Exploiting Historic Collections On-line
Mike McConnell, Iain Middleton, Julie Smart, Peter Jeffels, University of Aberdeen, United Kingdom
Can virtual library and museum collections offer significant advantages over traditional physical displays? Clearly there are benefits in avoiding the natural temporal and spatial limitations of physical collections: location, opening hours, display space; but what other opportunities do new technologies offer? Can such collections overcome the problems that traditional curatorial/cataloguing taxonomies sometimes present for users? Can they ever be a viable alternative to the physical, or do they serve a different or complementary purpose? How important is the physical, tactile nature of artefacts to the user? This paper outlines the processes involved in the creation of three virtual resources at the University of Aberdeen: an on-line museum collection, and two library projects that focus on specific aspects of the region's history. It details how these resources were enhanced by the careful use of new technologies. The authors argue that virtual spaces can indeed complement traditional collections if properly researched, resourced and designed. Moreover, the virtual world can present exciting opportunities for placing materials in new contexts where meaningful relationships can be drawn. The authors contend that in addition to widening access for traditional audiences, virtual collections may also enable access for a different demographic; one that would not normally use libraries or museums.
Keywords: museums, library, virtual, physical, Marischal, Scott Skinner, Radicalism
The University of Aberdeen is an ancient university, and in common with other historic institutions has large collections of rare manuscripts, printed books, archival material and artefacts. Whilst the University's Historic Collections Division makes every effort to promote and exploit this rich heritage, it is inevitably limited in its activities by traditional obstacles: resources, time, space, and the difficulty of raising awareness to audiences who are not necessarily close at hand.
The University is not alone in facing these types of issues and historically there have been considerable initiatives by government and other parties to facilitate the exploitation of these 'locked' resources via new technologies. Whereas previously it could be argued that such developments lacked central vision and co-ordination, there are now significant recognised national standards and programmes for the development of such collections. Two of the most widely recognised, nof-digitise and JISC's Learning and Teaching (5/99) Programme are discussed herein.
The paper outlines the processes involved in the creation of three virtual resources at the University of Aberdeen: an on-line museum collection, and two library projects that focus on specific aspects of the region's history. It details how these resources were enhanced by the considered use of new technologies, and outlines evaluation processes. Technical details are also covered in brief.
LEMUR - LEarning with MUseum Resources
LEMUR is a 3 year project funded by the JISC's Learning and Teaching (5/99) Programme that aims to provide wider access to the University of Aberdeen's historical collections. It is a digital collection, a database currently of 3500 images and accompanying text, available through the Web. The LEMUR database brings together a wealth of material from the University's collections that can be used for teaching in the Arts, Social Sciences and Sciences not only at Aberdeen but also more widely throughout the Higher Education community. High quality digital images and the basic computer catalogue are enhanced with contextualising material, such as early hand-written inventories and letters from the collectors, as well as a virtual re-creation of the displays at Marischal Museum.
The objects depicted in LEMUR come from the Marischal Museum, the University Art Collection, the Natural Philosophy Collection, Special Libraries and Archives and the Herbarium, as well as from collections held by the Departments of Zoology and Geology.
Marischal Museum was established in 1786. Today the collection consists of around 70,000 items, donated by graduates, staff and friends of the University over the centuries. Many objects are of national significance, with particular strengths in Scottish prehistory, Scottish militaria, African and Oceanic ethnography, Classical coins and Egyptology.
The Natural Philosophy Collection is part of the University's School of Physics, and is one of the finest of its type in the UK. The collection contains over 2,000 items spanning two and a half centuries, from mid eighteenth-century astronomical equipment to late twentieth-century digital computers.
LEMUR's objectives are to:
LEMUR is thus a resource which is designed both for local curricular needs and those of the broader Higher Education (HE) community. Its products are therefore designed both to be tailored to the specific requirements of teaching and learning within the University and to be a valuable resource in a much broader sense to a much wider audience. Its potential usefulness to the museum and the university as an interface with the general public is also acknowledged, as will later be addressed.
