What is a Collection?

  • James Curral
  • Michael Moss
  • Susan Stuart


The word "collection" has been common currency in what we accept as the real world of objects and events, and has been imported with seemingly little effort into our discourse about the digital world, yet there is no clear definition in either domain of what is meant by the term. We clarify this issue by first examining how the term is used in the contemporary information science literature and then by going on to establish the criteria which are employed in bringing a collection about. We will argue that the assumption that there is a realist permanence or fixity in the world that determines taxonomies is false, and that the only feasible approach to the construction of categories to which objects, whether digital or physical, are allocated is an anti-realist one where attention is paid to the intentions and subsequent decisions of the collector.

Le mot "collection" est monnaie courante dans le monde réel des objets et des événements et a été importé sans trop d'efforts dans notre discours sur le monde numérique. Cependant, il n'en existe pas de définition précise dans aucun de ces domaines. Les auteurs clarifient ce problème en examinant d'abord comment ce mot a été utilisé dans la littérature contemporaine sur les sciences de l'information et ensuite en établissant les critères qui sont employés pour créer une collection. Ils allèguent que l'hypothèse qu'il existe une permanence au sens réaliste du terme ou une fixité dans le monde qui détermine la classification est fausse. Selon eux, la seule approche faisable dans la construction de catégories pour répartir des objets, qu'ils soient numériques ou physiques, est anti-réaliste, et on doit alors porter attention aux intentions et aux décisions de l'institution qui collectionne.

Author Biographies

James Curral
James Currall is the Information Strategy Manager at the University of Glasgow, where he interacts with archivists, librarians, information technologists, and university managers. With a background in computing and statistics, Mr. Currall has been for the last three years a senior research fellow of the Humanities Advanced Technology and Information Institute (HATII) at the University of Glasgow. It is here that he is developing applied research into information issues drawing on his service and strategic experience, and also more theoretical work on the nature of digital objects and the problems associated with their management and retention. Over the last two years, he has been an invited speaker at the International Congress on Archives, Vienna, and at the last two annual conferences of the Society of Archivists, addressing the preservation of digital objects and the nature of archiving.
Michael Moss
Michael Moss was born in Yorkshire and educated at Bath and Oxford. He trained as an archivist at the Bodleian Library and was Archivist at the University of Glasgow from 1974 until 2001. Since then he has been Research Professor in Archive Studies in the Humanities Advanced Technology and Information Institute. He has published widely on many subjects.
Susan Stuart
Susan Stuart is a senior lecturer in Philosophy in the Faculty of Arts at the University of Glasgow. She teaches in the Humanities Advanced Technology and Information Institute (HATII) and in the Department of Philosophy. Her research interests are in the philosophy of mind, Kant’s epistemology, questions of ontology, and idealism and technology. She has published on the application of Kant’s transcendental psychology to contemporary issues in cognitive science; deception; theories of mind and autism; the conditions for conscious agency; the ontology of digital objects, and on teaching philosophy in cyberspace. Ms. Stuart is currently engaged in research on the binding problem and how information that is stored across the brain is integrated into one unitary conscious experience, the self as neither body nor mind but active agency, and applying Dilthey’s Geisteswissenschaften to the information user in their context. She is the Regional Director of the European Computing and Philosophy Association, and has recently been appointed to the American Philosophical Association Committee for Philosophy and Computing.
How to Cite
Curral, James, Michael Moss, and Susan Stuart. 2004. “What Is a Collection?”. Archivaria 58 (August), 131-46. https://archivaria.ca/index.php/archivaria/article/view/12480.