Notes from ‘MCG Futures’ at MCG’s Spring Conference

These are my notes from ‘MCG Futures’ Jon Pratty and Ross Parry (presented by Jon Pratty) at the Museums Computer Group (MCG) Spring Conference. There’s some background to my notes about the conference in a previous post. If I’ve made any comments below they’re in [square brackets]. The slides for MCG Futures are online.

Jon: in this presentation will outline the evaluation process, present some of the feedback to date and the timescales.

We’ve got our work cut out getting level and quality of feedback we need.

Disclaimer: he’s not presenting the personal views of Jon or Ross; but presenting what the membership think so far.

The MCG has an ‘astonishing heritage’ of meetings and discussions held across the country and throughout the year [slide 2 is a list of all the meetings – this is the 51st]. There’s a rich archive of content, proceedings, papers, etc. The MCG has a valuable archive, culture, way of working and communal history.

As the web starts to move faster than the organisation, what do you do? What does the momentum of technology mean. Are we keeping up with changes?

Slide 3 is the timetable for consultation, formulation and action – changes to be agreed at the AGM in autumn 2008. Slides 5 – 10 present some of the feedback so far.

Are we reaching out far and hard enough? They’ve had 20 – 25 specific feedback emails, fewer from the online form. They will be asking other organisations how they do it to so can get more feedback. The big steps that might be coming require feedback from bigger sample of membership. [So if you want to see change, you have to send comments! It’s ok to be critical, and it’s ok to write about what you like already.]

The Autumn meeting will be crucial – if there are going to be changes, information has to go out before the Annual General Meeting so the membership have time and notice to consider those changes.

It’s going to happen relatively quickly – it’s ‘not a long period of navel-gazing’.

Some thoughts based on comments so far:
Is MCG a collection of voices or a unified voice?
Do we set agendas or reflect them?
Are we as technologists [doers] disenfranchised from the people who make decisions?
Web or print?
What’s the role of newsletter?
Would you want a blog? (As this asks more of a group of people or MCG committee if so, how would that work?)
What about membership fees.

Questions – what about the:
Function: advocacy, research, collaboration?
Governance: structure, responsibility, size?
Interactions: frequency, location, focus?
Membership: composition, benefits, cost?
Outputs: newsletter, reports, web?
Affiliations: professional, governmental, commercial?

[If you missed the first call for feedback, you can email Debbie Richards, use the feedback form, or discuss it on the MCG list. It doesn’t matter if you’re not a member, or not in IT/a technologist or not a web person – your opinion is valuable.]

The UK Museums and the Web Conference will be at the University of Leicester on June 19, 2008.

Notes from ‘Museums and Europeana – the European Digital Library’ at MCG’s Spring Conference

These are my notes from David Dawson’ presentation ‘Europeana – Museums and the European Digital Library’ at the MCG Spring Conference. There’s some background to my notes about the conference in a previous post. If I’ve made any comments below they’re in [square brackets].

David’s slides for ‘Europeana – Museums and the European Digital Library’ are online.

Europeana is new name for the European Digital Library (EDL).

The EDL is a political initiative – part of i2010 Eu’s IT strategy. It will provide a common point of multilingual access to online ‘stuff’. It includes the TEL project (The European Library – catalogue records of national libraries) and MICHAEL.

The Europeana ‘maquette’ was launched in February, showing how might work in a few years time. ‘One or two little issues still need working on’. ‘Themes’ aren’t really being taken forward. It has social tagging (going into faceted browsing [did I get that right?]). Works around who, what, where and when, and includes a timeline. It will have 7 million pieces of content.

Europeana and MICHAEL (multilingual websites/digital collections from cultural heritage sector across Europe).
MICHAEL doesn’t reach to item level, just collection descriptions. It also relates to collection descriptions in TEL.

Why are service registries needed?
Map of where content is and how it is managed.
Information Environment Service Registry
Machine to machine services; will know what schemas and terminologies have been used. Interoperability protocols.
(Translated subject terminology and screen material into Welsh.)

EDLNet project. Interoperability Working Group.
MinervaEC – the Minerva technical guidleines are being revised/updated. The previous guidelines were downloaded 60,000 times in 9 languages – this indicates the appetite for guidelines.

Slide 14 shows the path from institutional databases to national or theme/topic-based portals , from there into the EDL. [The metadata storage diagram on slide 15 is what’s currently being built, slide 14 is a year old.]

It will support RDF triples. It will offer simple, advanced and faceted search [faceted search as browsing].

APIs would provide the mechanism to enable many different uses of the metadata. The benefit is then in the underlying services, not just website. [But if we want APIs, we have to ask for them or they might not happen.]

How to promote your content in Europeana?
Create your content using open standards. If you are already using the Minerva technical standards, then you should be able to supply your metadata so it they can link into something that will go into Europeana.

