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Archives & Museum Informatics

Creating Heritage Content for the Web

Adriana A. Davies, Heritage Community Foundation, Canada


The presentation acknowledges the importance of the internet as a tool for communicating information held in the collections of heritage institutions and organizations (broadly defined). It will address: content development, funding, technical challenges and opportunities. The issue of content development is of primary importance for the heritage sector. While for other content providers, individuality is almost a prerequisite, in the area of the representation of public history and heritage, there are a number of constraints

Heritage institutions (museums, archives, historic sites, etc.) and organizations (historical societies, genealogical societies, ethnocultural societies, etc.) are a part of the non-profit sector and also make extensive use of volunteers. Thus, an under-resourced sector is being called upon to make use of a new technology without the necessary resources, fiscal or human to do so. Is doing things on a shoe-string possible? How can we get heritage content on the web.?:

While many roadblocks can be identified, it would be foolhardy for the sector to avoid getting started. Much can be accomplished using the traditional techniques that are hallmarks of the sector.


Eventually computers will be omnipresent, worn and used as companions and assistants. Our relationship to information will thus change because such VPCs (Very Personal Computers) will allow us instant access to all publicly available information in the world (Worzel 99).

Any heritage institution or organization that regards a presence on the web as discretionary, at this point in time, is hiding its head in the sand. A great deal of evidence exists about the value of the internet as both a communications and educational tool. The case does not have to be made here. The issues, rather, are:

  • how heritage content gets online
  • who does it and for what purpose
  • how is content determined
  • technical standardsówho develops, monitors and enforces them
  • who pays for this and, finally,
  • what are the challenges, opportunities and pitfalls.

These issues can be grouped under three general headings: content, technology and money. The following paper discusses them with reference to one project, Alberta Heritage Online, which I modestly offer as a case study.

In 1999 as the Executive Director of the Alberta Museums Association (trade name, Museums Alberta), the association of the provinceís over 200 museums and their paid and unpaid workers, I applied for and received a grant from the Canadian Millennium Partnership Program, a federal funding initiative. The project, Alberta Heritage Online, was a proposal to develop a provincial (that is, state) heritage website. The site overview, as set out in the grant application, was very ambitious as befitted a Government of Canada millennium project. Alberta Heritage Online was billed as Albertaís new, imaginative and educational heritage website, serving as the gateway to the rich heritage resources of the province. It sets out to:

  • provide an educational resource for the provinceís school children
  • make the provinceís heritage resources available to local, provincial, national and international visitors
  • create opportunities for Albertaís heritage organizations and groups to realize an individual as well as a "hot- linked" presence on the worldwide web
  • serve as a pilot for the development of metada for educational sites on the web.

The application outlined a process for creating the site involving a number of stakeholders. The first setback, albeit minor was that we were awarded substantially less than we asked for $67,750 (instead of a full $100,000).

In the meantime, a new entity was born, the Heritage Community Foundation, a Trust with educational objects with the following purposes:

  • Mandate: Linking people with heritage.
  • Mission: Bringing heritage to the mainstream
  • Vision: Heritage is valued by everyone.

The Alberta Heritage Online project became my responsibility as the new Executive Director of the new Heritage Community Foundation, with its broadly populist, educational objects. The Trustees agreed that the Foundation would design and implement a range of initiatives to help build knowledge of our heritage involving:

  • heritage institutions and organizations
  • government agencies
  • like organizations, whether cultural, educational or social service
  • public- and private-sector funders

Content development

It is a truism that heritage institutions and organizations have within them large quantities of information, which is potential content for the web. The issue of how this content gets to the web has been the concern of not only individual museums and historic sites but also government agencies, museum IT interest groups, corporations, foundations and others. The issue is a complicated one, as we know, not only for the usual reasons of ownership of intellectual property but also because of the public nature of many heritage facilities and their public trust mandates, which are sometimes contained in legislation. Thus, while for other content providers for the web, individuality is almost a prerequisite, in the area of the representation of public history and heritage, there are collective needs and interests, which must be addressed. These include:

  • The definition of responsibilities to the public about the interpretation of "their" heritage as an aspect of public trust
  • The issue of authority with respect to content development which must be addressed and mediated based on the variety of content providers and "experts" within the heritage field and academe
  • The sheer size of the sector, its interdisciplinary nature and issues around "whose history or heritage" is being presented
  • The special needs of the educational sector, an even larger component of the public sector, and its needs and constraints.

