From piles of material to patchwork: How do we embed the production of usable collections data into library work?

How do we embed the production of usable collections data into library work?These notes were prepared for a panel discussion at the ‘Always Already Computational: Collections as Data‘ (#AACdata) workshop, held in Santa Barbara in March 2017. While my latest thinking on the gap between the scale of collections and the quality of data about them is informed by my role in the Digital Scholarship team at the British Library, I’ve also drawn on work with catalogues and open cultural data at Melbourne Museum, the Museum of London, the Science Museum and various fellowships. My thanks to the organisers and the Institute of Museum and Library Services for the opportunity to attend. My position paper was called ‘From libraries as patchwork to datasets as assemblages?‘ but in hindsight, piles and patchwork of material seemed a better analogy.

The invitation to this panel asked us to share our experience and perspective on various themes. I’m focusing on the challenges in making collections available as data, based on years of working towards open cultural data from within various museums and libraries. I’ve condensed my thoughts about the challenges down into the question on the slide: How do we embed the production of usable collections data into library work?

It has to be usable, because if it’s not then why are we doing it? It has to be embedded because data in one-off projects gets isolated and stale. ‘Production’ is there because infrastructure and workflow is unsexy but necessary for access to the material that makes digital scholarship possible.

One of the biggest issues the British Library (BL) faces is scale. The BL’s collections are vast – maybe 200 million items – and extremely varied. My experience shows that publishing datasets (or sharing them with aggregators) exposes the shortcomings of past cataloguing practices, making the size of the backlog all too apparent.

Good collections data (or metadata, depending on how you look at it) is necessary to avoid the overwhelmed, jumble sale feeling of using a huge aggregator like Europeana, Trove, or the DPLA, where you feel there’s treasure within reach, if only you could find it. Publishing collections online often increases the number of enquiries about them – how can institution deal with enquiries at scale when they already have a cataloguing backlog? Computational methods like entity identification and extraction could complement the ‘gold standard’ cataloguing already in progress. If they’re made widely available, these other methods might help bridge the resourcing gaps that mean it’s easier to find items from richer institutions and countries than from poorer ones.

Photo of piles of materialYou probably already all know this, but it’s worth remembering: our collections aren’t even (yet) a patchwork of materials. The collections we hold, and the subset we can digitise and make available for re-use are only a tiny proportion of what once existed. Each piece was once part of something bigger, and what we have now has been shaped by cumulative practical and intellectual decisions made over decades or centuries. Digitisation projects range from tiny specialist databases to huge commercial genealogy deals, while some areas of the collections don’t yet have digital catalogue records. Some items can’t be digitised because they’re too big, small or fragile for scanning or photography; others can’t be shared because of copyright, data protection or cultural sensitivities. We need to be careful in how we label datasets so that the absences are evident.

(Here, ‘data’ may include various types of metadata, automatically generated OCR or handwritten text recognition transcripts, digital images, audio or video files, crowdsourced enhancements or any combination or these and more)

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In addition to the incompleteness or fuzziness of catalogue data, when collections appear as data, it’s often as great big lumps of things. It’s hard for normal scholars to process (or just unzip) 4gb of data.

Currently, datasets are often created outside normal processes, and over time they become ‘stale’ as they’re not updated when source collections records change. And when they manage to unzip them, the records rely on internal references – name authorities for people, places, etc – that can only be seen as strings rather than things until extra work is undertaken.

The BL’s metadata team have experimented with ‘researcher format’ CSV exports around specific themes (eg an exhibition), and CSV is undoubtedly the most accessible format – but what we really need is the ability for people to create their own queries across catalogues, and create their own datasets from the results. (And by queries I don’t mean SPARQL but rather faceted browsing or structured search forms).

Image credit: screenshot from

Collections are huge (and resources relatively small) so we need to supplement manual cataloguing with other methods. Sometimes the work of crafting links from catalogues to external authorities and identifiers will be a machine job, with pieces sewn together at industrial speed via entity recognition tools that can pull categories out or text and images. Sometimes it’s operated by a technologist who runs records through OpenRefine to find links to name authorities or Wikidata records. Sometimes it’s a labour of scholarly love, with links painstakingly researched, hand-tacked together to make sure they fit before they’re finally recorded in a bespoke database.

