About Me

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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

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Rollin' along with the tumblin' tumbleweed

Well I know it's been pretty quiet on this blog of late, something to do with too much going on at work to think much, and too exhausted in the evenings to do much (aside from fill up the new iPod). And now it's going to get a level quieter still as I'm on leave for a few weeks. Just watch that tumbleweed roll by. Adios for now.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Why Gnip caught my eye: a bit more depth (just a bit)

Eric Marcoullier commented on my last post on Gnip and I wrote him the following e-mail because, as I say, it's about time I worked through a little bit the reason why his baby caught my attention (not that it's a particularly worked through working through, but hey, it's a start). It was a bit much for a comment but enough for a post, so here you go.


Many thanks for taking the time to look at my brief notes, you must be a busy man so I really appreciate it. It's definitely time I tried to put some flesh on the bones because it's true, I've barely sketched the link between Gnip and my own preoccupations.

My research is looking at how museums keep their digital stuff useful; in other words, how and when we keep on trying to squeeze value out of the digital stuff we've invested in. I'm trying to put a particularly museum-y spin on it because it would be all too easy to look, for example, at general questions related to digital preservation (yawn). Hence I'm exploring the specific conditions and challenges that museums have to face, as well as the way in which they value what they hold - as a "memory institution" with a remit to preserve and to serve the public, a museum has potentially got a slightly different way of valuing what it holds, though arguably this won't really apply to digital material except in special cases (like digital art). So that's the basic thread of my research: looking at how museums can and do decide a strategy for maximising value from their digital assets, and for planning new ones.

Of course, no museum is an island (that's kind of the point of the 'net, right?) and I'm inevitably thinking a lot about the relationships between museums and other parties that might provide or use services and data to/from them - this is key to extracting value, but it's also a dependency for which we need to understand the risks. In the museum community, a lot of the talk (for a couple of decades or more, now) is about how we share our most obvious USP: our collections data. Loads of work has been done on this and yet we still seem to be a long way from the dream of a way of effectively integrating the collections of more than a few institutions. This is why I've been working with the European Digital Library/Europeana project. The reason that Gnip caught my eye was because it suggests another model for data interchange. It may be not be appropriate for the scenario of sharing collections data, and one could argue that in some ways other museum initiatives share some of its characteristics (federated search, metadata harvesters etc.), but I was interested in whether we could learn from the model of a neutral mediating agent as rather than a central pool of data. We're not short of standards but we are short of co-ordinating mechanisms that we can all trust and feel we leave us with some control over "our" data.

The actual purpose of Gnip as an exchange for social data was probably of secondary interest to me, but of interest all the same - it's just an area I don't know much about. I think that on the whole museums won't need to concerns themselves directly about how whatever it is they do will relate to Gnip: I presume that if they incorporate a third party service in their site, or perhaps have an installation of WordPress, then a lot of the mechanics may be dealt with already (or will be in due course). But concern about interoperability and data portability may well be a reason why many museums (my own included) haven't yet done an awful lot with social software - although there are some notable exceptions. If Gnip helps to address these concerns then all that will still be lacking is our imagination!

One other possibility is that museum applications could indeed work with Gnip to integrate individuals' public information with their own services - say, by drawing links between a person's list of interests or music preferences, and what's in a museum's (or a library's)collection; or by suggesting events to attend based on user location, age and interests. I don't understand Gnip well enough to know if this is plausible, though, but it's an intriguing prospect.


Thanks again to Eric for taking the time to contact me, I think it speaks well of new ventures like this (OpenCalais was another) when the key people go out out of their way to make contact with the people that are talking about them.

IMLS looks to the future

Once again, kudos to Nina Simon for her latest post, Notes from the Future: Reflections on the IMLS Meeting on Museums and Libraries in the 21st Century. I have to admit I've not read it thoroughly yet but (a) there's lots going on in the IMLS study that overlaps with my research interests and (b) as usual, she has a pretty strong take on it and interesting things to say, and it's productive perhaps to triangulate between her strong perspective and the equally strong conservative perspective she cites. Have a look. If I have time I'll try to digest it properly and give a proper response - both here and on her blog since they want our thoughts (perhaps even non-US thoughts...)

Monday, July 14, 2008

O'Reilly Radar on Gnip

As I mentioned last week, Gnip looks to be at least of tangential interest to use in museum tech, whether because we may be involved in social software, or as a model for addressing the sort of data interchange problems we face (though of course there are alternative approaches). Jim Stodgill has written an article on O'Reilly Radar of which I understand about 30%, but which looks at how Gnip compares to enterprise service bus, in the problems it's tackling and the solution it offers. It's worth a read.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Delayed post #1: aspects of [web] preservation

[[this post never got finished but I'm having a clear-out of my drafts and they're getting published or deleted, ready or not]]

Brian Kelly just blogged [[hmm, well, back in July, I think....]] on the JISC-PoWR site about "three key aspects of web preservation": experience, information, and access. I have a fourth, but I've been using it in the context of "sustainability" (the subject of my thesis), and so first I want to say a couple of words about this vs preservation, since although I've been writing papers for Ross for a couple of years arguing about the distinction between the concepts, I've not really rehearsed this in public before.

