Searching For Meaning: Not Just Records
Darren Peacock, National Museum of Australia, Derek Ellis, Massive Interactive, and John Doolan, KE Software, Melbourne, Australia
The goal of universal on-line access to museum collections has been one of the most alluring and elusive promises of internet and digital technology. Collections information in the form of text-based records, quantitative data and digital images is available on most museum Web Sites, either dynamically generated in response to user queries or in static presentation formats. Typically, this information is provided through a Web interface to a collections information management system.
At the National Museum of Australia, we approached the implementation of a new collections information management system as an opportunity to create an engaging Web interface that not only presented the collection, but use contextualized the objects within a broader knowledge base of Australian history using a range of primary and secondary source material. Working with the vendor of our collections system (KE EMu) and a Web development company (Massive Interactive) with expertise in interface design, we developed a browsing tool to make the most of the museum's digital knowledge assets. The interface is designed to build information relationships based on user queries and click pathways and to present the information in a way which encourages further searching. The interface is highly visual and intuitive, supporting a model of serendipitous searching that offers multiple pathways through the relationships of people, places, objects and events that make up the complex weave of social history.
Keywords: collections, interface design, user-centered design, database design, information management, knowledge management, National Museum of Australia
In the great marketplace of information that is the Web, how well are museums doing in finding, supplying and stimulating the market for historical and cultural information? How could we do better? What are the risks if we fail?
In the early days of the Web, museums provided some of the best content and some of the most compelling reasons to go on-line (Lynch, 2002). A decade of digitization and documentation for the Web has created a rich array of cultural and historical information across the museum, library and archive sectors. However, while much of that information is now available via the Web, it is not always true to say that it is readily accessible. By accessible here we mean not just findable, regardless of literacy, disability or bandwidth, but usable and valuable as knowledge, not just information.
A range of barriers, only some of them technical, impedes the effective flow of knowledge from source to searcher via museum Web sites. Among the most significant is the fact that much of the museum content that can be found remains as raw information, not readily assimilated into knowledge by the user. The value of that information remains a rich but largely untapped seam, notwithstanding advances in database-generated content, search engines and interface design.
In ten years of museums on-line, we have succeeded in ways previously unimaginable in creating and distributing entertaining and engaging content. Yet there is a greater distance to travel before the possibilities of museum information on the Web can be fully realized. We need to keep imagining how this still-new medium can support our enterprise and to rethink established practices and paradigms which predate the Web and which may sometimes blind us to its potential.
At the National Museum of Australia we have wrestled with the problem of unlocking the information embedded within and around our collections to create a living on-line knowledge resource. In partnership with our collections management database developer, KE Software, and Web developer, Massive Interactive, we have created a new interface tool, the History Browser, supported by an integrated back end database, to unleash the potential of collections information as a dynamic and engaging knowledge resource for education, entertainment and cultural development. In the process, we have considered a range of issues which are discussed in this paper, including the purpose and use of collection information and user-centred principles for database and interface design.
Information and the Business Of Museums
The issues we have considered go to the heart of the museum enterprise. If, as we believe, the essential purpose of museums is making sense of history and culture for a diverse range of audiences, the ways we construct and communicate information are critical to our success. The burgeoning demand for information generated by the internet is a crucial challenge to what we do and how we do it.
Providing information is one thing. Exhibition descriptions, interpretive essays, curriculum support materials, store catalogues and program calendars are all valid and effective uses of the Web, and most museums on-line have now mastered them. Yet the potential of the medium, and museums, suggests we can go much further. Museums, as repositories of information and experts in interpretive practice, are uniquely placed to utilise the potential of the Web to connect, organise and present information. To do so, we need to re-examine how some of our core collecting, interpretive and information management practices can harness the potential of the internet to organise, connect and present information.
As suggested by John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid in The Social Life of Information (2000), organizations such as museums have a more vital role to play in the on-line world than just publishing information. Far from facing obsolescence in the wake of the information revolution, museums and other intermediaries between users and the incoming tides of on-line information can offer the essential ingredients of sense, meaning and context that make mere information useful and valuable to its on-line consumers. We should see ourselves not just as other information sources but as skilled experts in generating knowledge that is socially valuable and useful. Doing this successfully on-line is the key to the ongoing relevance of our institutions to stakeholders and audiences alike.
