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Magazines > Computers in Libraries > April 2020

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Vol. 40 No. 3 — April 2020

Curating YouTube: Indexing Scholarly Video Resources
by Jeffrey Meyer

Librarians can dive into YouTube, navigating beyond the surface to find real treasures in the depths.
YouTube is not just a popular website. It is a matrix of global culture, a digital place in which people from all over the world can upload and view videos. The Economist estimates that more than 2 billion people visit YouTube monthly. Users upload some 500 hours of video to the website each minute. 

YouTube is not just for entertainment. This video giant offers much more than music videos and comedy sketches. YouTube provides countless videos in every genre and taste imaginable. Each academic subject has an opportunity to broadcast information to the billions of people viewing YouTube. Even the most serious and technical topics are addressed on the platform. For instance, an increasing number of surgeons refer to YouTube to review surgical procedures. 

The panoply of scholarly resources available on YouTube makes this platform relevant to librarians. It provides access to lectures, discussions, and interviews with some of the leading scholars and researchers of our age. Videos include college-level lectures from some of the most prestigious learning institutions on the planet. 

This free database provides a unique opportunity for libraries. They can curate its video material and develop video catalogs in a similar manner to catalogs of print material. Librarians can dive into YouTube, navigating beyond the surface to find real treasures in the depths. 

Finding Treasure

As with the internet in general, the key advantage of YouTube can also be its weakness. The sheer amount of content—and the ease with which it can be uploaded—can make the quality of the site’s content murky. So how does one begin sorting through YouTube to find high-quality educational content? In an analysis of the quality of surgical videos on YouTube, a study published in the World Journal of Emergency Surgery found that the unregulated nature of the platform allowed for lesser-quality videos to appear more readily than higher-quality ones. Thus, simple keyword searching often won’t suffice to find the best learning content on YouTube. There’s so much competition that videos with high view counts can bury more informational content. 

A search for information-rich content on YouTube is different than a search for popular content. While there is a race among entertainment and business interests to gain view counts in the millions or even billions, high-quality learning content often has much lower view counts. Videos meant to entertain have higher search positions, because they are, well, entertaining. This reality can make it harder to discover high-quality informational content that is not meant to solely entertain. 

Let’s do target searching. Instead of asking YouTube what it has on psychology, tell it to list its results on psychology from Yale University. Yes, we want to see if Yale (or Harvard) has information on psychology. There is so much content from so many different outlets that librarians have the power to be very picky—so be picky. Don’t settle for gimmicky, amateur content. Real scientists and scholars are on YouTube, and a targeted search will find them. 

YouTube search strategies follow what librarians have done for generations, just in a digital environment. A librarian is searching not just for any answer but a good answer. Good answers can be found at good institutions. Just as Yale University Press provides high-quality print resources, Yale provides high-quality video resources on YouTube. The evaluation of the institution that publishes the content is a useful way to filter through the abundance of results. 

Similar to books, YouTube videos have publishers. As with print resources, the publisher of video content can be a good indication of the quality of the content. Publishers are denoted on YouTube’s service as channels. A way to approach YouTube is to identify an institution that is authoritative in the subject of inquiry. Let’s use astronomy as an example. What institution has the best grasp on astronomy? Check NASA’s official YouTube channel. 

YouTube’s collection is so big that we can cut through the amateur videos and go right to the most authoritative institutions in the world. Answers to health questions really need to come from an authoritative source. Check the Mayo Clinic’s YouTube channel. A check mark on the channel profile page indicates that YouTube has verified that it is actually operated by the stated organization. For instance, the YouTube channel FRONTLINE PBS | Official has a check mark on its channel page, indicating it is an official PBS outlet and not a user masquerading as PBS. A detailed About page provides source information about the channel.

YouTube presents librarians with a new frontier and a new opportunity. Let’s navigate through the wide ocean and find the route to treasure.

