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Archives & Museum Informatics

Access in the Distributed Environment: Making On-line Museum Content More Accessible to Educators

Danielle Boily, Manager, Canadian Heritage Information Network (CHIN), Canada


Since its inception, the Canadian Heritage Information Network (CHIN) has been working closely with the Canadian museum community. In recent years, CHIN has begun to expand this collaborative working relationship to include the educational community. To date, these joint ventures have resulted in the development of rich heritage content for the Web, for the most part in the form of virtual exhibitions. While the museum community is developing authoritative and valuable heritage content for the WWW, access issues are making it difficult for this material to be found by its intended audience(s). In an effort to ensure access to these and other on-line heritage resources, CHIN and the heritage and educational communities have collaborated on Learning with Museums, a gateway to provide distributed access to on-line learning materials created by Canadian museums and heritage associations. Learning with Museums will ensure that on-line educational museum content is made more accessible to educators, students and life-long learners.

The Project Team

The Canadian Heritage Information Network (CHIN) identified resources, defined an action plan, and managed the development of this gateway application. CHIN was responsible for defining the architecture/structure of the site and application. As the host of the gateway, CHIN will ensure ongoing maintenance, promote continued growth and continued improvement of the application. In the initial stages of the project, CHIN formed a project team by contacting museums and others who had expressed an interest in or had certain expertise in museum learning materials, the Canadian curriculum, or distributed access tools.

The project team also included five interns. CHIN manages a component of the Department of Canadian Heritageís Young Canada Works Internship Program, part of Canadaís Youth Employment Strategy. Through CHIN, internship funding was provided to those organizations participating in the project that were interested in hiring interns and demonstrated the ability to provide valuable work experience and the necessary supervision. See Annex A for a list of project team members and their contributions.

Project Goal and Objectives

The goal of the Learning with Museums project is to make on-line educational museum content more accessible to educators, students and life-long learners. In the Learning with Museums project, museums create a metadata record for each of their on-line resources, using a cataloguing tool provided by CHIN. CHIN sends the metadata back to the museum, and they embed it within their resource. CHIN can then harvest this embedded metadata periodically in order to update its metadata repository. Although the resources in Learning with Museums are distributed across various servers and sites, the use of metadata makes it possible for users to perform powerful searches of the learning materials as if they were part of a centralized resource. The metadata embedded in the educational resources also has the potential to enhance Internet search accuracy, improve resource discovery capabilities, and facilitate cross-domain interoperability.

Users of Learning with Museums are then able to directly search the metadata in order to quickly and easily find the educational resources that meet their needs. When an appropriate educational resource is found, users will link to it directly.

Several objectives for the project were defined:

  1. To develop metadata schemas and controlled vocabulary required for enabling cataloguing of and access to learning materials.
  2. To develop tools and guidelines to enable museums and heritage organizations to tag on-line educational resources.
  3. To develop a repository of metadata and pointers of/to learning resources created by Canadian museums and heritage organizations, currently available on-line.
  4. To develop a gateway interface to access indexed learning materials created by Canadian museums and heritage organizations.
  5. To ensure that Canadian museum on-line materials are well represented in broader directories and are made accessible to other harvesters.

Review of Existing Models

As a point of departure, existing models for accessing distributed on-line learning materials were investigated. The first of the models is the Learning Resources section of Canada's SchoolNet (, which offers access to learning resources by curriculum areas, grade levels, themes, and keywords. As SchoolNet deals with Canadian curriculum and provides bilingual access, CHIN's project team found it to be a useful model.

The Gateway to Educational Materials ( was also examined as a model for Learning with Museums. This initiative of the National Library of Education and the U.S. Department of Education was created in 1996 "to create an operational framework to provide America's teachers with 'one-stop, any-stop' access to Internet-based educational resources." As the Gateway to Educational Materials (GEM) is in its third year of development, CHIN's project team was able to observe this very impressive gateway, as well as its related tools and user guides, in operation.

CHIN also studied several other projects which enable access to educational materials - SCRAN (Scottish Cultural Resources Access Network,, EdNA (Education Network Australia,, and ADAM (the Art, Design, Architecture & Media Information Gateway, Included in this review was an evaluation of their guidelines and tools to catalog/tag resources, search methodologies, interfaces, retrieval strategies and access points.

