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Scholarly Information-Seeking Behaviour in the British Museum Online Collection

C. Ross and M. Terras, Department of Information Studies, University College London, United Kingdom


This paper presents a collaborative study between UCL Centre for Digital Humanities and the British Museum. It considers the use and information-seeking behaviour by scholars of the British Museum's Collection Online. The research focuses on user perspectives, search strategies and general use of museum digital resources, highlights the scholarly value of museum digital resources, and examines the existing structures of presentation and representation of the British Museum Collection Online for aiding academic information seeking. It provides an example of how, with detailed analysis of user survey data, museums can elucidate academic user groups' perceptions of museum collection information environments, and improve their understanding of how the functionality and usability of museum's digital collections aids individual's information searching.

Keywords: information seeking, users, digital collection, British Museum, academic, scholarly searching


Museums now have vast numbers of digital resources available to support scholarship. These resources are changing the ways researchers work, offering convenient quick access to a wide selection of materials. However, finding information in museum websites is not an easy task. Collections database information systems can be overwhelming. Designing intuitive systems that meet researchers' needs requires a thorough understanding of the information-seeking behaviour of users. As museums cope with the challenges of 'being digital' (Hamma 2004), meeting the information needs 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, in-house and online (Booth 1998; Sarraf 1999).

The British Museum shows continuing commitment to providing as wide virtual and physical access to the collections as possible, utilising different mediums to open up the museum collections to a diverse audience. In October 2007, the British Museum launched Collection Online (COL, an online version of its collection database. By the end of 2009, nearly 2 million records 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.

Museum visitors and information-seeking behaviour

Unprecedented changes in the provision of museum digital resources have transformed the experience of visiting museums (whether physically, or online); affecting how users interact with digital museum resources and the museum information environment as a whole. Numerous research studies have explored the relationships between museums and their online and in-house visitors (Haley Goldman and Schaller 2004; Falk 1998, 2006; Falk and Dierking 2000; Kravchyna and Hastings 2002; Thomas and Carey 2005), the results of which require museum professionals to adapt, and develop new information needs and information policies (Besser 1997; Knell 2003). However, in the complex area of large digital museum collections, such research is at an early stage.

Studying the information-seeking behaviour of specific user groups has contributed to the development of numerous library and archival services, and there is an extensive body of literature on the information-seeking habits of humanities faculty researchers which has shaped academic library and archives (Warwick 2008, Rimmer et al. 2006, Makri 2006). However there is little research on the information-seeking behaviour of specific user groups using Museum online collections.

Museums are developing online resources at a rapid pace, despite a lack of data about the needs of the intended users of those resources (Cunliffe, Kritou, and Tudhope 2001). The lack of data about the use of digital museum resources is a serious concern for museums, as not understanding user needs means it is impossible for museum professionals to know whether they are providing access to digital resources in a way that satisfies the needs of their intended users (Hertzum 1998). As museum information resources become more technically complex, and the users of those resources become more information literate, the needs and expectations of visitors have become increasingly sophisticated, and this needs to be fully understood.


This research aims to develop an awareness of how the functionality and usability of the British Museum Collection Database Online aids or hinders users' information searching. An online survey was undertaken to ascertain users' information seeking strategies, attitudes towards, and actual use of the COL. The survey was developed and designed using Survey Monkey ( as the platform, with input from members of the British Museum Web Team. The pop-up survey on the British Museum website was live from 3rd June 2010 to 2nd July 2010, collecting 2657 responses from a random sample of visitors. The survey was divided into 30 questions, comprised of multiple choice questions and free text comments, with a further 4 questions focusing on specific search-orientated tasks. It is argued that the pop-up survey gives a better response rate than a simple banner invitation which is 'fixe' to the page (Malhotra 1999, p. 350-1); however, this paper will go on to highlight the constraints of this method and suggest that other appropriate evaluation methodologies need to be employed when investigating user behaviour of museum collection databases.