For the last couple of years I've been arguing that the problem of sustainability (S) is distinct from that of archive-style preservation (P). I won't go into the details of the distinction here but in essence I see P as concerning the persistence of a state, and S as the persistence of a process or activity. Recent work by Chris Rusbridge and others has been blurring the boundary ever more, although in a useful way: by questioning the purpose of preservation and weighing up what are the important aspects ("significant properties") of resources, they have been starting to argue for an approach to preservation that looks a lot more like what I was previously describing as sustaining. I still sort of believe that it is useful to distinnguish between the two concepts, but there's a lot of overlap.

The aspect that I think is especially pertinent to sustaining is "purpose". I don't think this is the same as the "experience" that Brian cites Kevin Ashley on (although experience and information may feed into purpose). It's focused on the objectives of the resource, which may be attainable through radically different experiences; for example (in the case of the environment in which KA operates), the learning objectives that an educational resource was created to serve. For a museum, perhaps a resource was prepared for use in a temporary exhibition, with the objective of enriching the experience visitors to that physical space by illustrating relationships betweeen objects, and providing media resources to bring them to life. When that exhibition closes, the original objective is partially voided - there is no physical visit to enrich - but aspects of it may still be viable - the objects probably still exist and the tales about them are still worth telling, perhaps more so than ever since we've stuck them back in the store-room out of easy access. Brian was talking about web preservation, of course, and I've taken a non-web resource as an example, but my interest in the question of sustainability extends beyond the web and the point applies regardless.

In any given digital resource that we're talking about preserving/sustaining, experience and information at least (perhaps access, too, sometimes) will have contributed to the original purpose to varying degrees - sometimes the experience is the whole purpose, sometimes it's an unimportant side effect of providing access to information. And sometimes it's important to the preserver regardless of its significance to the original purpose.

So if the original purpose is no longer served by a resource, what then for our "preservation" plans? There are still often reasons to preserve (freeze) or sustain (keep alive) an application, or aspects of it - in other words, some sources of value, ranging from historical interest to new uses, which may let a resource adapt and survive. The "significant properties" idea fits in to this. For me, if you are trying to maintain some quality of the original it's more of a preservation activity; whereas if you are more fundamentally interested in continuing to extract value through maintaining utility of whatever sort, we're talking sustaining.

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Short cuts

Little more than bookmarks from today:

Short URL/snapshot/citation/bookmarking apps:

Google's new VW lively. Is it cool or does it suck? Some debate. RWW techcrunch Raph Koster

I need to find out more about Lexara and Project SILVER: http://www.lexara.com/lexara/project-silver/ and http://www.silvereducation.org/

Monday, July 07, 2008

EDLocal >> EuropeanaLocal

Fleur says: EDLocal becomes EuropeanaLocal. I'm looking forward to hearing what else came out of the recent launch of the project, which will hopefully help to smooth the process of participating in Europeana for institutions of all sizes. I'll keep you posted (but I expect Fleur will do a better job so keep an eye on her blog!)

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Two interesting ReadWriteWeb stories

Just a quickie. Two things caught my eye on RWW:
Confirmed: Microsoft Acquires Powerset. So MS moves into semantic search with the acquisition of a promising startup. Yahoo! will have to fight ever harder for survival if MS is really determined to do this. Anyway, it may be time to start talking to MS about how to work with all the yummy structured data we have in MLAs (yes, that means you EDL)
Gnip: Grand Central Station for the Social Web. This is all about tackling the myriad interfaces and data formats of social software APIs. It's a comparable problem to that faced in our sector and the solution of a mediator is interesting mainly for that reason. It's also potentially directly relevant where we're working with data in social sites.

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Showing us the way

I presume it's uncontroversial to say that it would be useful to have terminologies available as web services. Right now, you can browse various sources of reference terms that are useful to museums (amongst others): sources like the british & irish archaeological bibliography (including its approved term lists); the National Monument Record Thesauri; and the museum codes and SPECTRUM terminology termbank maintained by the Collections Trust (to highlight some UK examples). I'm certain it would be useful to have these available as web services (some more so than others); likewise other thesauri that AFAIK aren't available to programme to: ULAN and AAT, for example, which are collected under the CCO initiative.

There's every chance that I misunderstand some or all of these "services" in terms of how they're used and by whom (I'm very shaky on the status of CCO and its relationship to AAT, for a start). But I'm sure that there are many ways in which a programmatic interface to their contents could be used. Which is why (to get to the point of this post) the service that OCLC's top geeks have come up with here is a great example for us in the museum world to look at (blogged here on Hanging Together). This is a collection of esssentially library-related thesauri onto which they have created web services. I like the look of FAST best of all; it could be really useful for us in the dusty bones world too.

Lorcan Dempsey also blogs today about the WorldCat identities API and other cool services. I fancy the name look-up service: aside from anything else it gives us a URL to refer to for those individuals in the WorldCat database. Here's a not-so-random entry.

So once again we can learn a lot from libraries leading the way. One of the cool things, though, is that OCLC are a cross-domain organisation, and people like Dempsey think constantly about breaking down the barriers between libraries, archives and museums. If they've sprinkled their magic onto library terminologies, I'm sure they'll be only too happy to help the museum world to take similar steps.