You should use your existing metadata standards and prepare to map your data to domain-specific Dublic Core Application Profiles. [Does domain specific mean there won’t be one schema for museums, libraries, and archives; but possibly schemas for each? A really usable schema for museum data is the other thing we need to make APIs the truly useful tool they could be, even if different types of museums have slightly different requirements from a schema.]

Terminologies – prepare to take advantage of the semantic web. Publish terminologies and thesauri using SKOS – it’s machine readable, can be used by search engines. [Using computers to match ontologies? Semweb FTW! Sorry, got a bit excited.]

Register your content and services with existing registries like TEL and MICHAEL.

All EU member states must: increase digitisation, tackle access, sort IPR, enable preservation.

Practicalities: in the UK the People’s Network Discover Service (PNDS) currently harvests 500,000 digital objects. All MLA funded activity requires participation. Other projects, like Exploring 20th Century London, are using the PNDS infrastructure. The PNDS will contain an estimated 4 million digital objects by [the end of] 2008. It will be integrated into Culture 24 and the Collections Trust Subject Specialist Networks; part of same national infrastructure.

eContentPlus and EDLocal – support for institutions to get metadata into PNDS.

Timetable (slide 20): May 23, project conference launch [ask for information if you want to have your say]; June 4th, launch of Due Diligence Guidelines on Orphan Works [which will be useful for recent discussions about copyright and the cultural heritage sector].

23rd, 24th June – Europeana initial prototype reviewed – call for volunteers?
It’s important to have museums people at the conference in order to represent museum-specific requirements, including the need for an API. It might be possible to fund museum people to get there.

November 2008: high profile launch.

After May 23rd David will be on the other side of the fence, and his question will be ‘how can I get my content into the PNDS, Culture 24, Europeana?’.

Questions
Mike: is the API a must? David: it is for him, for the project managers it might be a maybe. Mike: without an API it will die a death.

Andrew: thanks to David for his work at the MLA (and the MCG). From May 24th [after David leaves], how does the MLA support this work? David: expecting announcment would have been made but as they haven’t yet it’s difficult to answer that.

Me: how can we as museums advocate or evangelise about the need for an API? David: go to the conference, represent views of institutions.

This session ended with thanks from Debbie and a round of applause for David’s contributions to the Museums Computer Group.

Notes from ‘The Welsh Dimension’ at MCG’s Spring Conference

There are my notes from ‘The Welsh Dimension: Issues facing the museum sector in Wales’ by Lesley-Ann Kerr at the MCG Spring meeting. Lesley-Ann’s slides are online. Her presentation was about the issues facing the sector in Wales and the challenges of working in a small country. It helped contextualise some of the later papers, particularly the importance of bilingual sites and online collections.

There’s some background to my notes about the conference in a previous post. Any of my comments are in [square brackets] below.

Background to Welsh context:
The landscape: literal and metaphorical; lots of Wales is rural, with a dispersed population, and poor south-north transport infrastructure – this has practical implications. There are variations in the coverage of local authority areas.

Online collections are important for providing access to key collections online and background about them for people in remote areas.

Language: there’s a Welsh Language Act; they are required to offer bilingual services, some people use Welsh as first language. 25% of population is Welsh speaking.

This presents challenges in: translation costs; display (twice the text; do you display both on one page or on separate pages online/on screen, and how do you deal with text on panels nicely?); online databases (e.g. standard terminologies are difficult enough in one language); support for Welsh character set (e.g. requires Unicode); characters can be corrupted in document conversion; all planning must take bilingual challenges into account; maintenance issues – content must be in both languages, Welsh language versions can get out of step.

Use tools to translate searches; pick up keywords in both languages and present results appropriately. Switching between languages must be easy, particularly for learners when they reach limits of their Welsh.

Cultural identity: it’s about more than just language; there’s a sense of place. Socially, the question ‘where are you from’ comes before the question ‘what do you do’. Providing services to a dispersed population can help provide cohesive sense of identity. The role of online collections is again important.

“What are we doing”
Spotlight on museums‘ – a comprehensive survey.

Quantifying Diversity‘ across museums, libraries and archives; equality strands around collections, staff, users.

Museum strategy for Wales – it comes from and is for museums – government policy will come from that [great! that seems like the right way around]. It provides a strategic way forward for museums in Wales but is about evolution rather then revolution.

One Wales (coalition agreement in government) includes commitment for an online People’s Collection. They’ll work with existing partners; will be using some cutting edge tech, some social networking stuff; looking not just at organisations with content and at developing new content but at involving users too. They’ll be looking at Canadian and Australian sites [what is it with countries with dispersed populations and good collective digitisation programs?].