The survey respondents report a wide variety of experiences with the British Museum's COL and with digital resources in general. The majority of respondents stated their reason for using the COL (50.2%, 1333 responses (Figure 1)) was for undertaking academic research whether as scholars, or students. This is perhaps to be expected, as the COL can be found in the Research section of the main British Museum website.

Fig 1: Respondents reasons or using the collection database onlineFig 1: Respondents' reasons for using the collection database online

Responses were received from a total of 57 countries: most represented were the United Kingdom (29% of responses), closely followed by the United States (17.6%). Regionally (UK only) there was a strong English representation (91.2%) with a distinct lack of response from Scotland (5.6%) and Wales (3.2%). The majority of respondents were in London (98 responses).

Fig 2: Geographical location of respondents; 848 respondents identified their geographical locationFig 2: Geographical location of respondents; 848 respondents identified their geographical location

The UK is not featured so as to facilitate visualisation of the remaining data, but had 29% (357 responses) of respondents.

Fig 3: Regional distribution of English RespondentsFig 3: Regional distribution of English Respondents

342 respondents indicated their current location to be in England, highlighting many respondents to be in London.

In terms of age (Table 1) and gender, 27.7% of the respondents were between 21 and 30, closely followed by the 31-40 range (22.3%). There was also a strong representation of those in the 41- 50 age range (19.7%). Most academic respondents were Female (59%) compared to 40.9% Male.

Age Range Response Percent Response Count
Under 20 1.60% 20
21 - 30 27.70% 342
31 - 40 22.30% 275
41 - 50 19.70% 243
51 - 60 17.20% 212
61 - 70 9.20% 114
71+ 2.30% 28
  answered question 1234
  skipped question 99

Table 1: Respondents' age distribution

Many academic respondents were post graduate students (25.10%); Professor (14.6%) and Other (15%), tending to be curator or curatorial staff. The lack of Readers (1.9%) is probably due to the fact that not many academics hold this position as many move from Senior Lecturer straight to Professor. It is also interesting to note the large proportion of those at professorial level utilising the database - indicating that it is a research resource which facilitates high level academic research. The database is also a crucial resource to many doctoral students.

Fig 4: The range of role in academia held by survey respondentsFig 4: The range of role in academia held by survey respondents

Information-seeking and search strategies

Respondents expected to be able to search the COL by type of object (47.9%) and by free text search (46.8%). This was followed by date and then by people, theme, culture and museum number (see Figure 5). This suggests that the majority of scholars are already aware of the information environment in which they are searching, and are specifically searching for a known object with goal-driven intent. This is supported by the fact that the majority of respondents were looking for a specific object (Figure 6). From the varied free text responses (890 answered), the majority are exact search strategies refined by date, culture and specific object.

Fig 5: Categories of searchFig 5: Categories of search

Despite the high proportion of free text and object type searches, the broad range of results suggests that the remaining scholars have very different expectations for searching online collections. This implies that when not searching for a specific object, users are still information literate, choosing to refine their searching to a period, culture or theme. The respondents show strong search refinement skills, yet there is a predominance for using free text search. Previous research (Bates 1996, Wiberley and Jones 1989) has identified key humanities scholars' search query terms; individual names, geographical, chronological and discipline specific terms. This appears to be also the case in scholars' preferences of search criteria in the COL. It also suggests that academic browsing in a museum environment is somewhat problematic as users have to be fairly linear in their search strategies with little satisfaction when searching broadly or browsing.

Fig 6: Main search queries related to a specific object or group of objectsFig 6: Main search queries related to a specific object or group of objects

Use of Collection Online

The respondents were asked about their Collection Online visitation patterns (figure 7). The majority of respondents use the COL occasionally (33.1%), suggesting that many of the respondents are repeat visitors.

Fig 7: Respondents visitation patterns to the COLFig 7: Respondents visitation patterns to the COL

Respondents were also asked how they had heard about the Collection Database Online (COL) (Table 2). The highest response rates, perhaps unsurprisingly, were from colleagues in a professional (29.5%) and academic (27.3%) environment. Many also utilised the link on the British Museum website (24.6%). A much lower percentage accessed the site from a search engine (15.9%). Responses to 'Other' (90 response count) were interesting; most commonly assumed that the British Museum would have an online collections database, implying that online collection databases are so pervasive that users expect them to be available at all institutions.