A variety of factors made the case for the on-line provision of digitised resources from these collections:
Conservation: the fragility of many of these objects has made access difficult in the past.
Lack of display space: access to the collections is made difficult by the lack of available space in which to display them and as a result curatorial staff have to be highly selective in choosing items for display. Items on display at any one time represent only a small proportion of the collections.
Physical access: it is necessary to visit the museum or collection in person in order to access its resources. This is an issue for local as well as distant users: the Marischal Museum, for example, is located some distance from the main campus and opening hours may not suit all users. Wheelchair access is problematic due to museum's location on the first floor of a traditional building. Aberdeen is the UK's most northerly university city, precluding casual usage and placing considerable burdens on those determined enough to visit from outside the local area.
Awareness: many people are simply not aware of the existence of the museum due to limited resources for promotion and its physical location within university premises.
LEMUR has produced two primary, interlinked Web-based deliverables:
In addition to these two primary deliverables, discrete teaching packages have been and can continue to be developed, using the database and/or the image library.
Objects were photographed, where practical, in a studio environment on slide film for maximum clarity. Due to the large number of images required an external contractor was employed to make high resolution scans which were written to CD in batches of 100-150. These were then supplied to the site developer to be reduced to a suitable size for Web use and added to the on-line collection. Quality control procedures were exercised by museum staff after scanning and after Web-mounting.
Academic staff from Physics, History of Art, Cultural History and History and Philosophy of Science worked with IT specialists and museum curators from the outset: selecting objects; deciding how they would be photographed; updating catalogues; writing captions, and developing new teaching packages. The core project team undertaking development of the Web site comprised a Project Manager (the Senior Curator of the museum), a Curatorial Assistant, a photographer and the Web site developer.
Initial requirements called for an "on-line database" and "virtual museum". These would be built on the museum's existing catalogue, held in a Cardbox database. The catalogue's data format is based on the SPECTRUM museum documentation standard developed by the Museums Documentation Association (1997), a format which accommodates an extensive range of fields allowing for rich descriptions of objects. The catalogue was extracted to a comma delimited text file and uploaded into the MySQL database. The publicly available fields are a cut-down selection of the full database records.
Database Search Tool
Development of the Web interface for searching the database needed to take into account the needs of both casual/novice and specialist/expert users. A design was chosen which will be familiar to users of similar applications for searching image-oriented databases, with results returned as rows of thumbnail images and summary information. The search tools provide a default behaviour which will be familiar to users whose only prior experience of searching on the Web is Google or Amazon; augmented by tools to specialise, broaden or blend searches, including Boolean terms. Display options allow criteria for ordering results to be changed and an alternative output in a timeline format.
Users can select objects from the results to examine in greater detail. Upon selecting a result they are presented with the full (public) record for the object alongside a larger image. Thumbnails of all other images available of the object are displayed beneath the record. All images can be selected to show the largest available version. If the item is held in the Marischal Museum, a link is provided to the Marischal Virtual Museum (see below) and the display case or area in which it resides.
The Marischal Virtual Museum
The Virtual Museum was developed in response to a requirement for a package which would give a virtual experience of visiting the displays of Marischal Museum and to reveal the processes behind the creation of the displays. In contrast to the database search capability, where finding individual objects is the primary function, the Virtual Museum aims to provide context and meaning for the collections, exploring relationships between objects.
Although initial discussions discussed the notion of a "virtual walk-through" and an entirely immersive 3D Virtual Reality experience, it became clear that while this approach might appear impressive it would be limited in its educational value. Instead, a floor plan based navigational structure was chosen which would allow users to browse areas (broad themes) of interest and then focus on individual displays for further information and access to individual objects. This provides a big-picture view from the museum as a whole, down successively to broad themes, individual collections, individual displays and finally to the objects themselves. In this way both the character and layout of the museum and the history and rationale of the collections can be understood. A series of 3-dimensional QTVR (Quicktime Virtual Reality) sequences, accessed from the floor plans, give added spatial context to the museum, enabling users to see how the museum appears to the visitor and how the spaces inside are used.
