This is a guest post by Collections Trust CEO Nick Poole following a recent email to the Museums Computer Group list. For further information about the Collections Trust, see http://www.collectionstrust.org.uk.
Last week, I sent a message out via the Museums Computer Group email list announcing some changes to the Culture Grid, the aggregation platform run by the Collections Trust. Broadly the changes are that:
- The Culture Grid closed to ‘new accessions’ (ie. new collections of metadata) on the 30th April
- The existing index and API will continue to operate in order to ensure legacy support
- Museums, galleries, libraries and archives wishing to contribute material to Europeana can still do so via the ‘dark aggregator’, which the Collections Trust will continue to fund
- Interested parties are invited to investigate using the Europeana Connection Kit to automate the batch-submission of records into Europeana
Background to the Culture Grid
The Culture Grid (www.culturegrid.org.uk) has its origins in a much earlier project called the Peoples Network. In addition to putting internet-connected terminals in public libraries, the Peoples Network wanted to ensure that users could discover and use the collections from UK museums, archives and libraries.
Using some of the original technology and content from the Peoples Network Discover Service, we created the Culture Grid with the aim of opening up digital collections for discovery and use by aggregating them and sharing the resulting data with anyone who wanted to make use of it.
Over the ensuing 7 years, the Culture Grid has grown to contain some 3m records from around 200 museums. It is regularly harvested by Europeana, and as a result is a major source of English-language content.
Challenges of aggregating museum data
Throughout its history, the Culture Grid has been tough going. Looking back over the past 7 years, I think there are 3 primary and connected reasons for this:
- The value proposition for aggregation doesn’t stack up in terms that appeal to museums, libraries and archives. The investment of time and effort required to participate in platforms like the Culture Grid isn’t matched by an equal return on that investment in terms of profile, audience, visits or political benefit. Why would you spend 4 days tidying up your collections information so that you can give it to someone else to put on their website? Where’s the kudos, increased visitor numbers or financial return?
- Museum data (and to a lesser extent library and archive data) is non-standard, largely unstructured and dependent on complex relations. In the 7 years of running the Culture Grid, we have yet to find a single museum whose data conforms to its own published standard, with the result that every single data source has required a minimum of 3-5 days and frequently much longer to prepare for aggregation. This has been particularly salutary in that it comes after 17 years of the SPECTRUM standard providing, in theory at least, a rich common data standard for museums;
- Metadata is incidental. After many years of pump-priming applications which seek to make use of museum metadata it is increasingly clear that metadata is the salt and pepper on the table, not the main meal. It serves a variety of use cases, but none of them is ‘proper’ as a cultural experience in its own right. The most ‘real’ value proposition for metadata is in powering additional services like related search & context-rich browsing.
The first of these two issues represent a fundamental challenge for anyone aiming to promote aggregation. Countering them requires a huge upfront investment in user support and promotion, quality control, training and standards development.
The 3rd is the killer though – countering these investment challenges would be possible if doing so were to lead directly to rich end-user experiences. But they don’t. Instead, you have to spend a huge amount of time, effort and money to deliver something which the vast majority of users essentially regard as background texture.
People, strategy & money before technology
The discussion on the MCG list since I sent my message has focused on technology, but the problem of aggregation is not primarily technological. People have quite rightly pointed out that the most sustainable technical option is to support museums in publishing better-structured data at source – on their web pages or Collections Management Systems.
Richer data at source remains a cherished dream – it is the basis of the COPE (Create Once, Publish Everywhere) strategy we have worked on for the past 3 years, it is the dream of the CIDOC Conceptual Reference Model and a potential use case for schema.org. It is, I believe, at the heart of Richard Light’s vision of truly linked, truly open data from museums.
But until we as a community are able to think of ways of overcoming the strategic, financial, operational and human barriers to aggregation, none of these technical possibilities is likely to become a reality.
Why would anyone do this?
It is certainly true that any service or platform which positions itself between the museum and the end-user needs to be crystal clear about how and where it is adding value.
The Collections Trust is the professional association for Collections Management. The 3 pillars of our work are ‘Standards’, ‘Workforce Development’ and ‘Advocacy’. Our primary goal in taking on the Culture Grid has been to use aggregation as a strategic incentive to improve the adoption of SPECTRUM as a data standard in museums.
In practice, while museum data is undoubtedly better-structured than it was 10 years ago, platforms like the Culture Grid and Europeana (in the UK at least – this is not true in other countries) have not yet proved a sufficient incentive to drive improvement in data quality and the use of standards by museums. The most significant driver of improvement in standards adoption for the current generation has been the ongoing investment of the Collections Management System vendors in improving their software.
Sharing the workload
In practice, then, the underlying reason for our change in strategy is not so much financial, but more because aggregation is not delivering sufficient value for end-users, for museums, for the Collections Trust or for our funders. Put simply, if aggregation were delivering value, it would have been much easier to find money for it.
If we are really going to unlock the true potential of cultural heritage metadata aggregation, no single organisation (with the possible exception of Google) can afford to shoulder the entire burden of paying for promotion, hosting, quality-control, user support, syndication, partnership development etc etc.
From our perspective, the most viable long-term strategy involves a combination of:
- Ongoing long-term support and training for museum professionals in improving the creation, management, structuring, licensing and use of data about their collections as a core competence of having a collection and managing it properly;
- Peer-to-peer support through the museum community so that people without the technical skills to assess and refine their data model, select appropriate licenses and prepare their metadata for harvesting and aggregation are supported by people who can;
- Ongoing support from software vendors alongside the long-term process of improving the capabilities of their products;
- A programme of opportunistic projects and developments aimed at bulking up the value proposition (for example through partnerships with initiatives such as the BBC Digital Public Space, Public Catalogue Foundation or the Wikimedia Foundation).
Starting the conversation
Ultimately, though, the momentum of aggregating and sharing metadata from and about collections will only be continued if there is sufficient energy and will to do it. This announcement is essentially the Collections Trust’s way of saying that we cannot keep driving for aggregation on our own, with no financial support but more importantly with little enthusiasm from our industry.
We have been able to move the agenda of aggregation forward a little, but if it is genuinely going to become a useful and sustainable part of the digital landscape for museums in the UK, we think the baton needs to be taken up and championed by the community.
I mentioned in my blog post that we would like to start a conversation with the Museums Computer Group. At the heart of this conversation is a question: “is aggregation useful to you, and if it is, are you willing to share the effort of making it work?” I look forward to having a robust discussion around this in the coming weeks!
Thanks and references
I would like to take this opportunity to thank all of the people who have worked so hard in support of the Culture Grid and opening up collections metadata, including our colleagues at Knowledge Integration, the Collections Trust team, past and present, our funders including Arts Council England and all of the professional colleagues we work with in museums.
For additional technical information on the Europeana Connection Kit, talk to your Collections Management System vendor, or see the specs at http://www.europeana-inside.eu/documents/eck/index.html.
A guide to publishing your data through the ECK is available from http://www.europeana-inside.eu/news/publication_eck_guide__sharing_collections_with_the_easy_connection_kit.html