The emphasis on learning experiences and growth in museum visitorship comes at a time when the mission of museums has shifted from a focus on collecting and preserving to one of educating the public. (Ellenbogen, Falk & Haley Goldman, 2008)

But some observers noted that a much wider range of satisfying museum experiences is actually possible (Pekarik, Doering & Karns, 1999; Packer 2008).

The same applies to museums on-line. The Web is often viewed as an information resource. For example, Kravchyna and Hastings (2002) focused on “the kinds of information that users seek on museum Web sites.” But on-line experiences may also be more diverse.

Working with Pekarik, Doering & Karns’ (1999) model for museum experiences, Table 13 describes four dimensions of museum experience – object, cognitive, introspective and social – and considers how these may apply to on-line experiences around collections.

Museum experience

Museum context (adapted from Pekarik, Doering & Karns, 1999)

Potential applicability to an on-line collection


Focus is on something outside the visitor: the material culture object. Seeing the “real thing.”

Interest in an image for the image’s sake (e.g. beautiful photography).

Functional requirement for an image.


Gaining information or knowledge. Visitors find their satisfaction in the interpretive or intellectual aspects of the experience.

To satisfy information-seeking needs; research.

Resource for learning.


Imagining, reflecting and connecting. The individual turns inward, to feelings and experiences that are essentially private. Usually triggered by an object or a setting in the museum.

Reflecting on personal memories.

Experiences of Spiritual Pilgrims.


An interaction with someone else is the most satisfying aspect of the experience (such as friends, family, or other visitors).

Object as part of an experience with friends, family, or other social networks (e.g. sharing a link; ordering an image for a family member; Helping a child with homework) – “Social Objects” (Roberto, 2008)

Sharing information or stories about objects (folksonomies, contributing content)

Table 13: Museum experiences reconsidered as Web experiences

We consider each of these experiences in the context of an on-line collection of archival images.

Object experiences

While Pekarik et. al. suggested that an aspect of object experiences was seeing the “real thing” in a museum setting, we suggest that object experiences also apply in an on-line context. In fact, for an on-line collection database, one might logically presume that all experiences are to some degree object experiences.

However, digitized collections may face a quandary regarding authenticity, in that they are generally reproductions of actual objects. With a collection of archival images, there is an added level of abstraction: is our object the digital image, the original print or photograph, or the subject portrayed within?

But in practical terms, this may not weigh significantly on the Web visitor. Visitors show great interest in the images, regardless of the media. Object experiences are still possible. However, this interest often goes beyond an externally focused experience of a photograph as object on its own. “Both cognitive and emotive responses may result, some of which may remain unspoken” (Hooper-Greenhill, 2000).

Cognitive experiences

Cognitive experiences encompass many of the information seeking behaviours of both researchers and informal learners on the Web. Many of the collection impacts we explored illustrated the acquisition of information and knowledge, both assigned and self-motivated.

It is worth noting that cognitive experiences are subjective: “Different subjects interpret different objects in different ways.” The “meanings [made from objects] are plural rather than singular” (Hooper-Greenhill, 2000). Even the changing significance of the CN Collection demonstrates this: images once taken for promotional purposes now provide both a significant historical record, and provoke powerful personal experiences.

Introspective experiences

Hooper-Greenhill (2000) has noted that “objects enable reflection, and speculation.” Objects may be encoded with personal experiences, such that “the object represents the memory, the significance and the emotional power of those experiences.”

This was clearly demonstrated through the experience of our spiritual pilgrims. Our examples demonstrate the presence of emotional/introspective experiences with an archival collection, and show that these experiences can have significant and powerful impact.

Social experiences

The rise of social media demonstrates that social outcomes on the Web are clearly valued. Objects can play a fundamental role in these experiences by facilitating social interactions – museum objects as “social objects” (Roberto, 2008). People share on-line objects, whether at a computer screen, sharing links, tagging, posting, or reading others’ posts. On-line museum objects can be the focus of such social interactions.