An A-Z index of topics and collections was added to in order to make the site more accessible a) to visually impaired users and b) to those searching for a particular topic or collection or an overview of the museum's contents.
Problems Encountered in Development
Requirements specification and setting expectations:
LEMUR was in some senses a highly experimental development and represented a major move into integrating technology with teaching for the academic partners, some of whom had had little experience in this area. Inevitably there were instances of confusion where assumptions were made tacitly which later resulted in the requirement for a re-think of methodology. This underlines the need for thorough requirements specifications at an early stage and to set expectations at a reasonable level.
Specifying requirements was further complicated by the multiple audiences and purposes of LEMUR, and particular attention had to be paid to balancing the needs of the various stakeholders: teaching staff's requirement for specific materials; the university's desire to broadcast the riches of its collection and make them widely available; the institutional aims of the funding bodies.
Quality issues with data:
The collection catalogues from which the LEMUR database was built were designed for use by their creators and serious issues surfaced when they were converted for use by a general audience on the Web. Quality of data was known to be an issue beforehand, but was made evident when the first Web prototypes were produced which clearly displayed items with missing and erroneous data and incorrect pictures.
In spite of rigorous quality control procedures it was found that image quality across platforms and displays was highly variable, and this continues to be the case. Colour balance and brightness are well known to vary between, for example, Mac and PC, but we have found that, even on the same platform, colour and brightness in certain images can vary to an extraordinary degree. Individual monitor settings are only part of the problem, as tests run across a wide range of machines at the university showed little consistency. In some cases the only solution has been to create two copies of an image with, for example, one suited to darker screens and one to lighter screens.
Consideration needed to be given to the differing needs of the stakeholders involved. This was a factor which complicated requirements specifications: there was potential tension between the university institutional desire to improve resources for its own students, the university's desire to broadcast the riches of its collection and make them widely available and the institutional aims of the funding bodies.
Evaluation of LEMUR is in progress at the time of writing; both internally and externally (the latter by JISC, the funding body, who will report shortly). Feedback both from formal and informal evaluation has been encouraging. Informal feedback from staff noted that "an unusually high quality of debate has been observed amongst the participating students".
Laboratory testing was undertaken in the form of a task-based exercise with a cohort of 15 students. Initial returns from a recent questionnaire survey suggest a highly positive impression. Positive comments focus on the extent of information available, strong sense of "where you are" in the Virtual Museum and the ability to navigate quickly around the museum.
Formal results of evaluation are expected to be available in early 2004.
The University of Aberdeen's library collections are rich in resources of unique historical significance, particularly in materials relating to the North-East of Scotland. The University's Historic Collections Division has extensive experience in digitising such material for on-line delivery, and has in recent years created several popular Web based resources that bring its collections to a wider audience.
This section discusses the development of two new collections that draw on these materials, The Music of James Scott Skinner and The Voice of Radicalism. These projects were largely funded by the New Opportunities Fund, a charitable organisation funded by the UK National Lottery that awards grants to education, health and environment projects throughout the UK. The objectives of the projects support the broader aims of the New Opportunities Fund; that is, to provide the wider public, community groups, education communities and the like with an easy means of access to material either hitherto unpublished or difficult to obtain, and to ensure that such resources are accessible for future generations.
At the time of writing, The Music of James Scott Skinner resource has been completed and successfully launched; the final evaluation report is due for publication shortly. The process followed and lessons learned from this project have formed a useful template for The Voice of Radicalism.