Digital cultural resources are accumulating at a rapid rate; however, our tools for distributing them and making them useful are not keeping pace. In the face of estimates that overall information production is growing at more than 50% per annum, Brown and Duguid observe that 'a critical task ahead will be to stop volume from simply overwhelming value.' This is particularly true for museums and other keepers or creators of digital cultural material.
Museums, libraries and archives have always been good at creating, sorting and searching information. Over time, as the sheer volume of information increased, creating structures of meaning and tools for navigation has also been our role. Without them, more things, more data, more images or more texts add diminishing value to the pool of information resources. Increasingly, the challenge for museums in the on-line world is to produce not just more digitized materials, but better tools for using them.
Like many other museums, the National Museum of Australia has been investigating ways to create an efficient, Web-based method to realize the value to the museum's greatest information asset - its collection. What follows is a description of our journey of discovery, with some sideways glances at the experience of others heading in the same direction.
Collections As Knowledge Assets
Collections are recognized as the principal asset, if not the raison d'tre of our museums, libraries and archives. In the information age, the nature of those assets and our raison d'tre are being transformed. Rethinking our information management practices to realise the value of those assets and their on-line potential is a major challenge for all collecting organizations.
Traditionally, museum information management has focused on supporting key collections operations: cataloguing, documentation, condition and treatment reporting, movements and curatorial research. Our information systems have been designed primarily to manage our collections as physical assets rather than to manage the information they represent or embody. Information management is what we do in order to do something else, not just simply what we do. In the information age, it may become what we do best. As noted above, museums are organisations uniquely qualified for the task. Moreover, as virtuality contests the primacy of the real, it may be what our publics and stakeholders want from us most of all.
If we are in the information business, the ways we manage and present information become central rather than incidental to our purpose. The difference between knowledge and information has been discussed since ancient times and remains hotly contested. Seely Brown and Duguid offer three points of distinction between the two that are useful here. First, knowledge 'entails a knower' - it requires a human participant. Secondly, knowledge attaches to the knower: it is assimilated rather than just held. Thirdly, by virtue of the first two, knowledge is more difficult to package and exchange than information. Knowledge has a human dimension defined by intangibles such as context, meaning and value. If museums are in the knowledge business, we need to think not just about the information, but also about the people using it. We need to re-examine the nature of our data and the interfaces that present it as systems for creating meaning, not just disseminating information.
On-Line Collections: Early Discussions
At this conference seven years ago, Howard Besser (1997) traced the evolution of museum automation in two separate streams, one 'driven by the need for record keeping and inventory control' leading to collection management systems and the other, led by education departments, creating interactive multimedia exhibits based on structured presentations of fixed content. Besser saw the Web as offering a bridge between the rich, deep, but inaccessible information of the collection system and the user-friendly interfaces of the multimedia exhibit. In his paper he foreshadowed the Web as the means of convergence between these two distinct presentation and technology paradigms.
Also at that conference, in a paper titled The Best of Intentions: Public Access, the Web and the Evolution of Museum Automation, Kevin Donovan (1997) critiqued common approaches to on-line collection access, arguing that merely providing on-line access to collections data was 'set[ting] the bar too low.' Museums and the Web medium were, he contended, capable of much more.
According to Donovan, at that time,
In format and substance museum Web sites resemble object labels and didactic text panels. This approach reproduces the physical museum presentation method; object centric, jargon-filled and segregated into galleries and wings, all of which are unnecessary limitations within the grammar of the World Wide Web.
In order to realise the potential of the Web, museum information systems would have to 'evolve from object-centric collection management systems to context capable content management systems.' Donovan argued strongly for the importance of context as the key to making object-based information interesting and useful to the non-specialist user. Moreover, he contended that much of the contextual material needed to bring collection objects to life already existed within museums, but was not made available to the Web.
What both Besser and Donovan were suggesting was that the Web necessitated a reassessment of established ideas about the value of the information we collect and how we present it. Pre-Web representations such as the OPAC, the separate evolutionary paths of different technologies, and a lack of internal co-ordination could all limit our view of the possibilities.