Objects in turn are shaped by those who use them. Objects may be understood in the context of “interpretive communities,” or “communities of meaning-making, which establish frameworks of intelligibility” that shape the subjective interpretation of objects. Hooper-Greenhill goes further, to explore examples where “the use of the Web itself constituted and constructed the community” (2000).

Implications for Product Offerings

Toward a summative analysis of the CN Gallery

While a full summative analysis is being done outside the scope of this paper, a few points are worth highlighting. First, several of the original goals of the site have largely been met:

  • The collection does reach a significant number of Canadians across a broad geographic base
  • There is a significant number of requests from the public related to the collection
  • The transactions and activity around the collection have helped to put resources into the collection for its management and care, and have helped to build a repository of high-resolution images for future use.

The review has also identified a number of key issues. In addition to a dated design, there are usability issues in terms of navigational features (e.g. navigating search results), layout (e.g. ability to find search) and Web accessibility.

It is also interesting to note that the design metaphor did not resonate with survey respondents. An alternate design paradigm might establish better conventions and better support visitor use.

There is also clear interest in exploring the collection beyond the methods first conceived when the site was designed. For example, some visitors expressed interest in alternate ways of looking at information, such as a desire for indexes or finding aids. This could involve an adaptation of the existing collection-finding aids that are not currently available or on-line, or adding the ability to search graphically, such as via a map, or some other alternate browsing approach. There is also clear interest in user-contributed content.

A full consideration of user motivations, behaviour, feedback, and experience could lead to a re-formulation of the goals for the site. For example, emphasizing the importance of personal introspective experiences, or the value of connecting Canadians to their national and personal histories and to each other through the collection, could become future goals for the  presentation of this collection.

General Implications for the Design of On-Line Experiences

Thinking broadly about visitor motivations and experiences should have significant, positive implications for design. We offer a few concrete examples.

A clear sense of the situated identities and user motivations that may be relevant in a given on-line experience should provide for a better appreciation for visitor needs. It could, for example, be drawn upon for the technique of crafting personas, often used in Web site information architecture (Wodtke, 2003).

A more careful consideration of the range of experience can help make sense of the wide range of design options available, and lead to better decisions around features and designs. For example:

  • A consideration of object experiences may allow for more effective presentation of the digital object, with appropriate resolution, or features such as zoom, rotate, etc.
  • A consideration of cognitive experience could allow for the planning of information sufficient to provide context and support learning. It may involve establishing an appropriate level of metadata, or illustrating the connections between objects.
  • A consideration of introspective experiences may allow people ways to explore objects based on introspective uses (such as searching based on time or place, or looking at object on a map).
  • A consideration of social experiences may better recognize the social uses of objects – i.e., that people will want to share these objects (perhaps post them in social media sites), tag them, or share stories about them.

These are just a few tangible suggestions. The point to emphasize is that a full, rounded consideration of the visitor experience can have real, tangible benefits in the design of a Web offering.


We have found that the CN Gallery has met many of its original objectives, although there are a number of specific issues to address. More significantly, for future directions, the objectives for the site could be re-formulated, keeping in mind the broader impacts of the collection and a fuller consideration of the overall visitor experience. This, along with a clearer profile of users and their motivations, should inform any future directions and possible re-design.

More broadly, we have demonstrated practical ways that we can better understand our visitors and their motivations, behaviour and experiences, so that these factors can be considered in the planning and design of on-line experiences. As part of a viable business model, museums must be clear about who they are serving: they must be able to answer the question: “who is your public and what are the specific needs they have that you are uniquely trying to satisfy?” (Falk & Sheppard, 2006)


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Cite as:

Dawson, B., et al., Collection Effects: Examining the Actual Use of On-Line Archival Images. In J. Trant and D. Bearman (eds). Museums and the Web 2009: Proceedings. Toronto: Archives & Museum Informatics. Published March 31, 2009. Consulted