As a result of the analysis, aspects of these models were incorporated into the development of the CHIN application.

Part of the investigation of the existing models was to determine whether there was a niche for a gateway that contained on-line museum content exclusively. Due to the authoritative nature and high quality of the content produced by museums, it was determined that providing access to this material would be a benefit to all Internet users. The on-line educational content developed by museums is often complemented by their in-house educational programming, activities, and events; this broadens the potential use and value of museum on-line material.

Metadata Schemas

Metadata plays a very important role in the Learning with Museums project. CHIN chose to adopt a metadata schema based on that of the GEM project (which is in turn based on the Dublin Core 15-element data). CHIN's work was also informed by the metadata schema used by Canada's SchoolNet.

CHIN has been involved with developing guidelines for using the Dublin Core in the museum and heritage context through its participation in the Consortium for the Computer Interchange of Museum Information (CIMI) testbed projects, and is currently using Dublin Core metadata in several of its resources. CHIN wanted to continue to conform as closely as possible to this international standard.

As the Learning with Museums project started, the Dublin Core Metadata Initiative was in the process of defining a set of "qualifiers" to the 15 core elements. These qualifiers were to refine the meaning of the elements in order to allow more precision. For the Learning with Museums project, user requirements were such that it was necessary to use Qualified Dublin Core to enable precision in retrieval. Although the Dublin Core Qualifiers were not yet finalized by the time the project started, CHIN adopted a set of qualifiers based on current Dublin Core Qualifiers working drafts.

In addition to the Dublin Core Elements and Qualifiers, CHIN adopted metadata elements from the GEM schema, which contains eight education-specific elements along with the Dublin Core 15-element data set (see Annex B).

A crosswalk between the SchoolNet, GEM metadata, and CHIN metadata schemas was created, and the CHIN metadata schema was shared with Canadian Studies, which is currently developing a database of off-line educational materials. This will enable interoperability at various levels between Learning with Museums and CHIN's project partners.

The project team faced several challenges when trying to find a way to express the metadata so that it could be interpreted by harvesters. The Learning with Museums project required that complex metadata (see Annex B) be embedded in HTML documents while being compatible with all versions of Web browsers. Use of html metatags would not enable the expression of a complex data structure in a standard way; there was a lack of syntactic rules, creating ambiguities which the parser could not overcome. There was no syntax to express groupings of elements, given that there were repeating elements and qualifiers a syntactic qualifier was needed. Without a standard, no harvester would be able to interpret the metatags in a reliable way.

The chosen solution was to embed XML (Extensible Markup Language) in HTML documents using RDF (Resource Description Framework). With XML, CHIN was able to utilize the CIMI Dublin Core DTD (Document Type Definition) and create a CHIN DTD that defines a more complex data structure. RDF provides the syntax for DC, GEM, and CHIN elements; and the DTD provides the grammar and the structure that will allow other resource discovery tools to interpret the RDF. The CHIN project team used "abbreviated RDF", so that the RDF metatags could be embedded in the museums' html Web pages; if "serialized RDF" had been used, extraneous RDF information outside of the RDF tags would be displayed when using some of the older web browsers.

An important consideration in the choice of RDF was an article entitled, "Guidance on expressing DC in RDF". This article is a Working Draft of the Dublin Core Metadata Initiative (DCMI) which has been offered to the Dublin Core Advisory Committee for acceptance and ratification. This document states that "...only the combination of RDF and XML currently offers the range of capabilities required to fully express the richness of both qualified and unqualified Dublin Core in an unambiguous manner." It was important that CHIN follow the direction of the DCMI to allow for future interoperability.

Another consideration was that XML and RDF are World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) standards, which means that there is a large user community. Other users have created tools using these standards, which can be adopted or used as models. Another benefit of using a W3C specification is that there is ample resource material available on-line, which is very helpful during the development process.

Controlled Vocabulary

Dublin Core, GEM, and SchoolNet have each created controlled vocabularies and/or format standards to be used with their metadata element sets. CHIN was able to adopt or adapt many of these standards. However, as CHIN is dealing with bilingual content, some of the existing vocabularies had to be translated in order to enable bilingual access to the resources. A thesaurus was also created to deal with bilingual subject access.