The Music of James Scott Skinner
James Scott Skinner (1843 –1927) was a key figure in Scottish traditional music who was renowned for his playing and compositions. The Music of James Scott Skinner (http://www.abdn.ac.uk/scottskinner/)is a Web based learning and research resource that details Skinner's life and work.
The site is based around a large collection of manuscript and printed music, letters, published texts, images, videos and archive audio excerpts created and sourced by The University of Aberdeen and its project partners, including:
The site additionally includes work by Skinner's contemporaries and also draws upon the University's substantial collection of Scottish music, some of which dates back to the beginning of the eighteenth century. The resource thus attempts to show how Scottish traditional music has developed over the past three hundred years.
Multimedia elements illustrate dances as Skinner taught them and archive audio excerpts of Skinner recordings demonstrate the distinctions between the different types of melody which are not always apparent to contemporary listeners.
The Web site was created by the University of Aberdeen's Historic Collections department, in collaboration with Aberdeen City Council, Aberdeenshire Council and Angus Council. The project team comprised one full time project officer and a project manager, director and board who oversaw the site's development, and coordinated input by the project partners and other interested parties. Additional technical expertise was provided by the University's Audio Visual Unit and the site was designed and authored by a WWW author from the University's central Web team.
The project was completed over a period of 18 months.
It was a requirement of the funding body that the Web resource complied with the nof-digitise standard (http://www.ukoln.ac.uk/nof/support/); a national standard for development of resources created under the New Opportunities Fund programme (http://www.nof.org.uk/). This standard makes recommendations on specific technologies utilised by developers in order to ensure the accessibility and longevity of the ensuing resources. Requirements state that materials should, where possible be presented in non-proprietary formats. An additional requirement of these projects was the creation of appropriate Dublin Core (http://dublincore.org/) meta data.
Images were scanned at 300ppi using UMAX Power Look 1100 Flatbed, saved as TIFF files for archiving, and then converted to JPEG format for display on the Web. It was imperative that the compression process did not jeopardise the legibility of the documents and thus further compression of the resultant JPEGs was minimal.
Videos were captured using digital video tape and then edited into appropriate clips using Adobe Premier. The clips were then compressed using Sorenson Squeeze, which creates Macromedia Flash files. After considerable deliberation, Flash was chosen for the video clips, because although a proprietary format, it offered the by far best compression without loss of quality. As it was essential that the video clips were accessible to the widest possible audience (in particular those using slower connections), it was considered that the desirability of effective compression outweighed the proprietary format in this instance. As a concession to the funder's requirements, and for those clients who do not wish to install Flash, the clips are also available in streamed Mpeg 4; a non-proprietary format. Audio material is presented in MP3 format; another non-proprietary format that offers good file compression in is in widespread use.
A MySQL database was created to store the information about each artefact. This database was populated by the project officer via a Web interface. The database includes the record fields as they appear on the public site and additionally a number of fields including appropriate Dublin Core meta information for each record. PHP is used to interrogate the database and display the records and images. Both PHP and MySQL are non-proprietary, open-source formats.
After launch, the site immediately generated a considerable amount of informal positive feedback. It was decided that a more formal evaluation process should take place in order to elicit user feedback on the project design; whether the site was accessible and usable to users; whether it met NOF criteria, and additionally to report on server logs, which give an indication of the site usage.
A sample of users was selected from the audience invited to the official launch of the Website. This audience included pupils from local schools, retired and working people. Other users were selected from appropriate organisations, including subscribers to the North East Ceilidh list, a Yahoo user group dedicated to Ceilidhs and traditional music and dance events in North-East Scotland; a Web site dedicated to Celtic music (http://www.footstomping.com/); and ALP Scots Music Group, a community education project based in Edinburgh which aims to make the traditional music, song and dance of Scotland widely available to everyone. As an incentive for completing the questionnaire, the University offered a prize draw of a Scott Skinner audio CD and a calendar.