Nor were they alone in questioning how organisational practices and priorities might need to shift to come to terms with the challenge and potential of the Web. The challenge Besser, Donovan and others (Teather,1998; Bearman and Trant, 1998) posed was how to rethink, within a Web paradigm, the ways museums created, used and presented information, in particular information related to collections. We believe they are still the right questions. Seven years on from the first Museums and the Web conference, we were curious to find out how the answers are progressing.
Seven Years On, How Far Have We traveled?
To address that question it seemed useful to survey the current state of collections information on museum Web sites. In January 2004, we reviewed the Web sites of 100 of those organisations represented at last year's Museums and the Web conference, looking for what was most common in collections presentation, as well as what stood out. The sites included museums, libraries, archives and historical societies from more than ten countries, albeit with a predominance of North American sites. What we were seeking was a sense of how the issues raised seven years ago were being handled.
First, some overall statistics (see Figure 1 for a full breakdown). The initial observation from the survey is that most museum sites do present their collections in some way. Seventy-eight percent of the sites reviewed included a link to a collections area on their home page. Typically, those that did not were organisations such as science museums that do not have collecting as a key role.
Of those seventy-eight sites that did present collections on-line, what is striking is the variation in how it is done. The tools and options available seem to reflect a range of approaches both to information management and to the needs of site users. Clearly, there is no single way to present collections information on-line.
The diversity of approaches suggests two things: first, that we are still very much in the experimentation stage of finding out how to do this; and secondly, that there is no consensus - and perhaps no definitive research - on what works best.
The Cul de Sac and The Open Road
Notwithstanding the overall diversity of approach, two presentation techniques predominate: keyword searching and structured highlight tours of featured objects.
Interestingly, this split echoes the evolutionary divide in approaches to museum automation observed by Besser seven years ago. Keyword searching draws on catalogued records stored in a database. The results are usually presented with little if any elaboration: just the facts. Conversely, the curated highlights approach of tour is more akin to the interactive multimedia piece. It may employ a richer interface, but its scope and content are typically fixed and finite; it is a set piece with predetermined pathways.
Both types of collections experience require different things of the user and address different user needs. Keyword searching offers the promise of being open ended and driven by the user. The tour, although bounded by its defined scope, promises an authoritative and guided view.
Both approaches have frustrations and joys for the user. Without further research, it is difficult to evaluate their relative effectiveness. We each may have a personal preference for one or the other approach, or our preferences may be circumstantial, depending on our particular goal. What is interesting to examine is whether the presentation choices we make for collections information are the best possible for our users and for the information that we hold. We need to ask if the presentation models adapted from catalogue, exhibition and tour experiences of the physical museum are making the most of the medium and of our information assets.
Highlights tours may be defined by audience or by classifications of objects: by period, geography, artist or medium. Images predominate in the presentation of highlights tours, shown one at a time, or in a slideshow or lightbox layout. Thumbnails may be clickable through to a full size image and record.
The amount and style of text varies. Some provide just a selection of fielded data; others provide the equivalent of an exhibition label or brief interpretive essay. The 'voice' of the text is typically the anonymous curator, although some tours have identified guides such as the museum director or the artist. The scope of the tour may vary from a handful of items to hundreds.
Getting Beyond The Record
Besser noted in 1997 that
though few [if any] museums have yet used their collection management information as a database linked to the Web pages of an on-line exhibit, a number of museums have taken the first step in that direction by putting item-level detailed object information into a database and linking that to a Web-based query.
Today, almost half (47%) of the surveyed museums that are showing their collections on-line are using some sort of database backend to deliver collection content in response to user queries. A little more than half of those sites (54%) offer the type of keyword searching described by Besser to query the collection database. Yet of the sites surveyed, only 17 have taken a step beyond to offer search access by means other than keyword.
Keyword searching originates from the traditions of library catalogues. As an information discovery tool, it is of most use to those with knowledge of a particular discipline and a sense of what lies behind the screen. It assumes that users know what they are searching for and how to find it. Donovan was highly critical of this approach, suggesting that rather than providing access to data, 'the frightful blank search field method' in fact created a barrier between users and information. It remains, however, the dominant method of presenting collections data on-line.