In order to create a subject browser to be used in both cataloguing and retrieval of the learning resources, subject terms were drawn from each provincial and territorial curriculum. Due to the fact that some provincial/territorial curricula are currently under review, the application will need to be updated as new protocols are defined. As well, for the first phase of the project, only subject terms drawn from grades 7 -13 curricula were included. As this is a dynamic and evolving application, in subsequent phases, the project will also look at curricula below grade 7.

Although controlled vocabularies are used extensively in this project to ensure resource discovery, the resources can also be described with uncontrolled vocabulary to allow freedom of expression and alternatives to the controlled vocabulary.

The Cataloguing Tool

In order to assist museums with the task of embedding metadata in their on-line educational resources, CHIN created a cataloguing tool. This tool allows museums to catalogue their educational resources using an on-line form which then outputs metadata (as dictated by the metadata schema) which can be embedded in the museums' HTML pages. The cataloguing tool allows users to select terms from controlled vocabularies and/or provides suggestions from lists of uncontrolled terms. The resulting metadata is sent to the museums for incorporation into their resources.

GEM's cataloguing tool, "GEMCat" was used as a model. The model was adapted for the needs of the Canadian heritage and educational communities. The adaptations related to issues of maintenance, distribution, and technological limitations. For example, GEMCat is used either on- or off-line by a select group of highly trained users. CHIN's cataloguing tool will be available only on-line, to avoid problems of distribution and maintenance among a large, continually changing group of users. GEMCat is a Java application; CHIN's cataloguing tool is web-based, in order to ensure that it can be used with various Web browsers.

For this first phase of the project, the CHIN project team catalogued resources on behalf of the museums; for subsequent phases of the project, the goal is to have the museums catalogue their own resources using the cataloguing tool and the guidelines provided by CHIN. The gateway will quickly become more comprehensive as museums begin to use the cataloguing tool to create the metadata for their own resources.

It is hoped that as metadata begins to play a more central role in other applications, the CHIN cataloguing tool (and the metadata schema) can be extended so that it can be used for content description in disciplines other than education. For example, it could be used to catalogue cultural tourism resources as well as educational resources.

The Metadata Harvester

Another important part of the Learning with Museums gateway is the metadata harvester. After the museums have used the cataloguing tool to create and embed metatags in their on-line resources, the harvester will be used for automated collection of the metadata. The harvester will periodically crawl identified CHIN member museum Web sites, and retrieve the metatags within the educational resources. The collected metadata will then be stored in a periodically updated database that can be searched by users of Learning with Museums.

In the future, it is hoped that the harvester will be able to interpret and collect metadata created by other tools in addition to the CHIN cataloguing tool.


Learning with Museums provides learners with an efficient and easy-to-use resource for accessing on-line educational Canadian museum content. Users of all types can trust that the material that they are accessing and using comes from a credible, authoritative source - the Canadian museum community.

In addition to the benefit to learners and the educational community, the museum community benefits by having their material easily accessible by the target audience(s). The tools and guidelines, provided by the Learning with Museums project, will provide a model for museums wanting to catalogue their material. As the metadata embedded in museums' resources is based on an international standard, the Dublin Core, it is hoped that Internet search engines will also eventually be able to read the embedded metadata and discover the museums' resources.

For this phase of the project, to ensure that Canadian museum materials are well represented in broader directories, the gateway includes reciprocal hyperlinks with Canada's SchoolNet, the Canadian Studies off-line materials database (will be accessible on-line to give access to records of off-line learning materials produced by the federal government, such as books, videos, CD-ROMs etc) and GEM. Because these projects have used common standards, it may be possible to integrate the projects more closely in the future.

Learning with Museums is an exciting step in the goal to further develop access in the distributed environment. Those interested in finding out more or contributing to Learning with Museums, please contact CHIN by telephone 1 800 520-2446 or by e-mail: Learning with Museums will be available, as of May 18, 2000, on CHIN's Website (


XML/RDF Tools ñ PERL module for parsing XML Simple RDF Parser & Compiler Reggie, The Metadata Editor UKOLN DC-dot - a Dublin Core generator. ñ DTD Generator from RDF GEM Gateway page


XML/RDF resources/reference:

Guidance on expressing DC in RDF - IMS Meta-data Best Practices & Implementation Guide W3C RDF Model and Syntax Specification DC Metadata Element Set, Version 1.1: Reference Description Good brief explanation of W3C Specs


Annex A: Project Team members and their contributions to Learning with Museums

  • SchoolNet (Industry Canada), a developer of a gateway to Canadian curriculum and education support materials. SchoolNet contributed important feedback with respect to the Canadian context, the metadata schema, and access and retrieval strategies.

