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Web person at the Imperial War Museum, just completed PhD about digital sustainability in museums (the original motivation for this blog was as my research diary). Posting occasionally, and usually museum tech stuff but prone to stray. I welcome comments if you want to take anything further. These are my opinions and should not be attributed to my employer or anyone else (unless they thought of them too). Twitter: @jottevanger

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Cross-post: thougts from SWTT at V&A

I thought I would get down a few notes from our meeting at the V&A (and I promise to do something for the earlier ones too, to add to the reports and transcripts already there). The subject of that session – collections – both drew me and made me a little wary. Collections are the most obvious case for doing SW in museums since they are so central to our activities and purpose, but I suspect that a lot of the time we are tempted to broadly equate SW in our context with multi-institution collections search, because we’ve dreamed of this for so long. This is rather lazy, albeit unsurprising, and I am hoping that we’ll develop a much bigger vision that this in these think-tank meetings. Happily I can say that we are doing so, and of course collections are vitally important to all of us, so a meeting like this is absolutely core to the whole series.
We had some new faces at the V&A session and some stimulating debate, but I thought when things drew to a close that only a couple of ideas had really captured my imagination. Actually, looking back on it, there was plenty, but I think this hadn’t sunk in partly because my brain went into hibernation in the air-con (until Dan figured out how to definitively kill it) and it took me a long time to emerge from my torpor. I’ve done a little digesting and here are the things that made most impact on me personally (not really in an order but it wouldn’t show the unordered list properly). Most if not all of these are points that were raised in the meeting, though I’ve not always identified an individual for fear of mischaracterising their ideas. Some of them might be my own responses to the discussion and demonstrations – my notes are a bit confusing :-}
  1. Semantic Web approaches could be helpful in designing internal systems architecture: the learning potential of systems like JEROME and the ability effectively to represent/understand business processes via RDF etc. may make this aspect a good way of building a service-based system (obviously not the only way, but an intelligent way
  2. Making the business case for SW as a solution for internal problems that also has benefits beyond the institution may be more productive than trying to convince directorate and funders of the need to go SW just for the sake of the Web
  3. Despite my reservations about over-emphasising collections, outlined above, they are the obvious place to start for both external SW and for re-jigging the internal architecture – the key, as Suzanne Keene and Nick Poole pointed out, to knowledge management.
  4. Suzanne suggested a future role for museums as “information broker” instead of information source/authority. A weighty idea.
  5. Frances Lloyd Baynes pointed to the scale of the problem and possibilities arising from SW as a threat to curatorial control/authority because of the need to make certain choices about the creation and management of information. There’s no sector-wide view, either, and we often see each other as competitors.
  6. Our measurements are wrong. Big problem if a lot of our activities and the value that arises from them then go un-measured. Not that many measures we currently use are great proxies for value anyway… and not that we know what we value online either.
  7. There are complications in getting funding – if collections-related activities are seen as core then they won’t get project funding; but if they’re project funded then they won’t get ongoing support. Often museums are unaware that they need to provide this support themselves and expect project funding to continue indefinitely. Consequently we need a model for moving towards SW that recognises this reality – or else we need some external force to change the rules, for example by changing the standards expected of documentation or of web presence.
  8. Documentation and search are not the same as presentation (Areti Galani, Nick Poole and others). However SW is in large part about search/discovery of resources* (although this function may be used for user experiences that don’t feel much like search) so this may not matter.* SW is also about building a framework of knowledge, a source of information to analyse, and we shouldn’t forget this aspect and think only of resource discovery.
  9. Aside from RDF and (if you want to include them) microformats, a few useful data structures are already in play that may serve, e.g. FOAF, SIOC (for online communities) and stuff like DOAP that I’ve even less idea about.
  10. JEROME! Wow, fantastic, and also very encouraging in that it offers an example of the merging of what we’ve started to refer to as “SW” and “sw”. By mapping microformats, UGC, profile information, FOAF etc onto RDF via graphs (I think?!?), great semantic power is extracted from diverse material. I’ve banged on about finding a path to SW that allows museums to take lots of small steps in that direction with a pay-off at each one, and JEROME lets me see a little more how this might work. Thank you, Sebastian Kruk and his gang.

[cross-posted from the UK Museums and the Semantic Web blog]

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