The awareness of these larger responsibilities guided all of our deliberations in the development of the Alberta Heritage Online website. I think that this is a common mind-set that all heritage workers adopt and which colours their thinking. I think that it involves being able to seeóthe "bigger" picture, the societal story as well as the individual story, the individual as well as the collective identity. As a colleague put it, a gateway site to heritage is, in effect, implying a kind of Good Housekeeping Seal of approval. We would de facto be viewed as an authority, if not, the authority and that responsibility weighed heavily on us. I think that this is an essential difference between heritage content providers and other web content providers. While I have not used, as yet, the term ethics, I believe that the issues around public trust also pertain to ethical considerations that frame the activities of any individuals, institutions and organizations serving the public good.

This issue also has ramifications when we consider that numerous museums, archives, historical societies, heritage agencies (governmental and nongovernmental), educational departments and agenciesóall develop web content dealing with history and heritage. In terms of the consumer, which is the most authoritative, inclusive. While it is imperative for individual museums, historic sites, heritage organizations and agencies to develop their own content, I believe that we must also develop those sites that bring together content from a number of sources to provide the public with a "one-stop shopping" approach to heritage. Whether this is done through an entity such as the Heritage Community Foundation, or government (for example, the Government of Canadaís proposed Virtual Museum of Canada to be developed through the Canadian Heritage Information Network), it must be done. The challenges are enormous but, if we succeed only partially, we will be providing citizens and visitors with a resource that links historical narrative to place, people, objects and documentsóthe stuff of heritage! The capacity to hot-link to a range of other sites, once they have been screened so that they meet agreed-upon heritage standards (this is a key justification for the CHINís Canadian Gateway to Learning project and the development of both metadata and content standards), means that a "gateway" site need not be all-embracing. It needs to provide baseline data but can "layer" content through strategic hot links.

The "brains" behind content development for Alberta Heritage Online have been Dr. Michael Payne, Provincial Historian with the Cultural Facilities and Historical Resources Division, Alberta Community Development, the Alberta government department with responsibilities for the preservation, study and interpretation of heritage. He quickly provided his support to the project and also became the Vice-Chair of the Web Council, chaired by myself. I, basically, had the nerve to indicate that I would Chair this group. I took on the work because I believed in the project and felt that I was the model of the "new" knowledge worker, that is, that I was a generalist who had worked in a number of areas including the museum field, research and editing, and university and technical colleges. Most relevant was my 22 years of work in the museum field (13 years working as Executive Director of the Alberta Museums Association) and four years work on the Canadian Encyclopedia as Editor of the Science, Technology, Industry and Material Culture sections. What Michael and I both brought to the project is a belief in the importance of doing it, some content expertise as well as networks of individuals, both colleagues and friends, who can advise and provide content expertise in determination of "articles" for the site as well as being volunteer editors and authors. The first rule of the heritage sector is that you exploit mercilessly, preferably for free, content experts and institutions. After all, public trust cuts two ways! Other members of the Web Council, identified because I have had a strong working relationship with both and because of their expertise, are Craig díArcy, Marketing Co-ordinator, and Ed Wiens, Designer (and computer whiz), both with the Historic Sites Service, Alberta Community Development. In the initial project implementation stages, I did consult more widely with museum and archival community representatives. But once, the project began, in June, 1999, the Web Council was Michael, Craig, Ed and myself, each with responsibilities as follows:

  • Adriana Davies project management and co-ordination; liaison with funders, web developers, Young Canada Works, and CHIN; overall site editor
  • Michael Payne historical content advisor including major themes, key events for timeline, etc.; historical content editor
  • Craig díArcyómarketing/tourism content provider
  • Ed Wiens design arbiter including technical specifications.

The final members of the Project Team were/are three interns made available to us through the Government of Canadaís Youth Employment Strategy to work on both our project and CHINís Canadian Gateway to Learning project. They are:

  • Mohamad Omar El-Hajj, Technical Intern expert in programming languages
  • Dulcie Meatheringham, International Intern material culture program graduate with expertise in html and web design
  • Kim Palmer, International Intern history and material culture program graduate.