  • GEM provided software, standards documents, training, and guidance. In addition, GEM supervised the work of two international interns for one month (see international interns under Heritage Community Foundation, below).

  • Heritage Community Foundation (Alberta) participated in the analysis of provincial curriculum (from grade 7 to 13). Supervised the work of one technical and two international interns who worked on the project. The technical intern evaluated existing search methodologies, interfaces, retrieval strategies and access points used by GEM, SchoolNet, ADAM and SCRAN, developed/adapted search methodology, interface, retrieval strategy and access points for the site, and assisted other interns in creation and entering of metadata for the CHIN directory. The two international interns evaluated and adapted GEMís training material for the CHIN project, created and entered metadata, and prepared metadata files to be sent to museums for inclusion in their own site.

  • McCord Museum of Canadian History (Québec) supervised the work of one technical intern who adapted the subject browser (thesaurus), tested cataloguing tools incorporating metadata schema and controlled vocabulary, assisted with the analysis of provincial curricula, and began manual cataloguing of the web site of Les Musées díhistoire de Montréal.

  • Canadian Studies (Canadian Heritage) is currently developing a database of off-line educational materials for educators, students and the general public, and were involved in this project with a view to an eventual closer collaboration.

  • Muskoka Steamship and Historical Society (Ontario) assisted in the analysis of provincial/territorial curriculum (from grade 7 to 13).

  • Nova Scotia Museum catalogued some of its educational resources to be indexed within the CHIN application.

  • Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE), University of Toronto provided input from the point of view of educators.

  • Pointe-à-Callière (Québec) contributed their resource the CHIN application.

  • Canadaís Digital Collections (Industry Canada) recommended museums and heritage institutions collections to be added to the project.

  • Department of Tourism, Heritage Branch, Government of Yukon

  • I4design, a multimedia company, supervised the work of a technical intern who created an application to convert data entered in Excel spreadsheets to metadata.

Annex B: Metadata Schema for Learning with Museums

CHIN Element (adopted from GEM/DC)

CHIN Qualifiers (Adopted from GEM and DC)

CHIN Description (Adopted from GEM and DC)



An entity responsible for making contributions to the content of the resource. Examples of a Contributor include a person, an organization, or a service. Typically, the name of a Contributor should be used to indicate the entity.



Indicates the class of the named Agent



The formal or common name of the Agent. Typically, this would be the name, which is used to refer to the agent.



The organization with which the named Agent was associated with when involved with the resource. Used primarily when the Agent.Type is "person".



An entity primarily responsible for making the content of the resource. Examples of a Creator include a person, an organization, or a service. Typically, the name of a Creator should be used to indicate the entity.



Indicates the class of the named Agent



The formal or common name of the Agent. Typically, this would be the name, which is used to refer to the Agent.



The organization with which the named Agent was associated with when involved with the resource. Used primarily when the Agent.Type is "person".


Province (not DC or GEM)

The province of the Creator



An entity responsible for making the resource available. Examples of a Publisher include a person, an organization, or a service. Typically, the name of a Publisher should be used to indicate the entity.



Indicates the class of the named Agent



The formal or common name of the Agent. Typically, this would be the name, which is used to refer to the agent.



The organization with which the named Agent was associated with when involved with the resource. Used primarily when the Agent.Type is "person".

CHIN Element (adopted from GEM/DC)

CHIN Qualifiers (Adopted from GEM and DC)

CHIN Description (Adopted from GEM and DC)



The extent or scope of the content of the resource. Coverage will typically include spatial location (a place name or geographic coordinates), temporal period (a period label, date, or date range) or jurisdiction (such as a named administrative entity).



The name of a place.



The name of a period in time.



A numeric date.


Date Start

Date End

A date associated with an event in the life cycle of the resource. Typically, Date will be associated with the creation or availability of the resource.