This linking work often happens outside the institution, so how can we ingest and re-use it appropriately? And if we’re to take advantage of computational methods and external enhancements, then we need ways to signal which categories were applied by catalogues, which by software, by external groups, etc.

The workflow and interface adjustments required would be significant, but even more challenging would be the internal conversations and changes required before a consensus on the best way to combine the work of cataloguers and computers could emerge.

The trick is to move from a collection of pieces to pieces of a collection. Every collection item was created in and about places, and produced by and about people. They have creative, cultural, scientific and intellectual properties. There’s a web of connections from each item that should be represented when they appear in datasets. These connections help make datasets more usable, turning strings of text into references to things and concepts to aid discoverability and the application of computational methods by scholars. This enables structured search across datasets – potentially linking an oral history interview with a scientist in the BL sound archive, their scientific publications in journals, annotated transcriptions of their field notebooks from a crowdsourcing project, and published biography in the legal deposit library.

A lot of this work has been done as authority files like AAT, ULAN etc are applied in cataloguing, so our attention should turn to turning local references into URIs and making the most of that investment.

Applying identifiers is hard – it takes expert care to disambiguate personal names, places, concepts, even with all the hinting that context-aware systems might be able to provide as machine learning etc techniques get better. Catalogues can’t easily record possible attributions, and there’s understandable reluctance to publish an imperfect record, so progress on the backlog is slow. If we’re not to be held back by the need for records to be perfectly complete before they’re published, then we need to design systems capable of capturing the ambiguity, fuzziness and inherent messiness of historical collections and allowing qualified descriptors for possible links to people, places etc. Then we need to explain the difference to users, so that they don’t overly rely on our descriptions, making assumptions about the presence or absence of information when it’s not appropriate.

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Photo of pipes over a buildingA lot of what we need relies on more responsive infrastructure for workflows and cataloguing systems. For example, the BL’s systems are designed around the ‘deliverable unit’ – the printed or bound volume, the archive box – because for centuries the reading room was where you accessed items. We now need infrastructure that makes items addressable at the manuscript, page and image level in order to make the most of the annotations and links created to shared identifiers.

(I’d love to see absorbent workflows, soaking up any related data or digital surrogates that pass through an organisation, no matter which system they reside in or originate from. We aren’t yet making the most of OCRd text, let alone enhanced data from other processes, to aid discoverability or produce datasets from collections.)

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My final thought – we can start small and iterate, which is just as well, because we need to work on understanding what users of collections data need and how they want to use them. We’re making a start and there’s a lot of thoughtful work behind the scenes, but maybe a bit more investment is needed from research libraries to become as comfortable with data users as they are with the readers who pass through their physical doors.

Three ways you can help with ‘In their own words: collecting experiences of the First World War’ (and a CENDARI project update)

Somehow it’s a month since I posted about my CENDARI research project (in Moving forward: modelling and indexing WWI battalions) on this site. That probably reflects the rhythm of the project – less trying to work out what I want to do and more getting on with doing it. A draft post I started last month simply said, ‘A lot of battalions were involved in World War One’. I’ll do a retrospective post soon, and here’s a quick summary of on-going work.

First, a quick recap. My project has two goals – one, to collect a personal narrative for each battalion in the Allied armies of the First World War; two, to create a service that would allow someone to ask ‘where was a specific battalion at a specific time?’. Together, they help address a common situation for people new to WWI history who might ask something like ‘I know my great-uncle was in the 27th Australian battalion in March 1916, where would he have been and what would he have experienced?’.

I’ve been working on streamlining and simplifying the public-facing task of collecting a personal narrative for each battalion, and have written a blog post, Help collect soldiers’ experiences of WWI in their own words, that reduces it to three steps:

  1. Take one of the diaries, letters and memoirs listed on the Collaborative Collections wiki, and
  2. Match its author with a specific regiment or battalion.
  3. Send in the results via this form.

If you know of a local history society, family historian or anyone else who might be interested in helping, please send them along to this post: Help collect soldiers’ experiences of WWI in their own words.

Work on specifying the relevant data structures to support a look-up service to answer questions about a specific units location and activities at a specific time largely moved to the wiki:

You can see the infobox structures in progress by flipping from the talk to the Template tabs. You’ll need to request an account to join in but more views, sample data and edge cases would be really welcome.