Notes from ‘New Media Interpretation in the National Waterfront Museum’ at MCG’s Spring Conference

These are my notes from the presentation ‘New Media Interpretation in the National Waterfront Museum’ by Steph Mastoris at the MCG Spring Conference. There’s some background to my notes about the conference in a previous post. Any comments in [square brackets] are mine.

I’ve put up lots of photos and some video from lunchtime tour of the interactives at the NWM.

Some background about the National Waterfront Museum (NWM):
The aim of the museum is to talk about the industrialisation of Wales. Its precursors were the Welsh Industrial Maritime Museum and the Swansea Maritime and Industrial Museum – in some ways these were unsuccessful museums.

The focus is on the human experience of industrialisation rather than the technology; it’s a celebration of the impact rather than the technology itself.

Interpretation was intended to be delivered through new media right from the start. Objects are jumping off points for interpretation.

Displays are in zones; but using open-ended concepts rather than themes or chronological order. They are kaleidoscopic rather than comprehensive. Both a criticism and a strength of approach is that you end up with a fragmented view of a subject, though you can pick it up throughout the gallery. It’s not for specialists, but for population who’ve never given industrialisation a second thought. It’s audience-led, and not afraid to be populist.

Types of new media in the National Waterfront Museum:
The new media ranges from traditional looping films with personal testimony or oral history to audience-initiated stuff. Way-finders have visitor-activated mapping and constantly changing displays, and there are completely visitor-centred (activated?) displays. The ‘People’ interactive displays move from a map to a digital reconstruction of town, to a digital reconstruction of a house, then to embedded images of artefacts (also visible in the cases) then optionally onto detail that contextualises the artefacts. Visitors can manipulate stuff on screen, initiate oral histories and move onto items that are in collections but not on display.

Visitor reactions, 30 months into the project:
The response has been ‘amazingly good’; they’ve exceeded their targets for visitor numbers in both the first and second years (and avoided the second year slump). The museum was designed around free access, with three entrances that encourage people to pop in and out. He suspects they are getting lots of short-term visitation as well as a lot of the ‘classic one-and-a half hour’ visits. It helps that they have an extremely active and community focused events program – their aim is to ‘turn the main hall into the village hall of Swansea’.

Their visitors mirror the Welsh population in terms of age; not as much on social grade but they’re doing better than other Welsh museums. They’re fulfilling their populist agenda as best as they can.

The digital divide by age starts to become apparent when you look at ‘enjoyment‘. Older groups are having difficulties with something; the interactive computer parts are least popular for 55+ group. they like the traditional galleries more. They’re addressing this with proactive gallery staff and by adding value to other aspects. Other museums thinking about interactives have to address this as the sector moves towards a new media approach.

The delights and problems of being a new media museum:
Buildings: you will need to pay attention to the critical path of power, plant and equipment (all it takes is one thing to go wrong in the chain – e.g. something (‘some plastic bags, fifteen condoms and a dead dog’) blocking the water supply that cools the building); physical access for servicing IT components (e.g. changing bulbs in projectors); the effect of the building design on new media display performance (e.g. sunlight on screens or projections).

Costs: energy costs, consumables (e.g. projector bulbs are a huge cost per year), support contracts, product renewal. They spend nearly £30,000 a year on projector bulbs!

People: technical team (restructure the organisation around a dynamic highly-skilled technical team); contractors; gallery authors (act as interpretative consultants and mediate between curators and designers and audiences).

Attitudes: display down-time (5% of displays are down at any one time; it’s a moving target, just one of those things. Technology is fragile – it’s a big change from when museums only had static cases); staff flexibility and the creativity to deal with these new challenges; corporate perceptions of wealth (lots of money coming in but it’s all being spent), managing expectations (people think IT can do anything easily).

Display renewals [slide]:
Inter-relationship between collections and display, conservation. ‘sacrificial artefacts’ – not accessioned.
You can have a small impact from large expenditure.
Inter-referenced displays – what if a way finder points visitors to something that isn’t currently on display?
How do you maintain technical cutting edge when things designed in 2002/03 are still on display; new technologies are fragile, become more robust in later versions. But as more common also more boring.
What is the next big thing? They’re planning time to look at what’s upcoming.

Notes from ‘Catch the Wind: Digital Preservation and the Real World’ at MCG’s Spring Conference

These are my notes from Nick Poole’s presentation ‘Catch the Wind: Digital Preservation and the Real World’ at the MCG Spring Conference. There’s some background to my notes about the conference in a previous post. If I’ve made any comments below they’re in [square brackets].

Nick’s slides for ‘Catch the Wind: Digital Preservation and the Real World’ are online.

The MDA is now the Collections Trust. Their belief is that “everybody everywhere should have the right to access and benefit from cultural collections”. Their work includes standards, professional development and public programmes wherever collections are kept and cared for and they have a remit across collections management, including documentation, digitisation and digital preservation.

