Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Archaeology and DAMS

Archaeology is a discipline that produces a wealth of content and, for historical archaeology in particular, a wide variety of material. The archaeological record will potentially include artifacts (possibly cross-mended in the lab to form “objects”), field records, site records, photographs, maps (GIS files), historical documentation and research, historical photographs, oral histories, scientific data (soil chemistry, ) and, PowerPoint’s, papers and report.  I’m interested to learn how archaeologists are conducting digital asset management, and how well are the artifact databases are integrated with other material? 

There’s been an explosion of digital asset management tools in recent years. The SPECTRUM Digital Asset Management report (Poole & Dawson 2013) provides a proposed methodology for thinking about managing digital assets for cultural institutions, with suggestions for developing an implementation strategy.  For projects unable, or unwilling, to commit to a full DAMS system there are tools that can help in managing digital assets: adding meta-data, retention, versions, access and rights. It’s worth noting that a DAMS system isn’t a digital archiving system, per se, and that issues of digital conservation will still need to be addressed.

A report by the Heather Packer of the ResearchSpace Project (Packer 2011) is a survey of available DAMS and content management systems.  The blending of this two areas has always confused me, but I can see from the report how many of the same functions can be performed by software with slightly different focuses. What I find useful in the report is their criteria for evaluation: storage, annotation and tagging, security and shared (and managed access). For archaeologists these tools give the ability to manage and connect – to contextualize – the varied datasets connected with a project or site. For archaeology, where context is primary, it seems even more important that data is always contained (and ultimately published) in a rich context. For reasons of public advocacy it is necessary to stress the inter-relationships of the archaeological process and subsequent outputs, to clearly differentiate the scientific discipline of archaeology from the cultural barbarism of activities like “American Diggers.”

One further specific measurement was the ability to associate semantic metadata. For the next blog I’ll do some more reading and exploration of semantic interoperability, particularly in reference to a current project with primary documents and artifacts.


Packer, Heather (2011) Comparison of Digital Asset Management Systems (DAMs) and Content Management Systems (CMSs) accessed at:  https://docs.google.com/viewer?a=v&pid=sites&srcid=cmVzZWFyY2hzcGFjZS5vcmd8cmVzZWFyY2hzcGFjZXxneDoyODU0OWVlZWYzOGMxMzk4
Poole, Nick and Dawson, Alex (2013)  SPECTRUM Digital Asset Management,  Collections Trust accessed at http://www.collectionslink.org.uk/spectrum-resources/1688-spectrum-digital-asset-management

Monday, July 8, 2013

Monty: meanings and context online

We have a painting in our house of a boy. We call him Monty. He’s in early 19th cent garb, hands crossed on a desk, with what might be a watch in front of him. We think it’s a 20th century copy and we’ve never found the artist listed anywhere.

He’s called Monty because we stopped at Monte Carlo’s restaurant in Lynchburg after we bought him. We bought him because we had sat too long at an auction in Gretna, Virginia and our bid turned out to be the only one! He’s hung in our house for twenty years, and we remember him spooking our nieces when they came to visit (“he looks creepy”). He's a reminder of when we first had some excess disposable income (honestly, he was pretty cheap!) and when we started going to auctions and buying stuff we didn’t need.

If you’re still with me I was thinking of Monty regarding what we catalog and what gets shared when collections are posted online. Cataloging is much more about recording attributes about objects for tracking. The catalog record for Monty would only just hint at why he’s an important artifact for us. Obviously objects have meanings and associations beyond their physical characteristics, and Monty’s meaning is tied up in our personal history and the other objects in our collection. The painting isn’t a museum object, but the meaning imbedded in objects is  often be tangential to their physical form. Meaning comes from how those objects have related to other objects around them, and the time and place in which they exist.

In High Fidelity by Nick Hornby the main character, after breaking up with his girlfriend, re-catalogs his vinyl collection in autobiographical order (reminding us that cataloging is a cultural, not scientific activity). The meanings of the albums lies in their physical proximity.