Populating the list of battalions and other units has been a huge task in itself, partly because very few cultural institutions have definitive lists of units they can (or want to) share, but it’s necessary to support both core goals. I’ve been fortunate to have help (see ‘Thanks and recent contributions’ on ‘How you can help‘) but the task is on-going so get in touch if you can help!

So there are three different ways you can help with ‘In their own words: collecting experiences of the First World War’:

Finally, last week I was in New Zealand to give a keynote on this work at the National Digital Forum. The video for ‘Collaborative collections through a participatory commons‘ is online, so you can catch up on the background for my project if you’ve got 40 minutes or so to spare. Should you be in Dublin, I’m giving a talk on ‘A pilot with public participation in historical research: linking lived experiences of the First World War’ at the Trinity Long Room Hub today (thus the poster).

And if you’ve made it this far, perhaps you’d like to apply for a CENDARI Visiting Research Fellowships 2015 yourself?

Moving forward: modelling and indexing WWI battalions

A super-quick update from my CENDARI Fellowship this week. I set up the wiki for In their own words: linking lived experiences of the First World War a week ago but only got stuck into populating it with lists of various national battalions this week. My current task list, copied from the front page is to:

If you can help with any of that, let me know! Or just get stuck in and edit the site.
I’ve started another Google Doc with very sketchy Notes towards modelling information about World War One Battalions. I need to test it with more battalion histories and update it iteratively. At this stage my thinking is to turn it into an InfoBox format to create structured data via the wiki. It’s all very lo-fi and much less designed than my usual projects, but I’m hoping people will be able to help regardless.
So, in this phase of the project, the aim is find a personal narrative – a diary, letters, memoirs or images – for each military unit in the British Army. Can you help? 

In which I am awed by the generosity of others, and have some worthy goals

Grand Canal Dock at night, DublinA quick update from my CENDARI fellowship working on a project that’s becoming ‘In their own words: linking lived experiences of the First World War‘. I’ve spent the week reading (again a mixture of original diaries and letters, technical stuff like ontology documentation and also WWI history forums and ‘amateur’ sites) and writing. I put together a document outlining a rang of possible goals and some very sketchy tech specs, and opened it up for feedback. The goals I set out are copied below for those who don’t want to delve into detail. The commentable document, ‘Linking lived experiences of the First World War’: possible goals and a bunch of technical questions goes into more detail.

However, the main point of this post is to publicly thank those who’ve helped by commenting and sharing on the doc, on twitter or via email. Hopefully I’m not forgetting anyone, as I’ve been blown away by and am incredibly grateful for the generosity of those who’ve taken the time to at least skim 1600 words (!). It’s all helped me clarify my ideas and find solutions I’m able to start implementing next week. In no order at all – at CENDARI, Jennifer Edmond, Alex O’Connor, David Stuart, Benjamin Štular, Francesca Morselli, Deirdre Byrne; online Andrew Gray @generalising; Alex Stinson @ DHKState; jason webber @jasonmarkwebber; Alastair Dunning @alastairdunning; Ben Brumfield @benwbrum; Christine Pittsley; Owen Stephens @ostephens; David Haskiya @DavidHaskiya; Jeremy Ottevanger @jottevanger; Monika Lechner @lemondesign; Gavin Robinson ‏@merozcursed; Tom Pert @trompet2 – thank you all!

Worthy goals (i.e. things I’m hoping to accomplish, with the help of historians and the public; only some of which I’ll manage in the time)

At the end of this project, someone who wants to research a soldier in WWI but doesn’t know a thing about how armies were structured should be able to find a personal narrative from a soldier in the same bit of the army, to help them understand experiences of the Great War.

Hopefully these personal accounts will provide some context, in their own words, for the lived experiences of WWI. Some goals listed are behind-the-scenes stuff that should just invisibly make personal diaries, letters and memoirs more easily discoverable. It needs datasets that provide structures that support relationships between people and documents; participatory interfaces for creating or enhancing information about contemporary materials (which feed into those supporting structures), and interfaces that use the data created.