If nothing else, the Web has educated us all to the joys and frustrations of searching for information. Never have so many searched so often for so much and so frequently with so little success and satisfaction. Despite its frustrations and disappointments, the Web has introduced us to new ways of sorting and locating information and, in the process, developed our searching strategies and skills. The hypertext paradigm of linked information enabled the concept of browsing to develop, traversing information in an open-ended way, perhaps without a particular goal or destination in mind. With the right tools, Web users are increasingly dexterous in navigating information. Moving sideways can be equally as effective as scaling a hierarchy of information. Searching and surfing may alternate as we move from the known to the unknown and back again.
Database keyword searching still keeps us on the linear path of goal directed searching. The blank search box and the blinking cursor demand a question, preferably one formed - and spelled - within a recognized vocabulary. Typically it delivers a single, tight-lipped response and has to be asked repeatedly and specifically to yield its secrets. The oracle can be ungenerous and does not like to elaborate. To the uninitiated, the keyword search is often barely adequate as a way of finding information. It is totally inadequate as a tool for stimulating knowledge.
Obviously, the keyword OPAC model is the easiest way for museums to provide one level of access to collections information. Yet, as Donovan suggested, in lowering the bar for ourselves, we may have raised the bar beyond the reach of the general user.
Even if the blank search field yields a result, in many cases the data within catalogue records is of limited value to the general user. Like a bibliographic record in a library catalogue, many museum collection records are about rather than representative of the object in question. Unlike library records, however, object records have the potential to actually present the object, even animated interactives, through images, video and audio files, either through linked databases or within the same database that stores the fielded text records.
An important distinction between 'digital collections' and 'digital libraries' that is relevant here has been drawn by Clifford Lynch (2002). Notwithstanding a common confusion between these terms, Lynch points to a clear and significant difference between collections of raw materials and what he calls digital libraries - the systems and interfaces 'that make digital collections come alive, make them useful for accomplishing work and that connect them with communities.' The important features of the 'libraries' envisaged by Lynch are user-centred design, focusing on purpose and audience: tools that allow users to manipulate, analyze, annotate and comment and, in so doing, define and create on-line communities.
New Tools For Searching
What is striking about those sites which offer enriched ways of searching collections-based information is the ingenuity and diversity of the approaches taken. A number of examples illustrate this point.
The Smithsonian's History Wired tool (http://historywired.si.edu) employs an innovative approach to data visualization to present a richly cross-referenced set of object records organized into subjects and themes. It enables customized views of the data through a range of tools such as a timeline, as well as interactive features for users to rate their interest in the objects displayed.
Canada's Museum of Civilization (http://www.civilization.ca) offers a choice of search modes, including 'browsing' the aisles of the collection store by collection or by category. The search function includes a list of most popular searches from recent months.
Similarly, the British Museum's Compass Tool (http://www.thebritishmuseum.ac.uk/compass) offers a choice between searching and 'tours'. Searches are prompted in the direction of who/what/how/where/when questions. The results returned include clickable thumbnails to related items. Compass also comes in a version designed for children.
A wealth of image resources is made readily accessible by the search functions offered by the Maine Historical Society (http://www.mainememory.net). Users can browse from a topic list, or search by place or contributor. Search results are well presented, with a range of additional easy-to-use features which enable users to send an e-card, collect items in an album or purchase an image.
London's Imperial War Museum (http://www.iwm.org.uk) offers a range of documentary, image, sound and object records grouped into nine main themes in its 'collections on-line'. The themes and subthemes provide a framework for an integrated presentation of diverse source material.
The Tate museum's (http://www.tate.org.uk) search function offers a subject browse function with a built-in thesaurus of terms. Users can view their search results in a list format or lightbox view.
The Walker Art Center's (http://walkerart.org) site provides one of the best examples of an integrated collection search function that shows thumbnails of 'related items' alongside the selected object, including related works and artists. Users are also encouraged to register their responses to the works from a list of word associations and to view the aggregated responses submitted by others.
