UC10153 -- Working with collections -- Week 12

Draft, 24 October 2016
This page should be in a useful state, but still needs work before it's finished.


Next week

Next week you should use the normal workshop time to work on your own collections for assignment 3. I will be sitting in the computer lab as usual between 1.30pm and 4.30pm on Tuesday, ready and willing to help you with any problems – so drop in! I’ll make sure the lolly jar is full!

A quick recap

This unit has been concerned with how we describe, manage, discover and use cultural heritage collections.

We started off wondering about what we mean by collections and collectors, before diving into an overview of the scope and nature of cultural heritage collections in Australia.

What does GLAM stand for?

We then looked in more detail at who collects what and why. We examined the role of collection policies and significance assessments in enabling institutions to make informed and consistent decisions about the development of collections.

But it’s also important to think about what doesn’t get collected and why? Our decisions can maginalise communities or perspectives. What biases exist within our policies and assumptions?

How do you describe what you collect? We looked in detail at approaches to description and the importance of standards in promoting consistency and enabling reuse and aggregation. We then examined some of the tools and systems used to manage collection data – with a special in-depth look at Omeka!

We then broadened our perspective to look at ways of extending the value, meaning and discoverability of collections. We examined the significance of context in documenting relationships, and saw how these relationships formed the basis for Linked Open Data.

But how do people find collections? We looked at the possibilities and problems of current search tools, and examined best practices for publishing collection metadata online. But access is not just about technology, as we discovered when we tried to make sense of the world of copyright.

Moving beyond metadata, we looked at the various processes and standards involved in the digitisation of collections. We also explored some of the challenges of born digital collections.

To support new types of discovery and use of our collections, we sometimes have to find ways of improving or extending our existing descriptive data. We tried out some tools and techniques for enriching metadata, and looked at how organisations are involving the public in this work through games and crowdsourcing projects.

We’ve put a lot of throught and work into understanding how we create good quality collection metadata to support management and discovery. But how do we make best use of that work online? Today we’re going to look at some exciting examples of how collections can be shared and used, and have a little peek into the future.


NMA collection search

We’ve already had a bit of a look at online collections – or at least at the basics of search and browse. Omeka itself provides a good example of a no frills interface, providing the basic navigation that we would expect of a collection interface. But what else is possible?

Let’s have a look at some recent collection interfaces from museums around the world. In class we’ll divide into groups and spend some time exploring the features of these difference interfaces. Try searching for something you’re interested in. Then try browsing without any particular subject in mind.

While you’re exploring, think about things like:

  • What do you find useful, interesting, or frustrating?
  • Is it easy to find your way around and understand what to do?
  • Is the amount of information presented adequate?
  • Are there interesting connections to explore?
  • Did you come across something unexpected?
  • Was there something you wanted to find but couldn’t?
  • Would you go back?

All of these interfaces offer something more than your standard search box. In different ways they all provide pathways for exploration – you can look around the collections without first knowing what you’re looking for!

Mitchell Whitelaw calls these ‘generous interfaces’

‘A more generous interface would do more to represent the scale and richness of its collection… Instead of demanding a query it would offer multiple ways in, and support exploration as well as the focused enquiry where search excels. In revealing the complexity of digital collections, a generous interface would also enrich interpretation by revealing relationships and structures within a collection.’

Generous interfaces invite you in. Have a look at:

What do you think? Do these encourage you to explore the collections?

These sort of interfaces cross the boundary into data visualisation – they don’t just provide pathways into the collections, they enable you to see them in very different ways. They make use of existing metadata to develop new representations of the collections that offer users new points of access and understanding.

The Loom project at the State Library of NSW presents a number of different ways of looking at their collections. Try out the ‘Loose leaf’ and ‘Atlas’ views – what can you find?

Reusing collection data

One of the interesting things about these sorts of innovative, exploratory interfaces is that they’re often not created by the institution that holds the collection. As more and more collection data is shared, either as data dumps or APIs, creative coders around the world are finding new things to do with cultural collections.

We talked a couple of weeks ago about aggregators like Trove, DPLA, DigitalNZ and Europeana. Not only do they bring together a wide range of content from cultural institutions, they make the data available for reuse through APIs. Anyone can create new tools, interfaces or games.

Headline Roulette

Headline Roulette is a simple game that I made using the Trove API. It presents you with a random newspaper article and you have to guess the year in which it was published – it’s harder than it sounds!

Note that whether you lose or win, you get a link through to the original article to explore further. It’s a type of discovery interface.

All the aggregators have galleries of applications that people have created using their APIs – have a look around and see if you can find something interesting.

In particular you might like to try:

Europeana has made strong argument for the importance of digital access to cultural heritage collections. It’s not just about access, they argue, but the role of digital cultural heritage in supporting innovation. Have a look at the Europeana Strategy 2015-20 – for a strategy document it’s remarkably readable! If you’re ever wondering why we bother, why documenting and sharing cultural collections is important, this is a good place to start.



But digital collections don’t just support new interfaces or artworks, they enable new types of research. We can ask different types of questions.

Some of you have heard about my recent battles with ASIO files in the National Archives of Australia. I’ve downloaded many thousands of digitised pages and extracted information about redactions – the bits that are blacked out for security or other reasons. I’ve also created my own interface that allows you to explore the redactions (and even some unexpected redaction art). I’m going to use the data I’ve collected about redactions to try and understand the way ASIO collected and stored information. None of this would have been possible if the National Archives hadn’t digitised the files and made metadata available through their online database.

There are exciting opportunities for finding new patterns and perspectives within existing collections. Viral Texts is a project that is using digitised newspapers to shine new light on the processes by which information was disseminated in the 19th century. They’re using software originally developed for genetics research to track patterns in text. Did you think the ‘listicle’ was a product of the Internet – the Viral Texts project has shown that lists of ‘interesting facts’ were very commonly shared by 19th century newspapers.

If you’re interested in new possibilities for art history have a look at Matthew Lincoln’s work drawing on a number of digital collections.

The future?

Throughout this unit we’ve seen examples of where technology is heading – new tools and technologies will help us to look at collections differently, to share them more effectively, to create new opportunities for learning and research. But at the same time, we’ve seen how important it is to get the basics right. Interfaces come and go, but good metadata lasts forever (or for a lot longer anyway!). Questions about value and significance will still be important in grappling with the complexities of digital collections.