The International Interns began work on October 1 for a six-month term and the Technical Intern, officially began work for a four-month term on November 1 but, unofficially, worked as a volunteer for the month of October.

It was this small group, who on October 1, 1999, began to address content issues, created the storyboard and then generated the preliminary content for the site. We had, and still have, a problem with language. After all, Michael and I are both academics; therefore, we made use of our interns, trusting that because of their youth they would be more "in tune" with common language. As well, they researched curriculum (particularly Social Studies) to see what terminology was in use. The following are the site content areas:

  • Places to Go ñ the cultural tourism component of the site, features fully searchable content on the provinceís museums, parks and historic sites
  • Youth and Education ñ this part of the site provides:
    • Information on heritage projects that teachers, parents and students can use to explore their community history
    • Opportunities to showcase student heritage projects on the web
    • A directory of schools programs offered at museums, historic sites
    • A magazine featuring youth heritage activities
  • Alberta: Past to Present ñ the largest section of the site with each category having its own internal architecture, it will provide information about Albertaís history and heritage under the following thematic headings:
    • Timeline of Alberta History
    • First Nations and Metis
    • Digging Up History (Archaeology)
    • Traders, Missionaries and Explorers (Fur Trade and Mission History)
    • Making a Living in Alberta (Resource Development, Industry, etc)
    • Alberta on the Move (Transportation)
    • Creating Communities (Settlement and Immigration)
    • Cities, Towns, and Villages (Urban Development)
    • Politics and Government (Political History)
    • Albertans in the World
    • Albertans in Uniform (Military History, Law Enforcement)
    • Albertans at Play (Sports and Recreation)
    • Our Basic Needs (Food/Clothing/Shelter)
  • Whatís New ñ the magazine section of the site, showcases new exhibits, heritage news, publications, events, etc.
  • Heritage Resources ñ this section provides:
    • A directory of heritage organizations that a student, teacher, parent or member of the general public might find useful in pursuing historical information.
    • Online resource publications such as Alberta Community Developmentís Heritage Notes series.

The first generation of content is up and we satisfied a requirement of our Alberta Government partneróto get the site up for December 5th when KSPS Public Television, Spokane, was doing a feature on Albertaís heritage. Since the Alberta-Montana Heritage Partnership had made available, without charge, the Alberta content of their Discovery Guide to Museums, Parks and Historic Sites, as well as contributing $10,000 towards the cost of making the Guide searchable, we felt that it was important to honour their trust. The promotional material for the website promises that it is "authoritative, educational, enjoyable, relevant, visually pleasing, ever changing and comprehensive." I cannot say that we do all of thisóyou can be the judge of that, but we are already facing the following challenges:

  • continue to build content, as well as replace stale-dated content in the magazine section
  • strengthen curriculum-based resource materials
  • create truly interactive youth content
  • develop a timeline for content upload and obtain the resources, fiscal and human to do this.

At the same time, we are facing the prospect of:

  • internships coming to an end in the next two months
  • finalizing the Content Guide and
  • developing the volunteer base for the Editorial Board, Section and Thematic Editors, not just identifying people but recruiting them and getting them functioning

Funding issues

Heritage institutions (museums, archives, historic sites, etc.) and organizations (historical societies, genealogical societies, ethnocultural societies, etc.) are a part of the non-profit sector. This means that many have been impacted by the cutbacks in government funding. As well, many of the smallest facilities are totally volunteer-run. Thus, an under-resourced sector is being called upon to make use of a new technology without the necessary resources, fiscal or human to do so. This task would be impossible if we did not have the vision for getting our content on the web and the determination to do this. I guess, what the Alberta Heritage Online project has demonstrated is that, if the vision is compelling and services broad public needs, an initial funder can be found. In this case, this was the Government of Canada through the Canadian Millennium Partnership Program. The next funder to come onside was the Young Canada Works Program, a Youth Employment Program aimed at giving graduates a taste of the work force. This happened through CHINís Gateway to Learning project. CHIN staff believed that our project would give them an opportunity to not only assist them in the development of metastandards for heritage content for the web, but would also give them a site to test against these standards.