What these tools and presentations have in common are serious and successful attempts to provide different ways into database-generated content. Great attention has been paid to organizing the content into user-friendly pathways that encourage further searching and discovery.
Constraints And Sustainability
Notwithstanding these successes, there are obviously a number of constraints affecting how collections can be dynamically presented on-line. Increasingly however it is not technology that is the limiting factor, but our practices and resources for effective information management.
First, the data itself poses significant limitations. Making the database accessible may be easier than making the data accessible. Most collection records have been written for internal users only. Typically they concentrate on physical descriptions, describing the object in more detail than its context of origin or use. The data may employ specialist or inconsistent terminology that is opaque to the non-specialist user. Turning the information inside out to make it accessible and useful to external users can be a major, time-consuming task. However, guideposts for new object-oriented data structures are appearing, such as the CIDOC Conceptual Reference Model (CRM) for describing cultural heritage resources (http://cidoc.ics.forth.gr).
Secondly, the database design of most museum collection management systems is first and foremost to support internal functions. Data structures have been designed to manage transactional processes and precision searching on known terms. Traditional relational database structures work less well than object-oriented structures at handling complex relationships and also at integrating other types of information formats such as multimedia files.
Thirdly, direct integration with a Web interface may be a problem for many older systems. A smaller subset of data may have to be exported into another Web-enabled database. A disadvantage of this approach is that, like the fixed interactive multimedia exhibit described by Besser, the data remains static. For ease of maintenance, to avoid inconsistency and to continually grow the resource, the Web-facing collection database must be integrated within the everyday information management practices of the museum.
Fourthly, organisational structures and processes may impede the sharing or pooling of information into integrated repositories. Re-engineering business processes to embed integrated information management processes can be an almost impossible task. While a pilot project may succeed, a sustainable on-line knowledge repository requires an organisational commitment to integrated information management for the purposes of Web delivery.
Introducing the History Browser
At the National Museum of Australia, we embarked simultaneously on two enterprise-wide projects that promised the type of convergence Besser envisaged. A new integrated content management system for Web publishing and a new collections management system offered the opportunity to align our collection data systems and processes to the imperatives of publishing to the Web.
Recognizing the arguments of people such as Besser and Donovan, we set out to create a Web experience of the collections to maximize the potential of the Web's searching, linking and interactivity ability. More fundamentally, we wanted to extend the capability of our collection management system beyond just an inventory to become a 'context capable content management system,' to use Donovan's phrase, or a 'digital library,' to use Lynch's. We are now at the stage of prototyping this integrated model of collection information management and Web publishing. In the process, we have redesigned our data model for collection information and developed a new Web interface, the History Browser.
The History Browser presents collection items and related material as a dynamically generated visual map based on relevance relationships. The visual implementation of History Browser is designed to give users an insight into the context and stories behind the collection item whilst encouraging further exploration of these relationships through a range of source material.
The map visually presents the collection item, its key dates and locations, as well as related people, events, topics, collection items, times and dates. Each of these contextual relationships is color coded to better identify and group categories. The significance of these relationships is represented by the size they appear in relation to the featured collection item the larger the size, the stronger the relationship.
The design of the interface and display mechanisms allows users to quickly construct a story around a collection item, rather than viewing it in isolation providing a much richer engagement with the collection item.
Users can choose to explore the collection using one or a number of related categories. For example, a user may choose to view only people, or only people and places related to a particular collection item. Users can also control the number of related objects that are displayed, as well as choosing to display the descriptive labels associated with each related item, in effect increasing or decreasing the cognitive load placed on themselves.
As a related item is selected, that item moves to the middle of the visual map, becoming the central focus from which all related items are generated. Items that were related to the previous item but bear no relation to this item disappear, while other items that are related to the new item appear, creating a fresh visual map. Users are able to move back to earlier views via the use of a 'breadcrumb' showing the user's browsing path. In this way, forward momentum through the collection is maintained without a sense of getting lost.
Entry points to the History Browser occur through one of the six data dimensions (people, events, objects, topics, time and date). Alternatively, users can choose to view their search results - generated from a more traditional keyword search or advanced search - within the History Browser interface.