The sample users were contacted by letter and requested to complete a short questionnaire which could be returned either in Web form (http://www.abdn.ac.uk/scottskinner/survey/) or hard copy. The questionnaire sought feedback on the usability of the Web site; its colour scheme; navigational aids; the quality and usability of the multimedia materials and some basic demographic information about the users.
Responses were received from a wide demographic: 72% working people, 19% retired, 16% at university or college and 3% at school. Feedback was encouraging, with 94% of people rating the site design as good or excellent; 76% stating that the site was easy to navigate, and 73% reporting no problems with using the site. Problems/issues that were reported related to download times for video clips and images. Additionally some broken links were reported, all of which have now been repaired.
In addition to the questionnaire feedback, the site was evaluated for accessibility against the TechDIS Seven Precepts of Usability and Accessibility (http://www.techdis.ac.uk/seven/precepts.html) by the University's resident accessibility expert. Some concerns were raised regarding text alternatives for video clips and advice was offered on how the site might be adjusted to allow text-readers to skip navigational elements. These issues will be addressed in the near future.
The process followed during the development of the Scott Skinner site and the evaluation results are currently informing the development of the other NOF funded resource, The Voice of Radicalism. It is hoped that the lessons learned will result in cost and time savings for the project team.
The Voice of Radicalism
The Voice of Radicalism (http://www.abdn.ac.uk/diss/historic/radicalism/), like the Skinner site, exploits resources from the University of Aberdeen's Historic Collections Division and presents these resources in a meaningful context. The project charts the development of people's rights during the 19th century by focusing on events in the North East of Scotland. The Web resource presents a rich array of contemporary materials, including political articles from newspapers and journals, prints, squibs and ephemera such as handbills and song sheets, and is augmented by audio recordings of political ballads that relate to some of these themes.
It is intended that the materials presented will be additionally contextualised by sections on themes such as the Reform Acts, Chartism, political and social grievances, trade-unions, the rise of the Labour Party and the women's suffrage movement. Multimedia elements will include recordings of political ballads that relate to some of these themes.
The development of The Music of James Scott Skinner site was relatively problem free; problems that did arise were mainly technical ones related to video compression. However, it became clear that the project team had given little initial thought as to how the database records would display on the Web; probably because they were regarding the database primarily as a cataloguing tool. This meant that several readjustments to site sections and to the database were required in order to accommodate new fields and to flag others for Web display. These could have been avoided by clearer specification at the outset.
The success of The Music of James Scott Skinner is arguably at least partly due to the highly specific nature of the project and the obvious benefits multimedia elements lend to the particular subject. It will be interesting to see if The Voice of Radicalism achieves the same degree of widespread popularity, given the nature of the materials.
It is proposed that the examples discussed above succeed as resources because as virtual exhibits they offer significant advantages over traditional physical displays. First and most obviously, the collections represented by these projects are no longer physically difficult to access. The spatial and temporal barriers inherent to physical locations are removed: users can access the resources at any time, from anywhere in the world. Mobility-impaired users are not impeded and the visually impaired can access the sites with a talking browser. Objects not normally on display due to lack of space can be examined; fragile objects can be examined without putting them at risk. Historical artefacts are freed from boxes, shelves and stores, enabling their examination by anyone, anywhere, anytime with a Web browser.
As well as spatial/temporal barriers, other barriers are broken down: results from the evaluation of the resources also suggest (encouragingly) that the use of virtual space not only widens access in terms of usage of the resources, but also may widen access to such collections to a different demographic; one that would not normally use libraries or museums. It could be argued that in the virtual world, users remain in control and are not limited or intimidated by traditional or 'expert' barriers such as cataloguing systems or curatorial taxonomies.
Widening access to materials is not the only benefit of these Web resources: in reconsidering how to present the materials and recontextualising for the Web, these virtual spaces present us with possibilities for placing a disparate range of materials in a context where meaningful relationships between them can be explored.
