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Archives & Museum Informatics



On-line Collections Access at the Museum of English Rural Life

Mary Dyson, University of Reading, UK
Roy Brigden, University of Reading, UK
Jonathan Bowen, South Bank University, UK

Session: Demo Session 1

The Rural History Centre at the University of Reading, which includes the Museum of English Rural Life, holds extensive collections of material relating to the history of food, farming, and the countryside. As a result, it operates as the leading research and resource center for the subject in the country. The collections have been Designated of national importance and are now in receipt of a grant from the UK government-funded Designation Challenge Fund for a project designed to greatly enhance access to the collections via the World Wide Web. The aim is to have a dynamic, database-driven website which will present a thematic route of entry for exploration of the collections. Access will also be layered so that whether the user is a schoolchild, member of the general public, or a specialist, the material will be presented in an appropriate form to suit their needs.

Phase One of the project, which goes through to March 2000, will see the overall structure designed and put in place on the web, sample material from the collections inputed to the Oracle-based OLIB database, and a digitization program begun for the photographic archive. Phases Two and Three of the Challenge Fund scheme will then move on to absorb more of the collections; in all there are 30,000 objects, 60,000 books, more than 1 million photographs and extensive archives waiting for inclusion in due course. A combination of commercial firms and in-house staff are being used to carry out the work. University advisers to the project include Jonathan Bowen from the Dept of Computer Science, who has considerable experience of museums and the World Wide Web, and Mary Dyson from the Dept of Typography & Graphic Communication, who has a research interest in the presentation of websites and is involved with designing methods of evaluating this scheme.

This "Collections Access Project" will make the information available to a variety of users in an appropriate manner. Specifically targeted users are primary school children (and teachers), the general public (including secondary school children) and expert researchers (e.g., from academia). Different interfaces will be provided within the website to accommodate these various types of user. For example, story-based environments are planned, pulling information from the database. The stories may begin by being generated by hand as static pages based on templates, but the database could be used at any time to pull further information on objects or areas of interest. This will preferably be done without the user having to search the database but just by clicking on a link which passes parameters to a script which does the searching. Primary school children may be limited to records that include graphical images, with access via story-based presentations suitable for use as educational resources, with associated teacher support. For experts, a more traditional form-based database interface with many fields will provide access to the full database. The interface for the general public will lie somewhere between these two extremes.

Work has already started (in September 1999) and this presentation will give a status report on what has been achieved so far, and what is planned for the future. Not many museum collections are available on-line in a comprehensive form, especially from smaller museums, so this project aims to be exemplary of what can be achieved given appropriate resources.