Critiquing MESL

by Pankaj Bengani

PURPOSE: Which of the search engines within the Museum Educational Site Licensing (MESL) Project's participant universities provides the best GUI and descriptions of the available pictures. In addition, I was looking for some type of logical standardization of picture types and qualities (resolution; size), and ways in which the site was being creative to leave as much of the decision making process to the user as possible, without making the process any more complicated.

To keep the comparisons as objective and accurate as possible, I have used the same search sequences at all of the participant institutions which I examined. I specifically did two types of searches: a very general kind, and a very specific one. The general search was done to examine the results of a large and open ended query. To experiment with this, I searched under the term "Urban" [my goal here was to see how many pictures would be shown which had urban motifs]. I broke the specific search down to three terms: I wanted to see if there were pictures of airplanes [commercial & historical] in the MESL database, so I searched under "Airplane", "Aeroplane", and "Aviation". I did this to see if the databases were capable of handling language variations of different nations (USA vs. UK). The "Aviation" query was meant to (ideally) combine the first two searches together.

The Results are as follows:

American University

The searches here yielded mediocre results. The general, "urban" search was generally quite good. I was able to scan contemporary pictures, such as a photograph of the Empire State Building, as well as older urban depictions, such as this impressionist paining. An excellent feature of this search was that next to the picture, there was a frame which had relevant details (i.e.: author, date of creation, etc.). This can be seen in any of the above mentioned two pictures. There were some deficiencies in the search, however. Although most of the results of my search were materials relevant to any type of urban environment, a few irrelevant pictures were also displayed. A picture of a ceramic vessel shows nothing about any type of urban environment. Perhaps the greatest SNAFU was that a whole series of images to do with turbans was displayed, like this portrait of a man with turban. It is obvious that the search engine captured the 'urban' from t[urban], and completely destroyed the relevancy of the search string (I hesitate to think about the results if I had done any type of complex Boolean searching...).

My specific search results were very poorly handled by the American University search engine. I received no data when I searched under "airplane" or "aviation", and my "aeroplane" search yielded this portrait. If you look back at this picture, you will see that it was retrieved because one of the materials used to make the product was Aeroplane Board (?). Perhaps exceptions can be made since the MESL database itself was lacking in a collection of airplanes.

The overall searchability of the database here is about average. The interface is quite user friendly, since details about the picture are provided conveniently adjacently. Some improvements can be made, however (and these will be highlighted and discussed further on), but I do think that at the very least, all the files need to be named and referenced correctly so that this embarrasing display is not shown.

Cornell University

Of all the sites, I thought that Cornell University's search engine and GUI were the best. For example, the searches always yielded thumbnails with short descriptions. This was very good because I was able to see the pictures from all of my searches simultaneously for comparison. In addition, the number of thumbnails to be displayed on each page was customizable. For example, my "urban" search yielded this screen. If I wanted to learn more about any given picture, I could select the relevant graphic and get a screen with all of the biographical details and a larger version of the picture. The "urban" search was quite good, with the only weak results being pictures of sites to do with [urban]a-champaign.

The "aeroplane" search yielded no results.

The "airplane" search did show one page of airplane related pictures. These pictures were not directly related to airplanes, but had them as a background topic nonetheless. For example, in this Yalta painting one can see the airplanes in the background, and this is corroborated when one analyzes the relevant data for that picture.

University of Maryland College Park

The search results were presented rather poorly at this site. Here is a sample screen of search results for items found under the "urban" query. The inefficiency in this screen is that one has to continually move between screens to compare paintings since the graphics are not shown side by side. This is a definite problem for people in the market to make comparisons.

The searches were of average quality. Some irrelevant collections were shown, but this is expected with any type of search engine. The "airplane", "aeroplane" and "aviation" searches were not spectacular. A few Pictures were found for the "airplane" search, but this is the screen I got when I tried to look at the picture.

University of Michigan

This site was extremely user friendly and I was very happy with the way the searches were conducted. First of all, all searches were received in thumbnail fashion, such as this query for "urban" topics. The second half of the same screen contained the relevant data. Perhaps the only draw back to this system is that one has to keep scrolling up and down to compare a picture to its individual description. An excellent feature of the system was that one had the option of chosing the size of the picture to be viewed.

Although the "aeroplane" search yielded nothing, the "airplane" search was quite good. It returned the highest number of relevant "airplane" materials (compared to similar searches at other sites). These varied from having Airplane in the title and/or subject, to airplanes being in the background.

University of Virginia

My experience with the searches at this site was terrible. I was unable to get any results for any of my searches, whether they were broad such as "urban", or specific such as "airplane". It is possible that the non-responsive nature of my queries was due to some hardware/software problems, but I doubt it because I did conduct some other, simpler searches, and they came out clearly.

After Thoughts

The two best search sites, by far, were Cornell and Michigan for their creativity in ease of use and customizability by the user. Perhaps the one critical comment I would make for all of the MESL participants is that they should attempt to standardize picture formats: whether they be tiffs, picts, gifs, or jpegs. This is important so that a standard for comparison (of size and resolution) can be created.

One factor which I think is of high priority is to make the MESL database accessible to as large a percentage of the population as possible. If someone in the UK decides to search for "aeroplane" their luck will wane pretty thin because the database does not support any other spellings except those of American origination. This is especially strange since many of the pictures actually originate from Europe...