More specifically, my goals include:

    • A personal account by someone in each unit linked to that unit’s record, so that anyone researching a WWI name would have at least one account to read. To populate this dataset, personal accounts (diaries, letters, etc) would need to be linked to specific soldiers, who can then be linked to specific units. Linking published accounts such as official unit histories would be a bonus. [Semantic MediaWiki]
    • Researched links between individual men and the units they served in, to allow their personal accounts to be linked to the relevant military unit. I’m hoping I can find historians willing to help with the process of finding and confirming the military unit the writer was in. [Semantic MediaWiki]
    • A platform for crowdsourcing the transcription and annotation of digitised documents. The catch is that the documents for transcription would be held remotely on a range of large and small sites, from Europeana’s collection to library sites that contain just one or two digitised diaries. Documents could be tagged/annotated with the names of people, places, events, or concepts represented in them. [Semantic MediaWiki??]
    • A structured dataset populated with the military hierarchy (probably based on The British order of battle of 1914-1918) that records the start and end dates of each parent-child relationship (an example of how much units moved within the hierarchy)
    • A published webpage for each unit, to hold those links to official and personal documents about that unit in WWI. In future this page could include maps, timelines and other visualisations tailored to the attributes of a unit, possibly including theatres of war, events, campaigns, battles, number of privates and officers, etc. (Possibly related to CENDARI Work Package 9?) [Semantic MediaWiki]
    • A better understanding of what people want to know at different stages of researching WWI histories. This might include formal data gathering, possibly a combination of interviews, forum discussions or survey


Goals that are more likely to drop off, or become quick experiments to see how far you can get with accessible tools:
    • Trained ‘named entity recognition’ and ‘natural language processing’ tools that could be run over transcribed text to suggest possible people, places, events, concepts, etc [this might drop off the list as the CENDARI project is working on a tool called Pineapple (PDF poster). That said, I’ll probably still experiment with the Stanford NER tool to see what the results are like]
    • A way of presenting possible matches from the text tools above for verification or correction by researchers. Ideally, this would be tied in with the ability to annotate documents
    • The ability to search across different repositories for a particular soldier, to help with the above.


Linking lived experiences of WWI through battalions?

Another update from my CENDARI Fellowship at Trinity College Dublin, looking at ‘In their own words: linking lived experiences of the First World War’, which is a small-scale, short-term pilot based on WWI collections. My first post is Defining the scope: week one as a CENDARI Fellow. Over the past two weeks I’ve done a lot of reading – more WWI diaries and letters; WWI histories and historiography; specialist information like military structures (orders of battle, etc). I’ve also sketched out lots of snippets of possible functions, data, relationships and other outcomes.

I’ve narrowed the key goal (or minimum viable product, if you prefer) of my project to linking personal accounts of the war – letters, diaries, memoirs, photographs, etc – to battalions, by creating links from the individual who wrote them to their military unit. Once these personal accounts are linked to particular military units, they can be linked to higher units – from the battalion, ship or regiment to brigade, corps, etc – and to particular places, activities, events and campaigns. The idea behind this is to provide context for an individual’s experience of WWI by linking to narratives written by people in the same situation. I’m still working out how to organise the research process of matching the right soldier to the right battalion/regiment/ship so that relevant personal stories are discoverable. I’m also still working out which attributes of a battalion are relevant, how granular the data will be, and how to design for the inevitable variation in data quality (for example, the availability of records for different armies varies hugely). Finally, I’m still working out which bits need computer science tools and which need the help of other historians.

Given the number of centenary projects, I was hoping to find more structured data about WWI entities. Trenches to Triples would be useful source of permanent URLs, and terms to train named entity recognition, but am I missing other sources?

There’s a lot of content, and so much activity around WWI records, but it’s spread out across the internet. Individual people and small organisations are digitising and transcribing diaries and letters. Big collecting projects like Europeana have lots of personal accounts, but they’re often not transcribed and they don’t seem to be linked to structured data about the item itself. Some people have painstakingly transcribed unit diaries, but they’re not linked from the official site, so others wouldn’t know there’s a more easily read version of the diary available. I’ve been wondering if you could crowdsource the process of transcribing records held elsewhere, and offer the transcripts back to sites. Using dedicated transcription software would let others suggest corrections, and might also make it possible to link sections of the text to external ‘entities’ like names, places, events and concepts.

Albert Henry Bailey. Image:
Sir George Grey Special Collections,
Auckland Libraries, AWNS-19150909-39-5

To help figure out the issues researchers face and the variations in available resources, I’m researching randomly selected soldiers from different Allied forces. I’ve posted my notes on Private Albert Henry Bailey, service number 13/970a. You’ll see that they’re in prose form, and don’t contain any structured data. Most of my research used digitised-but-not-transcribed images of documents, with some transcribed accounts. It would definitely benefit from deeper knowledge of military history – for a start, which battalions were in the same place as his unit at the same time?