I’m still picking through A History of the World in 100 Objects by (MacGregor 2011). It’s the contextual information that makes this such a great book, and it shows the power of material culture. There’s many reasons, and many audiences for online collections data, but I think when we put data online we must work as hard as possible to contextualize the objects, and let them exist within that broader context. And, if possible, we have to let others create (and hopefully) share their meanings of those objects. Someone else owned Monty once and, for them, it had a completely different set of associations and meanings. I’d love to know what they were.

Macgregor, Neil (2001) A History of the World in 100 Objects. Viking, New York.

Monday, July 1, 2013

Web statistics and digital impacts

The National Park Service web catalog site was re-launched in 2011, partly in response to a report by National Academy of Public Administration report (2008) that asked “that NPS make public search tools more user friendly, ensure that museum staff use the web catalog module of ANCS+.” 

As the PI for the project we based our success criteria around these terms: more people using the site, and more parks participating. By these criteria we’ve been successful. Site traffic has increased ten-fold, and we’ve tripled the number of parks participating. We can see a much wider range of pages accessed, and an increase in how long people spend on the site. We’ve also implemented our own log files, tracking searches, exhibits, and the subsequent records accessed. One side effect was analyzing searches resulting in zero results, giving an insight how people were interacting with the search engine and allowing us to make some code changes to minimize “failure”.

All of which bring me to the Balanced value Impact Model by Simon Tanner (2012). The report looks at how to conduct Impact Assessment for digital resources. It is comprehensive, and opens up a much wider and sophisticated model for judging the utility of digital projects. It notes multiple perspectives in evaluation (hence the Balanced Value), and a number of different values to be considered within each perspective. For the park digitization project I don’t think we’ve been talking enough about many of these potential benefits: one example being the internal park benefits, including cross-park collaborations. For the societal benefits we know the parks are primarily considered physical places; the web catalog site shows, and shares, some of the other assets the parks hold. The Park Service is already well considered by the American public, and it is useful to consider how much added community value the digital collections provide. 

The model does allow for some negative economic effects, jokingly noting that people perusing digital collections could be shopping instead. For archaeological collections the concern for putting artifacts online is that it might encourage a few people to break the law, and dig for these objects on National Park Service land. However, presenting these objects can also serve as advocacy for archaeology, their digital presence stating that these objects are as intellectually valuable, and communally owned and shared.

There’s so much more in Tanner’s report that I need to look through and read – the bibliography alone serves as a semester study course. I’ll be working through the model to continue thinking about how to present the success of the project, and how to justify the project and park resources needed to continue to grow this project.


National Academy of Public Administration. (2008, October). Saving Our History: A Review of National Park Cultural Resource Programs. Retrieved June 30, 2013, from http://www.napawash.org/publications-reports/a-review-of-national-park-cultural/

Tanner, S. (2012)
Measuring the Impact of Digital Resources: The Balanced Value Impact Model. King’s College London, October 2012. Available at: http://www.kdcs.kcl.ac.uk/innovation/impact.html

Monday, June 24, 2013

How many objects is enough? Digital assets and scale.

The Europeana project is a tremendous undertaking allowing access to “millions of items from a range of Europe's leading galleries, libraries, archives and museums.” The collections are language interdependent – since the portal is available in all eu languages, with on-the fly translation. To accomplish this project there has been a massive amount of work on rights, standards, and data normalization. The site presents access to a shared cultural heritage, serving both political and social purposes.

But how does scale affect the presentation and use of digital content? Working on a collection of 700+ objects for the Mount Vernon midden project I have to wonder at the pros and cons of such vastly different projects. It seems almost silly to compare them  - and obviously there are many, many aspects to the Europeana project - but as a visitor to the sites, how do they serve their audiences?
I know the curatorial work that has gone in to the Mount Vernon midden project. Recognizing that it’s an archaeological assemblage, where context is always primary, the objects there have to been seen within the larger framework: the reciprocal links from objects to themes, and items; the linked excavation layers; the linked related primary documents; the historical and archaeological background. If these items were aggregated to a common site much would be lost. It’s the context that informs the objects, giving meaning within the framework of the whole carefully constructed site.