How did you hear about it?
Answer Options Response Percent Response Count
Friend 2.50% 27
Professional environment (colleagues) 29.50% 316
Academic environment (website, academic staff, fellow student etc 27.30% 293
School 1.00% 11
From a link on the Museum's website 24.60% 264
Through a search engine 15.90% 170
Other (please specify) 8.40% 90
  answered question 1072
  skipped question 261

Table 2: Respondents access points to the COL

Questions were raised about the general use, design, layout, and functionality of the COL with the opportunity given to rate their approval or disapproval (Table 3). The majority of responses were positive; this is also reflected in the free text comments:

"I have found it too helpful to name a particular thing. The database has told me new things about areas I myself have been researching for years."

There was a high approval rate for respondents repeatedly visiting the COL (645 response count). However some respondents (190 response count) slightly disagreed that the collection database was easy to use, the free text responses concurring, stating that there is "insufficient hierarchisation of research results" and it is "hard to refine one search" and "difficult to navigate".

Answer Options Strongly
Agree Slightly
It is easy to find the Collection database online within the British Museum website 247 408 167 31 64 2.19 917
The general design and layout of the Collection database online is appropriate 199 549 107 13 49 2.09 917
The Collection database online is easy to navigate 190 449 190 35 53 2.25 917
I am likely to visit the Collection database online again 645 235 11 3 23 1.39 917
It is an effective way to search for objects of interest 418 375 66 13 45 1.79 917
There should be links to physical location of objects 196 417 153 33 118 2.41 917

Table 3: Respondent opinions on design, layout and functionality of the COL

Respondents were also asked their views on the content held within the collection database. It was strongly felt that the COL should provide more images (Table 4), supported by free text comments:

'lack of pictures make it difficult to tell whether I have found the object I wanted'

'very few photographs, not enough contextual information'.

These survey results agree with the Ornager (1997) early study into image databases:

To sum up the requirements, the users want an interface which provide[s] improved access to the images, i.e., a lead-in vocabulary. They also require possibilities to broaden or narrowing [sic] their queries, and/or to search from different aspects, i.e., to look for related concepts. One searching need can be met by browsing access to images, which will also support a search for the expressional aspect. (Ornager 1997, p. 209).
Answer Options Response Percent Response Count
Improved search facilities 31.90% 342
More images 67.60% 725
More detailed records 37.10% 398
More objects 31.30% 336
Audio/video 4.70% 50
Other (please specify) 11.80% 127

Table 4: Responses to Collection Online potential areas for improvement

Though a user's search query can be specific, finding the desired object can still require visually inspecting multiple images. Kravchyna and Hasting (2002) point out a lack of studies on the use of online images of museums' collections, revealing that many museum websites seldom offer full access to collection databases, and that the descriptive information of the museum collections available to visitors is even more limited. This is not the case with the British Museum COL. The information in the object records is made available in its entirety. Only prices paid, personal addresses and the names of some individual Museum staff have been withheld (

Developing methods for enhancing images in online collection databases, searching image databases and retrieval is a challenging and ongoing area of research. Perhaps with the high demand for images it is appropriate for the British Museum to investigate image retrieval more fully. Retrieval of images in collection databases has been traditionally addressed by two different approaches (Villa et al., 2010; Sacco 2008): the first one uses query methods on metadata or on a textual description of each item. The second one works on low-level multimedia features (such as colour, texture, etc.) and tries to find items that are similar to a specific selected item via Content Based Image Retrieval (CBIR). Neither of these approaches supports the most common end-user task: the exploration of a collection database in order to find the 'right' object.

Use of information

The majority of respondents held positive opinions on the content within the COL, finding the content easy to understand, comprehensive, accurate and overall helpful to their research (Table 5). This indicates that user satisfaction is high. Of particular interest was that 64.7% of respondents intended to reuse the images they had found as a result of searching the collections database mainly for research, publication, teaching, and MA and PhD thesis research. A very positive comment came from a respondent who planned to 'use the excellent images for study and research, no one else provides such quality of reproduction'. There was a proportion of responses involved with other museum collections, indicating that staff from other museums are utilising the COL as a case study for cataloguing, interpretation and direct comparison with their own institution.