This account of the arrival and first weeks of the Auckland Mount Rifles at Gallipoli from the official unit history gives a sense of the density and specificity of local place names, as does the official unit diary, and I assume many personal accounts. I’m not sure how named entity recognition tools will cope, and ideally I’d like to find lists of places to ‘train’ the tools (including possibly some from the ‘Trenches to Triples’ project).

If there aren’t already any structured data sources for military hierarchies in WWI, do I have to make one? And if so, how? The idea would be to turn prose descriptions like this Australian War Memorial history of the 27th AIF Battalion, this order of battle of the 2nd Australian Division and any other suitable sources into structured data. I can see some ways it might be possible to crowdsource the task, but it’s a big task. But it’s worth it – providing a service that lets people look up which higher military units, places. activities and campaigns a particular battalion/regiment/ship was linked to at a given time would be a good legacy for my research.

I’m sure I’m forgetting lots of things, and my list of questions is longer than my list of answers, but I should end here. To close, I want to share a quote from the official history of the Auckland Mounted Rifles. The author said he ‘would like to speak of the splendid men of the rank and file who died during this three months’ struggle. Many names rush to the memory, but it is not possible to mention some without doing an injustice to the memory of others’. I guess my project is driven by a vision of doing justice to the memory of every soldier, particularly those ordinary men who aren’t as easily found in the records. I’m hoping that drawing on the work of other historians and re-linking disparate sources will help provide as much context as possible for their experiences of the First World War.

Update, 15 October 2014: if you’ve made it this far, you might also be interested in chipping in at ‘Linking lived experiences of the First World War’: possible goals and a bunch of technical questions.

Defining the scope: week one as a CENDARI Fellow

I’m coming to the end of my first week as a Transnational Access Fellow with the CENDARI project at the Trinity College Dublin Long Room Hub. CENDARI ‘aims to leverage innovative technologies to provide historians with the tools by which to contextualise, customise and share their research’, which dovetails with my PhD research incredibly well. This Fellowship gives me an opportunity to extend my ideas about ‘Enriching cultural heritage collections through a Participatory Commons‘ without trying to squish them into a history thesis, and is probably perfectly timed in giving me a break from writing up.

View over Trinity College Dublin

There are two parts to my CENDARI project ‘Bridging collections with a participatory Commons: a pilot with World War One archives’. The first involves working on the technical, data and cultural context/requirements for the ‘participatory history commons’ as an infrastructure; the second is a demonstrator based on that infrastructure. I’ll be working out how official records and ‘shoebox archives’ can be mined and indexed to help provide what I’m calling ‘computationally-generated context’ for people researching lives touched by World War One.

This week I’ve read metadata schema (MODS extended with TEI and a local schema, if you’re interested) and ontology guidelines, attended some lively seminars on Irish history, gotten my head around CENDARI’s work packages and the structure of the British army during WWI. I’ve started a list of nearby local history societies with active research projects to see if I can find some working on WWI history – I’d love to work with people who have sources they want to digitise and generally do more with, and people who are actively doing research on First World War lives. I’ve started to read sample primary materials and collect machine-readable sources so I can test out approaches by manually marking-up and linking different repositories of records. I’m going to spend the rest of the day tidying up my list of outcomes and deliverables and sketching out how all the different aspects of my project fit together. And tonight I’m going to check out some of the events at Discover Research Dublin. Nerd joy!

‘The cooperative archive’?

Finally, I’ve dealt with something I’d put off for ages. ‘Commons’ is one of those tricky words that’s less resonant than it could be, so I looked for a better name than the ‘participatory history commons’. because ‘commons’ is one of those tricky words that’s less resonant than it could be. I doodled around words like collation, congeries, cluster, demos, assemblage, sources, commons, active, engaged, participatory, opus, archive, digital, posse, mob, cahoots and phrases like collaborative collections, collaborative history, history cooperative, but eventually settled on ‘cooperative archive’. This appeals because ‘cooperative’ encompasses attitudes or values around working together for a common purpose, and it includes those who share records and those who actively work to enhance and contextualise them. ‘Archive’ suggests primary sources, and can be applied to informal collections of ‘shoebox archives’ and the official holdings of museums, libraries and archives.