I then made use of all of my contacts to not only obtain human resources and content expertise but also cash and in-kind support. This ranges from the website developers, Canadiana Group Inc. (a part of Pangaea Inc.) hosting the site for one year to all-kinds of content support from Alberta Community Development. But the challenge is to continue to go after government grants programs (including internship programs), to seek corporate support through sponsorships and, ultimately, the endorsement of the education ministry as web content builds a closer and closer fit with curriculum. Applying for grants is a complicated, time consuming process; implementing and reporting to funders is even more complicated. At present, I have built web costs into four grant applications and have begun to woo corporate sponsors. Sometimes, wearing multiple hats is an uncomfortable exercise. Our web developers deal routinely with business and their Web Charter, Strategic Plans and Content Guides all speak of dedicated personnel and money. I have none of this support structure and am having to rewrite them extensively around my constraints, which are no core funding or support staff. For example, the Webmaster in the Content Guide is a full-time position with both content and technical powers and responsibilities. The content responsibilities I can take on and share with my volunteer Web Council currently and, in the future, with Section and Thematic Editors. The technical expertise I will have to purchase, either through the website developers (which will be expensive) or through ad hoc contracts with individuals, like our Technical Intern, who are at the beginning of their careers and will do it for the love rather than the money. There are no easy answers to any of this and one is reliant on:

  • the goodwill and content expertise of peers
  • the support, financial and technical, of government agencies charged with responsibility for web development (such as CHIN)
  • the financial support of corporations and private foundations with educational mandates.

Because of the need to manage the intricacies of such elaborate collaborations (including partners, stakeholders, whatever), one can feel like a juggler trying to keep a multiplicity of balls in the air. But, at this time, I can see no alternative. The stakeholders in the Alberta Heritage Online project are as follows:

  • The principal funders are:
    • Canadian Millennium Partnership Program
    • Government of Canada Youth Employment Strategy (Young Canada Works)
  • Cash and in-kind support have been provided by the following partners, stakeholders and sponsors:
    • Alberta-Montana Heritage Partnership
    • Canadian Heritage Information Network (CHIN)
    • Canadiana Group Inc./Pangaea
    • Cultural Facilities and Historical Resources Division, Alberta Community Development
    • Edmonton Community Lottery Board
    • Legacy magazine
    • Maclab Enterprises/Midwest Property Management
    • Museums Alberta.

Technical Challenges

It is clear that, as a sector, the heritage field comprises a preponderance of baby boomers, in positions of authority. Computer literacy was not a requirement of their hiring nor a core responsibility of their current job. I shall give myself as an example. While I commissioned and edited the entries on computerization for the Canadian Encyclopedia in the early 1980s, I was barely computer literate. I used a MAC at home and at work all of my small staff had better computer skills than I did. I never felt that this was an obstacle, although in the past year, I have made a concerted effort to improve my skills. In any case, I rationalized that I had the content expertise and project management skills to do the work. I could obtain the technical expertise through contracting professionals and through internships. But this is making a virtue of necessity and only a short-term solution. As a sector we need to address the following issues:

  • The acquisition of skills for senior staff that will be required to manage web development projects
  • Obtaining the required staff with the competencies at least at the junior level in professionally staffed facilities and for volunteers in the volunteer-run ones to undertake such projects
  • Determining what competencies need to be "outsourcedí and how to go about this including standards for the selection of web developers
  • Copyright and other legalities around intellectual property
  • Site development and maintenance including the ongoing development of new content
  • Researching the needs of various web audiences (not just the educational sector) and addressing these needs.

The Alberta Heritage Online project immediately digressed from the process proposed in the grant application, based on the recommendations of the Steering Committee struck to guide the initial development. Soon after project initiation, it was recognized that the Steering Committee and other heritage partners could offer a wealth of expertise in the area of content; however, a serious gap in technical/ scientific expertise was quickly identified. This technology gap could not be filled by staff at either at the Heritage Community Foundation or Alberta Community Development, the provincial government partner department. Consequently, rather than hiring a full-time Content Assistant with technical expertise, as noted in the original proposal, made the decision to engage a Website Design Company. The gains from doing this include:

  • Expanded human resources; talent and energy as well as a valuable non-heritage perspective
  • Expanded technical resources
  • Wider knowledge of the internet environment
  • Greater cost effectiveness
  • Capacity to assume multiple levels of responsibility with respect to website development.