Answer Options Strongly
Agree Slightly
I found the content quickly and easily 228 412 110 28 60 2.14 838
The content is easy to understand 298 441 40 1 58 1.9 838
The content is comprehensive 205 408 127 19 79 2.24 838
The content is accurate 209 444 64 5 116 2.25 838
The content is helpful 288 444 36 1 69 1.95 838

Table 5: Respondents' Opinions on Content in the COL

The use of the COL encourages a visit to the physical site of the museum (73.9% - Table 6). However there was a strong suggestion that the online visit and the physical visit are for completely different purposes:

"My visit to the museum and my consultation of the database are two completely disconnected events for me."

"I am undertaking academic research and need information about collections. I doubt if visiting the museum would give me this."

"The two are separate; I go to the museum to autopsy and enjoy. The website is for documentation."

"I am a fairly frequent visitor to the museum and plan on going this week although my use of the collections database and visit to the museum are for two entirely separate reasons. My visit to the museum will be for pleasure, whereas my research (although pleasurable) is part of my program of studies."

Does this website encourage you to visit the museum itself?
Answer Options Response Percent Response Count
Yes 73.9% 613
Not sure 17.2% 143
No 8.9% 74
answered question 830
skipped question 503

Table 6: Respondent opinions on whether the COL encourages a visit to the physical museum

This conforms to the concept of the physical museum visit to be one of leisure and entertainment (Falk and Dierking 1992, Mintz 1994, Stephen 2001) and the online museum visit is for informational value (Krachyna and Hastings 2002). Nevertheless many museum websites have been traditionally designed to supplement the physical museum (Marty 2004). It should be noted that academic users consider the museum website to be a very different information environment to that of the physical museum.

Search outcomes

The survey directly asked if respondents had found what they were looking for during their visit (Figure 8): the overwhelming response was positive, 66.5% of respondents did. Nevertheless, a substantial response rate (15.4%) could not, and 14.5% only partially found what they had initially searched for. This could be due to the survey interrupting the users search process: "The pop-up survey window opened before I could finish my research".

This is a recurring comment throughout the pop-up survey, highlighting a failing in its timing and placement. Nevertheless, we should not be distracted from the fact that many respondents were unsuccessful in their collections search, even though they entered very exact search strings, including period, object name, description and museum number, which should produce a successful search outcome.

Fig 8: Information seeking success rates using the COLFig 8: Information seeking success rates using the COL

Use of Digital Resources

The importance of digital information resources was immediately apparent from the survey results. The academic respondents were enthusiastic about the usefulness of digital resources, with the majority of free text responses using terms including 'extensively', and 'very extensively':

"Digital resources are vital to my research. I don't do any research without digital resources."

"Digital resources can play a major role in my research, but often I still use books and articles."

Social media

There has been a dramatic rise in the number of participatory media technologies that museums have employed to engage people in new ways. Respondents were asked about the potential of integrating social media applications into the COL (Figure 9). The majority of respondents to the survey (69.50%) did not want social media tools to be combined with the COL. Only 9.1% would like to use social media, while 21.4% of respondents were unsure.

Potential tools presented included linking to external social media applications (58.8% approved), specifically Twitter, Facebook and Delicious, followed by a discussion forum (32.2%). Yet user-generated commenting on objects found in the search results was not considered appropriate with 18.9% of the respondents' vote. Many academics are wary of combining social media applications with collection databases due the perceived inaccuracies that can occur. This supports the notion that many academics are unsure about social media because of trust and authority issues (Williams and Ross 2010).

Fig 9: Potential uses of social media with the Collection OnlineFig 9: Potential uses of social media with the Collection Online

Task-based search scenarios

A key theme in user information-seeking behaviour and retrieval research has been the investigation of the choices users make when searching: what terms they choose, and which features (e.g. Boolean logic) they use naturally (Buchanan et al, 2005). The majority of respondents utilise more advanced discipline specific search terms, such as employing the museum object number, followed by the name or author and then the content description of the object.