What do you think – does ‘cooperative archive’ work for you? Does your first reaction to the name evoke anything like my thoughts above?

Update, October 11: following some market testing on Facebook, it seems ‘collaborative collections’ best describes my vision.

Who loves your stuff? How to collect links to your site

If you’ve ever wondered who’s using content from your site or what people find interesting, here are some ways to find out, using the Design Museum’s URL as an example.

‘Links to your site’ via Google Webmaster Tools

Reddit – plug your URL in after /domain/

Wikipedia – plug your URL in after target=*
Depending on your topic coverage you may want to look at other language Wikipedias.

Pinterest – plug your URL in after /source/

Twitter – search for the URL with quotes around it e.g. “”

If you can see one particular page shooting up in your web stats, you could try a reverse image search on TinEye to see where it’s being referenced.

What am I missing? I’d love to hear about similar links and methods for other sites – tell me in the comments or on twitter @mia_out.

Update: in a similar vein, Tim Sherratt @wragge launched a new experiment called Trove Traces the same day, to ‘explore how Trove newspapers are used’ by listing pages that link to articles:

Update 2: Desi Gonzalez @desigonz tried out some of these techniques and put together a great post on ‘Thoughts on what museums can learn from Reddit, Yelp, and what @briandroitcour calls vernacular criticism
You might also be interested in: Can you capture visitors with a steampunk arm?

Does ‘slow art day’ work online?

Saturday was ‘slow art day‘, and the Getty Museum (@GettyMuseum) shared a Robert Hughes clip that really resonated with me:

‘We have had a gutful of fast art and fast food. What we need more of is slow art: art that holds time as a vase holds water: art that grows out of modes of perception and whose skill and doggedness make you think and feel; art that isn’t merely sensational, that doesn’t get its message across in 10 seconds, that isn’t falsely iconic, that hooks onto something deep-running in our natures. In a word, art that is the very opposite of mass media.’

I was tied to my desk writing that day so I wondered how I could have a similar experience: can you ‘do’ slow art online? Assuming you can switch off all the other distractions of email, social media, flashing ads, etc, and ignore the fact that your house, office or library is full of other tasks and temptations, can you slow down and sit in front of one art work and have a similar experience through an image on a screen, or does being in a gallery add something to the process? On the other hand, high-resolution images and reflectance transformation imaging (RTI) mean you can see details you’d never see in a gallery so you can explore the artwork itself more deeply*. And to remove the screen from the equation, would looking at a really good print of a painting be as rewarding as looking at the original? And what of installations and sculpture?

Related to that, I’ve been wondering how to relate online collections (whether thematic, exhibition-style or old school catalogues) to audience motivations for visiting museums. I’ve just been reading a great overview of people’s motivations for visiting museums in Dimitra Christidou’s Re-Introducing Visitors: Thoughts and Discussion on John Falk’s Notion of Visitors’ Identity-Related Visit Motivations. Christidou summarises Falk and Storksdieck’s 2005 research on ‘museum-specific identities’ reflecting visitor motivations:

  1. Explorers are driven by their personal curiosity, their urge to discover new things.
  2. Facilitators visit the museum on behalf of others’ special interests in the exhibition or the subject-matter of the museum.
  3. Experience seekers are these visitors who desire to see and experience a place, such as tourists.
  4. Professional hobbyists are those with specific knowledge in the subject matter of an exhibition and specific goals in mind.
  5. Rechargers seek a contemplative or restorative experience, often to let some steam out of their systems.
Once I’d gotten past the amusing mental image of Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg’s head exploding at the concept of ‘big’ and ‘small’ online identities that change according to context, interests, motivations, etc**, I thought the article provided a useful framework for returning to the question of ‘what are museum websites for?‘. We can safely assume that most gallery sites consider the needs of ‘professional hobbyists’, but what of the other motivations? Some of these motivations are embedded in social experiences – do art sites enable multi-user experiences online, or do they assume that ‘sharing’ or facilitation only happens via social media? Does looking at art online go deep enough to count as an ‘experience’? And how much of the ‘recharging’ experience is tied to the act of getting to a particular space at a particular time, or to the affordances of the space itself and its physical separation from most distractions of the world?