A Request for Proposal was developed and mailed out to 15 website design firms who responded. A selection committee, drawn from the Steering Committee, reviewed all of the proposals and interviewed seven short-listed candidates. Criteria for selection included:

  • competence in the field of website development and design
  • extensive experience and a substantial client list
  • a cost-effective proposal
  • sensitivity to the budget constraints of non-profit/charitable heritage community
  • ability to serve as a site sponsor.

One of the first activities of the Project Team (including the Web Council, Interns and Canadiana Group Inc.), was to undertake a Strategic Planning exercise that would see continued content development and site maintenance for the long-term. As a result of this session, a Project Charter outlining a critical path for the project and all deliverables was developed. Activitites undertaken include:

  • three focus groups involving elementary, junior high and high school students, teachers and parents
  • online research on existing educational/youth sites to see what works and what doesnít.

I can affirm that we could not possibly have got the site up in the short time-frame without dedicated professionals providing the technical expertise and support. However, I recently identified a gap in the impressive array of talent at Canadiana Group Inc. and have brought it to the attention of our project liaison. As an editor of number of print works including books and magazines, I know the importance of a rigorous editorial process as well as desk-top publishing capacity. We were asked to deliver basic Word text with no formatting. This was to be the responsibility of Canadiana. We fast-tracked the development of text for the site and provided it in electronic format. Photographs and slides went separately. In the translation of this material to the site, I found that error was introduced as formatting was done. This meant that every time I proofread on the screen, I had to make handwritten notes on errors to be corrected/standardization, etc.; then transcribe these into an email message. Technical staff at Canadiana would then make the corrections but, inevitably, some were missed and some new errors were introduced. With respect to the visuals (and our site is still poor in this respect), some went adrift from their accompanying articles. As well, the whole issue of copyright clearance is a major concern. I believe that, in future phases, a more structured editorial process will help. Finally, the capacity to do online editing inhouse will be a boon, since we have had a training session and two of the three interns have the competencies to do this. At least, until they leave. This, then, is the crux of the matter. Content can be obtained free but for the maintenance of a successful and dynamic site, a heritage institution or organization must have, the services of an individual, say, the webmaster with technical expertise to maintain and develop the site. This is a minimumóthe ideal to maintain a site that is the equivalent of an encyclopedia is several dedicated staff with the technical skills and sensitivity to the needs of heritage content.

The Opportunities

Having described this complicated, time consuming process (I found most evenings and weekends were spent on proofreading at the screen), would I and the other Team members do it again. In short, yes. As a writer, editor, ethnocultural historian and cultural manager, I love the medium. I know that not everyone can access it as yet but trust that down-the-road it will be as available as television. If we believe passionately in the transformative power of experiencing our heritage, how can we not use this new, democratic communications medium We are already working on the next era of development for the Youth and Education, site including video spots. I have already obtained some of the content for the Whatís New section (from Alberta Connections, the Alberta Community Development departmental magazine that showcases heritage). I have already begun discussions with the department of education about the development of curriculum resource materials, negotiated a deal with the provinceís first radio broadcaster, and the deal making continues. All of this gets the heritage message to more and more publics.

While many roadblocks can be identified, the largest being the lack of technical expertise within the sector, it would be foolhardy for to avoid getting started. Much can be accomplished using the traditional techniques that are hallmarks of the sector. These include:

  • Strategic public/private sector partnerships
  • Use of grants, employment programsóthe range of support mechanisms
  • Effective use of professional networks within the heritage sector
  • Corporate sponsorships including branding to obtain needed cash and inkind resources.

The next challenge is the assessment of our site based on the criteria developed through CHINís Canadian Gateway to Learning project. But, even if we are found wanting, we can correct and improve. That is the beauty of the medium. If we had published 10,000 encyclopedias with a typo or picture gone wrong, it would be a different matter.


Richard Worzel, "Three keys to the Future: Where are associations heading?" in Association: Canadaís Association Management Magazine, Dec. 1999/Jan. 2000, p. 8.