Simulated task-based scenarios were conducted in order to gain knowledge of the respondents' searching behaviour. Two simulated search tasks were designed, inspired by real-life academic researcher information needs. All the information was provided to the respondent, including date, description, museum number and object type, in order to ascertain which type of keyword academics would highlight and use in their search queries. The search queries entered by the respondents were then tested in the COL search to discover the success rate of the query. The specific objects chosen for the search-related task were chosen because they proved difficult to find within the collections database. What is interesting is that, regardless of the search terms the respondents suggested in the hypothetical search section of the survey, when tested in real time in the collection's database, the majority of queries returned negative results, implying that the database is not optimised for academic search behaviours.

Task-based search scenario 1: lekythos

The first task-based search scenario asked, "you are searching for a Greek Vase, which you know is in the British Museum as you have seen it in a print catalogue. It is an Attic black-figured lekythos from around 490BC which depicts the myth of "psychostasia" (the Weighing of Souls). The print catalogue gives the reference "B 639". What would you type into the search box to find the object that you are looking for?"

Search term number of
Search outcome Number of Search results
B 639 48 unsuccessful 14 (all incorrect)
psychostasia 23 unsuccessful No results matched the search criteria.
lekythos psychostasia 9 unsuccessful No results matched the search criteria.

Table 7: Key search terms provided for Task Based Searching Scenario 1

Examining these terms through the online database revealed a clear problem. Out of the total of 174 respondents, about 48 (Figure 16) would use the query "B 639" or "b 639" (with or without quotation marks). This produces 14 results in the collection database, none of which is the correct object. The second most popular search query is 'psychostasia': this yields no results. The next search query, 'lekythos psychostasia', also yields no results. Only 6 users would search for "B639" or "b639" which would yield a successful search. Thus to produce successful searches, it required the careful selection of search criteria that was only observed by a few users.

Previous research (Bates 1996; Wiberly and Jones 1989) has identified key query term types that appear in the searches of humanities users: names of individuals, geographical names, chronological terms and discipline specific terms (in this instance, Museum object numbers). These have a specific meaning within a discipline and therefore should be "good" query terms. However, these term types have not been fully studied from the perspective of user information seeking and information retrieval (Buchanan et al. 2005). It appears there is a gap between the user understanding of a search query or term and the treatment of the query by the computer database. For example, a specific query may carry strong specific keywords, but information retrieval techniques in databases focus most commonly on the rate of occurrence of a word or phrase in the description or metadata of an object. Many of the respondents used one or more of what would be considered a discipline specific term in their search query in order to demonstrate their search behaviour; yet this produced a negative search result; for example, combining the correct search term (museum number without spaces) with a more detailed discipline specific keyword search:

B639 Attic black-figured lekythos 490BC depicting psychostasia

This fails to produce a successful search, suggesting that the COL requires a more user-friendly metadata schema, or updated search mechanism, which takes into consideration the information seeking behaviours of researchers.

Task-based search scenario 2: Hanging Scroll

The second task-based search scenario asked respondents: "You are searching for a Hanging Scroll with Mountain Landscape, which you have seen in the British Museum's print catalogue. It is an ink painting on paper from Muromachi period, 16th century and attributed to Zen priest-painter Kei Shokei. The print catalogue gives the reference "Japanese Painting ADD 387". What would you type into the search box to find the object that you are looking for?"

This task proved more successful, with 38 of the 174 (Table 8) respondents producing successful searches utilising the specific keyword "Kei Shokei". Again the use of the museum number with a space produces an unsuccessful search result.

Search term number of
Search outcome Number of Search results
Kei Shokei 38 Successful 2
ADD 387 20 unsuccessful 3 (all incorrect)
Japanese painting ADD 387 13 unsuccessful No results matched the search criteria.

Table 8: Key search terms provided for Task Based Searching Scenario 2

This body of evidence supports Bates' (1996) notion that humanities scholars frequently use specific and highly selective query terms.