Date of creation of the resource. When DC.Date is insufficiently precise, use "created" to distinguish a date that identifies just the creation of the present resource.



An account of the content of the resource. Description may include but is not limited to: an abstract, table of contents, reference to a graphical representation of content or a free-text account of the content.



A summary of the content of the resource


Awards (not from GEM or DC)

Textual information on awards or special recognition granted to the site



The physical, digital or analog manifestation of the resource. Typically, Format may include the media-type or dimensions of the resource. Format may be used to determine the software, hardware or other equipment needed to display or operate the resource. Examples of dimensions include size and duration.



Indicates the media type of the resource.

CHIN Element (adopted from GEM/DC)

CHIN Qualifiers (Adopted from GEM and DC)

CHIN Description (Adopted from GEM and DC)



An unambiguous reference to the resource within a given context.



Unique identifier assigned by CHIN



Language(s) of the intellectual content of the resource.



A reference to a related resource.



Information about rights held in and over the resource. Typically, a Rights element will contain a rights management statement for the resource, or reference a service providing such information. Rights information often encompasses Intellectual Property Rights (IPR), Copyright, and various Property Rights. If the Rights element is absent, no assumptions can be made about the status of these and other rights with respect to the resource.


Agent (from GEM)

the name of the agent of the owner(s) of rights in the resource


Use (from GEM)

statement of any intellectual property rights and/or use restrictions


PriceCode (from GEM)

a code designating the fee status of the resource (e.g. free, fee-based).



The topic of the content of the resource. Typically, a Subject will be expressed as keywords, key phrases or classification codes that describe a topic of the resource.



Subject identified by terms taken from a thesaurus, controlled scheme of subject headings, or other vocabulary. The name of the controlled vocabulary should always be identified as a value qualifier.



Subject identified by free text words



The name given to the resource. Typically, a Title will be a name by which the resource is formally known.



An alternate name given to the resource.

CHIN Element (adopted from GEM/DC)

CHIN Qualifiers (Adopted from GEM and DC)

CHIN Description (Adopted from GEM and DC)



The nature or genre of the content of the resource. Type includes terms describing general categories, functions, genres, or aggregation levels for content. Recommended best practice is to select a value from a controlled vocabulary (for example, the working draft list of Dublin Core Types [DCT1]). To describe the physical or digital manifestation of the resource, use the FORMAT element. For further information see







The element contains information from a controlled vocabulary that most closely identifies the specific audience of the resource being described.



The group that would use the resource: e.g. teacher



The target audience: e.g. learning disabled students.



The cataloging agency provides basic information about the agency that created the GEM catalog record.



Indicates the type of the entity for the named Cataloguer



The formal or common name of the Cataloguer. Typically, this would be the name, which is used to refer to the Cataloguer.



The email address of the Cataloguing Agency



The organization with which the named cataloguer was associated when cataloguing the resource. Used primarily when Type=person.


Language (not DC or GEM)

The language in which the resource is being catalogued



The application used to catalogue the resource (e.g. CHIN's Cataloguing Tool)



The URL of the cataloguing agency



The date that the resource was first catalogued.

GEM .Essential Resources


Resources essential to the effective use of the activity by the teacher.



The length of time required to complete the activity



Grade of the entity's audience.



where the resource targets an educational level as opposed to a specific grade

GEM. Pedagogy


Denotes the student instructional groupings, teaching methods, assessment methods, and learning prerequisites of a resource.

CHIN Element (adopted from GEM/DC)

CHIN Qualifiers (Adopted from GEM and DC)

CHIN Description (Adopted from GEM and DC)



The designation of the student grouping selected from a GEM-Registered controlled vocabulary



The designation of the teaching method selected from a GEM-registered controlled vocabulary



The designation of the student assessment method selected from a GEM-registered controlled vocabulary



The free-text designation of a learning prerequisite



Provincial and/or national academic standards mapped to the entity being described.



The name of the agency/person that mapped the standard to the entity



a statement that identifies the degree to which the described materials correlate with the standard (e.g. "slightly correlated")



the topical area of the standard (Mathematics, Science, etc.)



The grade level defined in the standard (which may or may not correspond with the grade or grade range of the resource being catalogued)