Curating YouTube

Finding, mapping, and organizing YouTube’s scholarly resources can seem overwhelming, given the volume of matter available on the platform. However, it helps to focus on the familiar—familiar universities, government agencies, media outlets, scientific organizations, and research institutions. These are excellent places to start. 

In addition to examining the channel’s authority, a second limiter that a librarian can set is to filter out channels that tend to produce short snippet videos. Lectures, interviews, and discussions that really have meat to them are longer than 2 minutes or even 10 minutes. Again, there is so much material on YouTube that we can be picky. Get the good fruit.

Table 1 shows that even a short list of high-quality resources can spider outward, leading into a substantial amount of information from the top authorities. The aim here is to dig through the quantity in order to get to the quality. In most cases, the YouTube channel matches the name of the organization. However, there are certain exceptions. For instance, one of Google’s channels is called Talks at Google, and Yale’s channel is YaleCourses. Table 1 is essentially a publisher (or channel) index.

Table 2 details a specific playlist in each channel. A playlist in YouTube is a group of videos that a user or institution has collated together, as they follow a common theme. For instance, the channel BBC Documentary has a playlist of videos titled The World of Stonehenge. Most channels have multiple playlists, so Table 2 can easily be expanded by simply adding more playlists from the provided channels. 

The playlists selected here, in general, contain videos with a large amount of content. And because play­lists have multiple videos, each thus offers several hours of informational content. For example, Human Origins (CARTA), produced by the University of California Television (UCTV) channel, has hundreds of hours of lectures and discussions from eminent scientists in anthropology and archaeology, meaning that this YouTube channel harbors a great treasury of anthropological information.

Librarians can also index YouTube videos by subject. Table 3 arranges the same playlists alphabetically by subject. In many ways, a subject index may be the most helpful type of index to develop for patrons, as the searcher can quickly find a relevant subject and then identify the relevant playlist and channel. Another possible way to index YouTube videos is by the name of the presenter, essentially the video equivalent of an author index.

YouTube Learning Gems

YouTube indexes lead patrons to scholarly treasure, including the totality of the cosmos and the microscopic world of cells. Few things are more ambitious than the attempt to understand the physical mechanics of the universe. Nine lectures from Leonard Susskind at Stanford University provide a physics-based understanding of modern cosmology.

Similarly, NASA’s MSL Curiosity play­list allows viewers to listen to hour-long discussions on the Mars rover from NASA’s engineers. There are lectures on environmental topics from the oldest extent scientific institution in the world, The Royal Society. 

The Earth is filled with great mysteries. The American Museum of Natural History’s SciCafe playlist includes lectures by scientists on a diverse range of topics, such as oceanography, the Ice Age, and dinosaurs. Moving to the human realm, PBS offers full-length documentaries from its popular FRONTLINE series, which examines current events and world affairs. Similarly, the playlist Technology at Google on the Talks at Google channel provides more than 100 discussions on AI, machine learning, and the role of technology in society. 


YouTube is an exciting platform that has emerged as a global network of audiovisual matter. With the right search strategy, librarians can cut through the dense layer of whimsical entertainment content and discover a treasure trove of scholarly resources. They can then bring these treasures—many from the most prestigious and influential research institutions in the world—to the surface. YouTube represents a new frontier—to index and catalog the world’s scholarly audiovisual information—and librarians have the skills to navigate through the murky waters and find YouTube’s highest-quality material for patrons.


de’Angelis, Nicola, et al. “Educational Value of Surgical Videos on YouTube: Quality Assessment of Laparoscopic Appendectomy Videos by Senior Surgeons vs. Novice Trainees.” World Journal of Emergency Surgery 14, no. 22 (2019): 1–11.

“Now Playing, Everywhere: The Tricky Task of Policing YouTube.” The Economist 431, no. 9141 (2019): 17–19.

Jeffrey Meyer ( received an M.L.S. from the University of Pittsburgh and holds a CompTIA A+ computer certification. He is the director of the Mount Pleasant Public Library in Iowa.