Emerging themes

Digital resources

Digital resources are used extensively by academics as part of their research process and are considered vital to their research. It became clear in this study that scholars are very aware of digital resources, particular those offered by cultural institutions, and there is a high level of expectation that museums with large collections, like the British Museum, will disseminate their collection online. A clear distinction between a physical visit to the British Museum and an online visit can also been discerned, academics believing that a physical visit is a leisure activity and the online visit is for research and informational value.

Precise seeking strategies

In general, academics are specifically searching for a known object: there seems to be little satisfaction when searching broadly or browsing. The primary way of finding material in the British Museum Collection Online is by Object type as well as the free text search facility. The simulated task-based scenarios provided additional information on scholarly applied search strategies. Scholarly searching is shown to be highly precise, focusing in on the museum number in order to achieve low but accurate recall. This finding supports the notion that academics are already aware of the museum information environment and are seeking something specific. Nevertheless, the task-based scenarios also highlighted a clear error with the COL search strings when the free text search is utilised. This should be rectified if the online search facility is to be aligned with academic information seeking strategies.

Importance of a visual element

Scholarly information-seeking behaviour and search strategies have a strong visual element. Academics rely heavily on images, placing large emphasis on viewing the images to ensure they have found the correct object.

Social media

The potential for integration of social media applications into the COL was viewed negatively. It is essential to ensure that content is audience focused and appropriate for the medium.

Methodological considerations

The aim of the study was to better understand the research experiences and to investigate the information-seeking behaviour of scholars utilising the COL. The web-based questionnaire was delivered in the form of a pop-up Survey; however, Fielding, Lee and Blank (2008, p. 203) note that a potential issue with the pop-up survey is non response, most likely due to inaccurate timing: an important explanatory factor to the low response rate to some of questions. Similarly,the free text response rate by respondents was also relatively low, suggesting that free text questions are unpopular. It is often suggested that open-ended questions are great for qualitative research (Jansen, Spink and Taksa, 2009,44) but the results seem to indicate that Lehmann and Renfro (1991) and Wiberley's (2000) suggestion that humanities scholars are receptive to technology as long as it demonstrates adequate savings in time or effort extends to evaluating such technology. Future research should investigate further evaluation methodologies for information-seeking behaviour of museum collection databases.


This paper presents a study that analyses the information-seeking behaviour of academics utilising the British Museum's COL. This study has enhanced our understanding and awareness of the scholarly perceptions of their information environment as well as how the usability and functionality of the British Museum's digital collection affects academic information-searching and research processes.

The research suggests that academic users value digital resources highly and use them extensively in research. There was also a positive response to the functionality, usability and content of the British Museum COL. Academics display specific information-seeking behaviour and sophisticated search strategies. The majority are seeking a known object, and utilise discipline specific search terms, showing goal-driven intent and a detailed prior knowledge of the museum (and academic) information environment. The academic users have an understanding of their individual search skills. The majority of respondents held positive opinions of the content within the COL, finding it easy to understand, comprehensive, accurate and helpful to their research, yet often yielding inadequate search results within the COL database. A methodological failing due to utilising a pop up survey with inappropriate timing and multiple free text questions resulted in a lowered response rate, leading us to question aspects of this method to enable us to gain a more detailed insight into the search behaviours of academics. Nevertheless, offering an account of how academic users of the British Museum COL seek information has provided us with a better understanding of search patterns and information-seeking behaviour of a specific user group, and provided a guide for further development of the Collections Online. This understanding will help to refine and develop museum online collections and should impact upon design, development, implementation and access to digital museum resources as a whole.


Many thanks to Matthew Cock, Head of Web British Museum, and David Prudames, Senior Content Commissioner, British Museum. Additional thanks to Vera Motyckova.


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Cite as:

Ross, C., and M. Terras, "Scholarly Information-Seeking Behaviour in the British Museum Online Collection". In J. Trant and D. Bearman (eds). Museums and the Web 2011: Proceedings. Toronto: Archives & Museum Informatics. Published March 31, 2011. Consulted