Museums and libraries fail the information test.


Published Friday, October 11, 2002

Museums and Libraries explode with information, but where is it going to and who can find it?
It was recently announced (see The Art Newspaper.Com - "Culture Online to rival museums", by Peter Schauer) that the first director of Culture Online as been appointed in the UK. The prime responsibility of this new office is to prepare linked information suitable for curriculum to be utilised by schools.

In an era of global trends this should send a positive signal to Canberra to encourage a similar centralisation of digital collections and to shape the nature of the forthcoming digitisation projects. Currently, the public takes what they are given in terms of digitisation projects and furthermore can usually only access the information from the host institution. There are exceptions to this, as in the case of well meaning projects, especially those emanating from the National Library of Australia, which seems to be in the vanguard. Projects such as PANDORA Archive (recently, all State and Territory libraries have now agreed to contribute to the development of the National Collection of Australian Online Publications)point to institutions attempts at collaboration, but not public consultation. Other projects of interest include the Collaboration between the NLA and the National Archives to make all archival indexes available centrally. There is the emerging public picture resource (over 600k of images) at Picture Australia for collections held in public libraries. Most students will find a more interesting link to major picture collections from our public institutions at Links to Australia's public art collections.

So, while these institutions are busy digitising and publishing their images there is no single collaborative search engine that can be tapped into. How might this function from the public's point of view? Well, instead of clicking on each link and visiting individual institutions one would simply type the name of the artist and have returned a single listing with catalogue entries from all the public institutions.

Is there any need for institutions to present all this image and maintain costs and infrastructure for doing something like this? Using syndication and web services, which effectively allow databases to safely share information with the public why not have collections available from anyone who is prepared to publish them commercially? That is, web publishers license access to these databases via web service clients, gather the information they want to publish and and package it as they see fit.

One trend stands out amongst many conflicting ones and that is that governments will have less rather than more money to spend in Australia on duplication of services in cultural organisations. Sharing information using web services with a license fee for publishers will eventually emerge to offer convenience to users and rationalise the cost of publishing discrete collections.

To summarise, it would appear that cultural institutions are staking their turf and at some considerable inconvenience to the public and to web publishers, by pushing content to their own individual sites. This doesn't offer any tangible benefits to the community, which must currently traverse each institution's web site and collection. Not only doesn't it make too much sense, but it is surely costing each institutions a serious amount to host and maintain each collection. What is needed is a single collection, be it virtual or real so that as far as the public and publishers are concerned a search for an image goes all the way and doesn't stop at the institution's firewall. Let the institution preserve and present the object as they see fit but the publishing of expensive cataglogues and web sites is surely out of step with the way we want to find information.

These collections don't deserve to remain discrete and it is only an artificial view - so even if the administration of the collections remains distributed there is no reason why the public's view of them should continue to be.

© Martin Shub 2002

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