March 22-25, 2006
Albuquerque, New Mexico

Papers: Historic Preservation Learning Portal

Constance Werner Ramirez, National Park Service, USA

The National Park Service has the responsibility to provide information and training on historic preservation to all agencies of the federal government in the United States. To reach the greatest number of federal employees and others working with federal historic preservation laws, the National Park Service developed an Internet portal that uses concept-matching software to assist in providing this information and training. To date, over 800 Web sites with information on historic preservation and cultural resources have been indexed into the site. Users can query in plain language, and searches can be saved and shared with other users. The Portal facilitates the search for information, particularly by the non-professional unfamiliar with the subject, such as persons trying to rescue cultural resources damaged by disasters. The Portal is being funded through contributions from more than 20 federal agencies - making it the largest historic preservation partnership in the federal government.

Keywords: portal, historic preservation, cultural resources, partnership, concept-matching, plain language


The Historic Preservation Learning Portal has been developed by the National Park Service as one way to respond to its legal responsibility to provide historic preservation information and training to federal agencies. Some countries have a central historic preservation or cultural agency, but in the United States every agency (about 75) has a responsibility for carrying out the historic preservation and archaeological laws that govern its policies and programs. At meetings in 2000 and 2001, Federal Preservation Officers and other representatives of these agencies identified a need for a clearinghouse of historic preservation information that would help them meet their responsibilities under the National Historic Preservation Act and about forty related public laws and federal regulations.

In all agencies, these responsibilities are dispersed from the headquarters through the regional or state offices to field offices and, in most cases, involve local governments, non-governmental organizations, American Indian tribes, and individuals. While some, or about one thousand, of these users have education and experience in historic preservation, most of them (more than 200,000) pick up their information on the job or through involvement with a specific project. As a result, keyword searches, which exclude the uninitiated, are not helpful to those new to the field or subject.

Based on the user analysis prepared by Kate Murphy, an instructional technology consultant (formerly with the George Mason University Distance Learning Program), the National Park Service developed a project concept for an Internet portal that would respond to both the users’ needs and the users’ computer skills. Upon selection of the portal software, the National Park Service contracted with Dan Buan of Buan Consulting, a knowledge management and portal solutions company located in Annapolis, MD, to develop the application.

Software Selection

The Portal is an application of the Portal-In-A-Box developed by the Autonomy Corporation. This software makes the Portal a single point of access to the historic preservation resources on thousands of sites on the Web. Using concept matching software, users can query in full sentences and find relevant information from hundreds of historic preservation Web sites. There is no data storage or maintenance required by the user, and the software is “commercial off-the-shelf” (COTS) and fully XML compliant.

The portal uses advanced technology to perform innovative functions not widely used in the government. Through the use of mathematical algorithms (Bayesian Inference and Shannon's information theory), the technology makes it easy for users to find relevant information by entering sentences or questions describing a concept or idea rather than key words or Boolean expressions.

This method gives the user a more natural way of finding information. The benefit is that knowledge created by experts can be reused or expanded upon to further enhance the body of knowledge in the historic preservation community. The user is able to identify other knowledge workers who have similar interests and/or are experts in a given field by saving searches and comparing these saved searches with other users' saved searches. This is a major innovation in the use of the technology.

The method of restricting data to historic preservation Web sites creates a “vertical search” and solves the problem of getting irrelevant hits from a Google-like search. It restricts results to domain specific knowledge/information from both internal and external sources. The Portal uses an iterative process for collecting unstructured data from public sources. Through the process of spidering, the Portal software enables a process that browses or “crawls” a Web site’s links in a methodical, automated manner in order to create an index / database of all the content / information (i.e. document files [.pdf, .doc, .txt, etc.], written text, etc.) contained within said Web site for later processing and / or searching through the Autonomy search engine. In order to capture rapidly changing information after Hurricane Katrina in the fall of 2005, the Park Service increased is spidering to every three days. This meant that any new information posted on any of the more than 800 indexed sites could be found through the Portal - saving users from trying to identify individual urls with the information.