What new motivations should be added for online experiences of museum exhibitions and objects? What’s enabled by the convenience, accessibility and discoverability of art online? And to return to slow art, how can museums use text and design to cue people to slow down and look at art for minutes at a time without getting in the way of people who want a quick experience? (And is this the same basic question I’d asked earlier about ‘enabling punctum’ or ‘what’s the effect of all this aggregation of museum content on the user experience‘?)

* Assuming you don’t look so closely that you slip into ‘inappropriate peering‘.
** I’m sure Zuckerberg knows people have different identities in different situations, it’s just more convenient for Facebook not to care. Christopher ‘moot’ Poole opposed this push quite well in a series of talks in 2011.

Clash of the models? Object-centred and object-driven approaches in online collections

While re-visiting the world of museum collections online for some writing on ‘crowdsourcing as participation and engagement with cultural heritage’, I came across a description of Bernard Herman’s object-centred and object-driven models that could be useful for thinking about mental models designing better online collections sites.

(I often talk about mental models, so here’s a widely quoted good definition, attributed to Susan Carey’s 1986 journal article, Cognitive science and science education:

‘A mental model represents a person’s thought process for how something works (i.e., a person’s understanding of the surrounding world). Mental models are based on incomplete facts, past experiences, and even intuitive perceptions. They help shape actions and behavior, influence what people pay attention to in complicated situations, and define how people approach and solve problems.’

CATWALKModel House FaceTo illustrate a clash in models, when you read ‘model’ you might have thought of lots of different mental pictures of a ‘model’, including model buildings or catwork models, and they’d both be right and yet not quite what I meant:

And now, back to museums…)

To quote from the material culture site I was reading, which references Herman 1992 ‘The Stolen House’, in an object-centred approach the object itself is the focus of study:

“Here, we need to pay attention to the specific physical attributes of the object. The ability to describe the object – to engage, that is, with a list of descriptive criteria – is at the forefront of this approach. A typical checklist of the kinds of questions we might ask about an object include: how, and with what materials, was the object made? what is its shape, size, texture, weight and colour? how might one describe its design, style and/or decorative status? when was it made, and for what purpose?”

In object-driven material culture:

“the focus shifts toward an emphasis on understanding how objects relate to the peoples and cultures that make and use them. In particular, ideas about contextualisation and function become all important. As we have already noted, what objects mean may change through time and space. As products of a particular time and place, objects can tell us a great deal about the societies that gave birth to them. That is, they often help to reflect, or speak to us, of the values and beliefs of those who created them. At the same time, it is also important to remember that objects are not simply ‘passive’ in this way, but that they can also take on a more ‘active’ role, helping to create meaning rather than simply reflect it.”

It seems to me that the object-centred approach includes much of the information recorded in museum catalogues, while the object-driven approach is closer to an exhibition.  Online museum collections often re-use content from catalogues and therefore tend to be object-centred by default as catalogues generally don’t contain the information necessary to explain how each object relates ‘to the peoples and cultures that make and use them’ required for an object-driven approach.  If that contextual information is available, the object might be sequestered off in an ‘online exhibition’ not discoverable from the main collections site.

A complicating factor is the intersection of Herman’s approaches with questions about the ways audiences think about objects in museums and other memory institutions (as raised in Rockets, Lockets and Sprockets – towards audience models about collections?).  The object-centred approach seems more easily applicable to individual objects but the object-driven approach possibly works better for classes of objects.  I’m still not sure how different audiences think about the differences between individual objects and classes of objects, so it’s even harder to know which approach works best in different contexts, let alone how you would determine which model best suits a visitor when their interaction is online and therefore mostly contextless.  (If you know of research on this, I’d love to hear about it!)

I’d asked on twitter: ‘Can mixed models make online collections confusing?’  John Coburn suggested that modes of enquiry online might be different, and that the object-driven attributes might be less important.  This was a useful point, not least because it helped me crystallise one reason I find the de-materialisation of objects online disconcerting – attributes like size, weight, texture, etc, all help me relate to and understand objects.  Or as Janet E Davis said, ‘I automatically try to ‘translate’ into the original medium in my head’.   John answered with another question: ‘So do we present objects via resonant ideas/themes/wider narrative, rather than jpg+title being “end points”?’, which personally seems like a good goal for online collections, but I’m not the audience.

So my overall question remains: is there a potential mismatch between the object-driven approach that exhibitions have trained museum audiences to expect and the object-centred approach they encounter in museum collections online?  And if so, what should be done about it?