We need to think about capturing and preserving digital surrogates, etc, or we’ll end up with a ‘digital dark age’.

We need a convergence of standards and practice in museums, libraries and archives, and to develop a community of professional practice.

Nick was interested to know if whether any museums are actively doing digital preservation. It turns out lots have some elements of digital preservation but it’s not deeply embedded in the organisation. Nick sent a question to the Museums Computer Group (MCG) list: see the list archives for December 2007, or slide 6.

If you’re not doing digital preservation, why not? And how do you decide whether and what is worth preserving? How do you preserve pieces of information or digital assets in their context needed for them to make sense?

Today is partly about the results of the enquiry begun with that email.

We know what we should be doing [slide 9, CHIN slide on workflow for ‘Digital Preservation for Museums’.]

We know why we should be doing it:

The preservation and re-use of digital data and information forms both the cornerstone of future economic growth and development, and the foundation
for the future of memory.

From “Changing Trains at Wigan: Digital Preservation and the Future of Scholarship” by Seamus Ross – the ‘common-sense bible about digital preservation’.

And there are lots of programs and diagrams (slides 11 – 15).

So if we know why and how we should be doing it, why aren’t we doing it?

It’s not necessarily about technology or money – is it about the culture in museums?
There’s no funding imperative; project-funded digitisation seldom provides for (or requires) the kind of long-term embedded work that digital preservation requires.

It depends on the integration of workflows and systems which is still rare in museums. Some digital preservation principles fit more intuitively with an archival point of view than an object/artefact point of view.

Is it possibly also because museums aren’t part of the scholarly/academic publishing loop which is giving rise to large scale digital preservation initiatives? e.g. Open Content Alliance.

We also don’t have an expectation about the retrievability of non-object museum information that we do about collection information. [Too true, it doesn’t seem to be valued the same way.]

We should learn from libraries and archives. We could mandate ‘good enough’ standards so digital assets can be migrated into stable environments in the future. There’s so much going on that we’ll never be able to draw a line in the sand and say ‘standards happen now’. We need to tweak the way we work now, not introduce a whole new project.

A proposed national solution: could we aggregate ‘just enough’ metadata at a central point and preserve it there? But would organisations become disenfranchised from their own information, lose expertise in the curatorship of digital content, and would it blur the distinction between active and dormant records?

If not a national solution, then it must be local: but would it actually happen without statute, obligation or funding? Possibly through networks of people who support each other in digitisation work, but there are economic issues in developing infrastructure and expertise.

Museums seem oddly distant from current initiatives (e.g. Digital Preservation Coalition, Digital Curation Centre), and lack methodologies and tools that are specific to museum information. Do we need to develop collective approaches for digital preservation?

He hasn’t got answers, just more questions.

We must start finding answers or the value of what we’re doing right now will be lost in ten years time.

Questions
Mike: there was a slide ‘is this stuff worth preserving’ – but that question wasn’t answered – is there lots of stuff we should and can just chuck away? Nick: the archival world view is more like that.

Alan [?]: born digital stuff like websites is difficult to ‘index and scope’. The V&A website is divorced from libraries and archives – internal databases don’t link to website [to capture non-collections records?]. What are the units of information or assets within a website? It’s impossible to define boundaries and therefore to catalogue and preserve… How do we capture this content? Nick: web archiving solutions are already out there but do museums have the money for it?

John: to what extent could digital repositories be out-sourced? Nick: look at examples like the Archaeology Data Service. But for whatever reason, we’re not following those models.

David: preservation was in NOF Digitise in business plan but … didn’t happen. He doesn’t think archives are ahead in preservation services. Museums use of collections management systems is different to academia using repositories – there’s an interesting distinction between long-term archiving and day to day work.

Ian [?] – re-run what we’ve done with [digitising] object collections but think about information collections too [?]. Nick: there’s a development path there in existing CollMS, possibly with hosted CollMS, We don’t need entirely new systems, we already have digital asset management systems (DAMS), web software, CollMS.

[This reminds me about recent discussions we’ve had internally about putting older object captions and information records on our OAI repository – this might be a step towards a ‘good enough’ step towards digital preservation.]

Back in the real world

I’m back in London after the 2007 Web Adept – UK Museums on the Web conference and the Mashed Museum hack day in Leicester. I’ll post my paper up later today. I think my head is still spinning from all the conversations and learning and hacking. I’ll write more when it’s all settled into my brain but one thing that’s clear is that the time might be ripe for the museums sector to pull together and think about and act on shared repositories, common or global object models, folksonomies, etc, in a strategic, transparent and gracious way. Maybe the papers presented this time next year will be about ‘the death of the institutional silo’.

On a personal note, I realised that I’ve used ‘extensible, re-usable and interoperable’ in every paper I’ve given in the past two years. I guess you can take the geek out of Open Source but you can’t take the Open Source out of the geek.