In the case of Scott Skinner, this involved setting Skinner's work in its historical context; comparing it with that of his contemporaries and also placing it in the context of the canon of Scottish traditional music. Such comparisons could not easily be made in the traditional physical environs of the library for various reasons: cataloguing, the collection being dispersed in various locations; access restrictions to rare/fragile manuscripts, etc.. The multimedia elements moreover provide an immediately obvious enhanced experience for the site users.
In the case of LEMUR the combination of a searchable database and the extensive contextualisation provided by the Virtual Museum mean that the user no longer sees objects from the catalogue as individual, disparate items, rather as members of collections which themselves have a rationale and history. Meaning is imparted to objects by their relationships and associations. Users are provided with a space in which they can see a "bigger picture" which they can explore to see how individual parts are related to each other and to the whole.
Although not a primary objective, a welcome outcome has been that the LEMUR project has also stimulated research at the museum: the close attention paid to each item as it was photographed and its database records checked revealed new insights into several objects, including some whose very nature or purpose has been reassessed (Curtis and Taylor, 2002). The process has also had the highly beneficial effect of improving the accuracy and completeness of the database record. Moreover, the manner in which the database records are displayed in Web interfaces (images and text presented together in a more user-friendly format than the old Cardbox system) has brought to notice inaccuracies, inconsistency and incompleteness in the data. This has provided the impetus for the museum to make the necessary improvements.
After singing the praises of the Web, it is well to consider some caveats and highlight pitfalls.
A virtual collection is likely to be selective in what it presents: users must understand if this is the case. Not only objects are the subject of selectivity: the capabilities and functionality of the virtual resource are defined by the creators: the views available, the places you can go - users may wish to see "the side not pictured", or see one aspect in more detail than the photography and image size allows. In virtual environments you see only what its creators want you to see, or thought that you wanted to see. If the context is an important part of the experience of viewing an object, this must be conveyed. If a museum is more than the sum of the objects it holds, virtual counterparts need to consider what else it is they are trying to convey.
Curtis, N and Taylor, A (2002). Research and Learning with Museum Resources - the LEMUR project, University Museums In Scotland Conference, University of St Andrews. Consulted 30th January 2004 http://www.dundee.ac.uk/umis/conference2002/taylor.htm
Dublin Core last updated on 30th November 2003; last consulted: 30th January 2004 Museum Documentation Association (1997). SPECTRUM: The UK Museum Documentation Standard (2nd edition), Cambridge: Museum Documentation Association
The Distributed National Electronic Resource: DNER; consulted 30th January 2004 http://www.jisc.ac.uk/index.cfm?name=dner_home
The Dublin Core Metadata Initiativehttp://dublincore.org/
The Joint Information Systems Committee (JISC) ; consulted 30th January 2004 http://www.jisc.ac.uk/
New Opportunities Fund programme; last consulted: 30th January 2004 http://www.nof.org.uk/
TechDIS Seven Precepts of Usability and Accessibility last consulted: 30th January 2004 http://www.techdis.ac.uk/seven/precepts.html
UKOLN, University of Bath (2002) nof-digitise standard; last updated on 2nd October 2003; last consulted: 30th January 2004 http://www.ukoln.ac.uk/nof/support/
University of Aberdeen, Historic Collections (2002-2004) The LEMUR project homepage. Last updated 4th September 2001; consulted 30th January 2004 http://www.abdn.ac.uk/virtualmuseum
University of Aberdeen, Historic Collections (2002-2004) The Marischal Virtual Museum. Last updated October 2003; consulted 30th January 2004 http://www.abdn.ac.uk/virtualmuseum
University of Aberdeen, Historic Collections (2003) The Music of James Scott Skinner, last updated January 2004; consulted 30th January 2004 http://www.abdn.ac.uk/scottskinner/
University of Aberdeen, Historic Collections (2003-4) The Voice of Radicalism; last updated December 2003; consulted 30th January 2004 http://www.abdn.ac.uk/diss/historic/radicalism/