Portal Funding and Partners

Portal development is being funded by over 18 federal agencies that are voluntarily transferring funds to the project over the 4-year development period (FY 2003-2006). The total software and development costs over this four year period is approximately $800,000. In order to get started within the current fiscal year, rather than waiting for the budget year, agencies have been providing end-of-the year funds that were reprogrammed for this project. Starting in fiscal year 2007, the Portal is eligible for budgeted funds through the U.S. Department of the Interior.

Representatives from the funding agencies make up the Portal governing team and oversee selection of content, interface design, and new functions. To date, 18 federal agencies have contributed funds ranging from a total of just under $5,000 to over $75,000. The National Park Service contributes staff to oversee the project and to vet the content as well as providing and maintaining the two servers used by the Portal. These agencies recognize the efficiency of having one Internet source of historic preservation information and training. No single federal agency has an Internet site capable of providing all the information needed by the agency or by the legally required participating state, tribal, and local agencies and private citizens. Users at the United Nations and with some foreign governments have expressed interest in using the Portal.


The Portal is designed to transform the federal historic preservation compliance activities that depend on multiple Internet sites, hard-to-find electronic documents, and accidental information into one that provides discovery, categorization, summarization, and communication of information at one Internet address. Quicker and more immediate access to critical information will significantly impact the public’s ability to perform successful historic preservation activities by allowing people to find similar projects, lessons learned, best practices, and experts before they embark on their own projects. No longer will they have to learn by “trial and error” when preserving some of our nation’s most cherished structures. There are significant productivity savings due to just-in-time knowledge/training and knowledge retention.

The query function of the Portal is available to anyone with access to the Internet. The saved searches, summarization, and communication features are currently available only to the funding federal agencies. It is anticipated that when the Portal is fully funded, those functions will be available to every Federal agency and to the public, as appropriate. Through the Portal, the National Park Service is providing an e-gov site that reduces the costs of finding historic preservation information for all federal agencies. Also, it provides a resource for state, tribal, and local governments and private citizens looking for information on the national historic preservation program and on training and education in historic preservation.

Federal users have reported significant time savings in searching for information and the discovery of previously unknown information and training. The participating agencies have grown from one in FY 2002 to seven in FY 2003 to an additional nine in FY 2004 and another one in FY 2005, with most agencies giving annually. We anticipate that the final number of funding agencies will be about 25.

The Portal demonstrates a solution that could be used to support on-the-job learning by persons working in specialized areas, such as collections management, environmental programs, accessibility laws, and other topics. The lesson learned in the Historic Preservation Learning Portal is that each organization or, in this case, federal agency does not have to create a new Web site with a significant amount of newly developed internal content when it can simply spider the existing sites and better organize the information already available.

List of all supporting organizations and public and private partners that assisted in this innovation:

National Park Service, U. S. Department of the Interior

  • National Park Service, U. S. Department of the Interior
    • Federal Preservation Institute - project proponent
    • Associate Director for Cultural Resources
    • National Center for Preservation Technology and Training
    • National NAGPRA Program
    • Office of the Chief of Information
  • Autonomy Inc., Vienna, VA
  • George Mason University Division of Distance Learning, Fairfax, VA
  • Kate Murphy, Instructional Technology Consultant, Manassas, VA
  • President’s Advisory Council on Historic Preservation
  • U. S. Department of Agriculture, Farm Service Agency
  • U. S Department of Agriculture. Forest Service
  • U. S. Department of Agriculture, Natural Resources Conservation Service
  • U. S. Department of Homeland Security, Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement
  • U. S. Department of Homeland Security, Environmental Office
  • U. S. Department of Homeland Security, Federal Emergency Management Agency
  • U. S. Department of Homeland Security, U. S. Coast Guard
  • U. S. Department of Housing and Urban Development
  • U. S. Department of the Interior, Bureau of Land Management
  • U. S. Department of the Interior, U.S. Geological Survey
  • U. S. Department of the Navy, Naval District of Washington, East (USNA)
  • U.S. Department of Transportation, Office of the Secretary
  • U.S. Department of Transportation, Federal Highway Administration
  • U. S. Department of Veterans Affairs
  • U. S. Environmental Protection Agency

Cite as:

Ramirez C.W., Historic Preservation Learning Portal, in J. Trant and D. Bearman (eds.). Museums and the Web 2006: Proceedings, Toronto: Archives & Museum Informatics, published March 1, 2006 at