A key part of the Europeana site is the development of a common standard allowing sharing and collaboration. But what is lost when we reduce objects to a common core? I’m still working through the CIDOC CRM standard, (understanding it to be more concerned with relationships than fields). Oldman lucidly argues in his recent blog (Oldman & Doerr, 2013)/, that aggregation through core fields is a misplaced goal. He sees a better approach in a richer CRM standard, publishable through aggregation format, noting in broad terms the loss of context and meaning as objects are moved away from their curatorial origins. [Readers interested in questions of scale in digital media will find a more thorough and informed exploration in Oldman's blogs!]

The Europeana API potentially allows museums to link back to the Europeana collections, though I didn’t see this implemented. If I’m looking at a beautiful agateware teapot in the Fitzwilliam museum, I’d like the option to see similar examples. It seems there still a way to go in the implementation of the tools.  For the Europeana exhibits, though the content and presentation was great, what I wanted was a way to expand the content. Perhaps I missed the feature but why, with millions of objects available, am I limited within the exhibit to those selected for me? I understand providing a narrative, but can’t a layered experience be provided that allows visitors to go further into the collections, to add their own objects? 

The Europeana project is a tremendous undertaking, and the use of common standards leads to long-term benefits for sharing and collaboration. But when we visit a museum there’s a conscious and unconscious preparation. "Normally the physical museum serves as a context, where various properties of buildings, rooms, exhibitions and other features are border resources.” (Nilsson 1997). Digital content experienced through a web browser starts as a reductive experience. It’s important, I think, to compensate for this loss with as richly contextualized environment as possible.

Links and citations:

Europeana - Homepage. (2013). Retrieved June 24, 2013, from http://www.europeana.eu/
Nilsson, T. (1997). The interface of a museum: Text, context and hypertext in a performance setting. In ICHIM 97: international conference on hypermedia and interactivity in museums (pp. 146-153).
Oldman, D., & Doerr, M. (2013). The Costs of Cultural Heritage Data Services: The CIDOC CRM or Aggregator formats? Retrieved from http://www.oldman.me.uk/blog/costsofculturalheritage/

Monday, June 17, 2013

New blog. New purpose

The Stories Past blog has languished over the last few years. This has largely been because I’ve been working part-time outside of the company as a research assistant at the University of Tennessee, serving as the PI on the new web catalog for the National Park Service. It has been a great project; we’ve redesigned the website and worked with parks to add content. The site currently boasts over 2 million objects and site traffic has increased tenfold.

National Park Service Web Catalog

Stories Past has continued to work with different clients, including the Mount Vernon Midden site. In contrast to the NPS site this project has just 700 objects, each very well described, with accompanying images, and presented in a rich thematic context. The site also integrates two documentary databases relating the archaeology objects to the documentary record.

Mount Vernon midden site
Personally I have undertaken a new venture as well. I’m part way through a Master’s of Information Science program at the University of Tennessee. It has exposed me to a much wider range of materials,  and allowed me to read and research topics outside of immediate project needs.

I’m currently researching and exploring issues of online collections encompassing archival, museum and archaeological materials. I started my career as a teacher and my interest is in how these now digital assets can serve the many “public” audiences. My private aim for this blog is that will serve as my “deadline” – a weekly post on the issues with which I’ve been wrestling. Hopefully it can serve a wider purpose as well, discussing issues and providing examples of some great sites and links to resources.

The next blog will be considering scale. Are we best served by aggregated collections of millions of objects from multiple institutions? Or is a better model well-described (and exposed) collections presented within the rich thematic context?