A number of features added to the search result include the ability to save into a personal 'gallery', e-mailing to a friend or participating in an on-line discussion about the item being viewed. A flag within the database will indicate if the object in question is currently on display; this makes the interface useful within the museum space too. Users can also view their own and others' pathways or view most popular searches by category (See Figure 2). In this way the results become living resources which the users can manipulate and which also reflect the history of their interactions with the collection.
The History Browser is a visual representation of complex data stored within the KE EMu Collections Management System, integrated into a singular visual interface. It queries data stored within the system, creating relationships between the individual collection items for presentation through the Web content management system.
These components generate weighted relationships between the collection items based upon a number of algorithms. The composite of the relationships is then used to display a featured collection item surrounded by related items (the physical size of a related item in the display represents the weight or strength of the relationship). The History Browser, like the Web itself, is based on relationships. Its effectiveness depends on networking all the available information within the collection/content management system and responding to whichever facet or dimension the users choose to explore, allowing them to move seamlessly between people, places, events, objects, dates and topics.
Relationships can be created within the database in three ways:
Integration of the Interface and Database
The choice of database to support the History Browser functionality was key to its viability and sustainability. KE Software's KE EMu was preferred to other proprietary systems because its object-oriented structure and capacity for handling multimedia files and XML were essential to the proposed functionality. KE had already implemented a 'narratives' functionality that provided for the ready association of contextual material to fielded object records in the form of free text, media files or urls.
In order to support the History Browser visual presentation, a set of 'Web ready' fields were added to the standard collections management catalogue. These can be populated directly as well as auto populated from object records. Records of individual collection items can be significantly enriched and stored alongside non-object records for people, places, events and topics. Thus not only is the interpretive information stored in KE Emu, but it is also directly connected to the collection records. To the greatest extent possible, the collections management system is automatically generating and storing Web content designed for presentation through the Web interface.
Communication between the front-end Flash presentation of the History Browser and back-end server components of the History Browser is handled completely via XML, enabling future implementations of alternative interfaces to the data set without complete re-engineering.
In many ways, we are only just starting to discover what the internet means for our collections. As well as dramatically increasing the number of users of collections information, the internet revolution also increases the demand for accessible ways into information, tools to make it meaningful and relevant, and opportunities to interact with and manipulate it.
If museums are to meet those challenges, we have to reconsider our approaches to how we create, organise and present collections information. Providing catalogues of records and highlights tours is not enough. Embracing a more user-centred view of data requires a rethink of database and interface design for collections data and a new emphasis on facilitating knowledge rather than just delivering information. Our collections need not exist only as inert data obtained through elusive search mechanisms. We can now empower users to explore, connect and contribute to the information that we hold and to develop and share the knowledge those activities create.
Several museums have started to tackle these issues. Projects such as History Wired and Compass have successfully demonstrated with a relatively small number of records (450 and 5000 respectively) some of the possibilities. However, the future scope and sustainability of initiatives such as these will depend on how well they are supported by the back end databases and information management practices supporting them.
At the National Museum of Australia, we are seeking to create tight integration between the back end data in our collection system and the front end presentation delivered by a Web content management system. The goal is to create a multifaceted content repository oriented to Web users, not just a catalogue of records designed for internal use.
The History Browser user interface is a Web tool that employs the internet paradigm of networked nodes to organise and display collections information. For the user, it provides a scaffolding of information relationships to facilitate knowledge building. It presents information as a network of associations, not simply a collection of facts. Users can pursue their interests in an open-ended fashion through a range of information types, across the dimensions of people, places, events, objects, dates and topics.
For the museum, the knowledge repository model provides for efficient organisation of a range of information assets. It vividly demonstrates that through networking, the whole can be exponentially greater than the sum of the parts. It ensures efficient reuse of information and allows curators and exhibition developers more effectively to identify all of the museum's information assets relevant to a particular item.
To realize the full value of our information and the potential of the on-line medium, we need to continue to develop ways of adding context, meaning and value to raw collections data so that the total becomes useful as knowledge. Only when we succeed in aligning our databases, interfaces and information management practices with the goal of creating integrated, sustainable and participative knowledge repositories will our collections truly come alive on-line.
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