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Archives & Museum Informatics

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published April 1998
updated Nov. 2010


The BABEL Project: a Museums and Libraries Network

Guillermo Cisneros, José M. Martínez & Jesús Bescós, E.T.S. Ing. Telecomunicación, Universidad Politécnica de Madrid, 28040-Madrid Spain

1 Introduction

1.1 Framework

[1] is a project aiming to build a network for information retrieval from databases belonging to Culture and Academia Institutions (Museums, Libraries, Archives, Universities, etc.). Such Institutions are evolving from their traditional roles based on conservation and research towards becoming service providers as well. Services are designed for satisfying two very different user profiles: professional user and lay public user ([3] [6]).

The above mentioned service provision must be carried out as easy as possible, but as efficient as possible as well. These characteristics must be analysed from the viewpoints of remote user coverage, quick access to the information and services themselves, and incomes for the Institution. Compatibility and interoperability among multimedia data (files, documents, etc.), communication networks, and local multimedia information systems are some problems to be tackled in this venture. Nevertheless, local user and Institutional preferences or particularities must be preserved in a wide sense.

There are several projects implementing different sets of services to be deployed in this framework. BABEL is one of them, offering services of database teleconsult for both professional and lay public users. Other projects offer telesearch for the preparation of exhibitions, real time information exchange among experts, or even a teleducation environment with professional training for enterprises.

BABEL is the acronym of "Multimedia Services for Museums and Libraries via Internet". The acronym makes reference to the resolution of the heterogeneous database teleconsult through a common system, from a unique session, and with a unique user's manual. The project is built on the Internet, and Museums and Libraries are the Institutions actually involved. This is not a limitation for other Institutions to become associate members to the BABEL consortium, either as information providers, or as users, or as both. In fact, contacting to associate members is one of the most important tasks in BABEL.

1.2 Participant Institutions

The actual composition of the BABEL consortium is as follows:

1. Coordinating member:
    • Universidad Politécnica de Madrid, Grupo de Tratamiento de Imágenes - GTI (Image Processing Group).
2. Consortium members:
    • Museo Nacional del Prado (Prado Museum).
    • Museo Arqueológico Nacional (National Archaeological Museum of Spain).
    • Fundación Centro Nacional del Vidrio, Real Fábrica de Cristales de La Granja (Royal Factory of Glass of Spain).
    • Patrimonio Nacional, Palacio Real (Royal Palace of Madrid).
    • Biblioteca de la Universidad Carlos III de Madrid (University Library).
    • Servei de Museus de la Generalitat de Catalunya (All the Catalonian Museums in Spain).
3. Sponsors:
    • Grupo Telefónica de España (Telefónica of Spain Group).
    • Ministerio de Educación y Cultura de España (Spanish Ministry of Education and Culture).
4. Associate members:
    • This is actually an open list.
The choice of the above mentioned sponsors is one of the main supports for this project. The support of the Telefónica of Spain Group ensures a testbed for testing purposes by providing network access segments to the Internet for the different Institutions and external users. The support of the Spanish Ministry of Education and Culture ensures the call for new Institutions as associate members, as well as the future of this initiative once finalised the BABEL project.
1.3 General Description 1.3.1 The BABEL idea and its general objectives

BABEL is a project aiming to make an experience on a teleconsult service of databases belonging to Museums and Libraries. The multimedia archives involved have heterogeneous data structuration, because every Institution has created independently its different object registration cards. The BABEL access system has the following characteristics:
    • Reuse of all existing databases belonging to Museums and Libraries, as well as respectfulness with their internal heterogeneities regarding data formats. A curator cannot be said that any catalog personalization must be forgotten: the structure of the objects registration cards may be the result of a Doctoral Thesis carried out during several years of hard work.
    • Unique user's manual, compatible being with that of the RAMA project for Europe. The RAMA project was destinated to the professional user, and the application used for the professional user in BABEL is called MIRA . MIRA offers a powerful interface and services for composing very complex queries in a session opened simultaneously against a number of database servers located in the Internet.
    • Database accessibility from de facto standard WWW navigators, usually for lay public users.
    • Unique login/password in the whole network (Internet) to be used in a common session opened against all the desired databases belonging to Museums and Libraries. Nevertheless, the same user may have different profiles in every database; therefore the access permissions regarding different data types or archive fields can be restricted to the same user in different way by different Institutions within the same session. For instance, the director of a Museum may be a simple external user in other Museum, while consulting both databases from the same session, using the same login/password.
The name of BABEL has been chosen on the basis of the aforementioned heterogeneities, accessing heterogeneous data structure from the same system. BABEL faces an existing reality: all the heterogeneities are unified in a common system that respects the diversity SW, HW, and communication platforms belonging to every Institution, as well as their specific data structures (object registration cards). This is the existing reality, mainly in the Museum field: all those heterogeneities cannot be avoided. There are a lot of efforts to achieve a normalization regarding Museum databases, but the actual reality is the heterogeneity. In order to provide services based on Museum databases, it is not possible to wait for the results of those normalization efforts. On the other hand, regardless of a full normalization scenario that could be achieved in the forthcoming years, the systems providing services must be open for personalization of archives belonging to every Institution at very local levels. This open door for the personalization is a sample of the respect that the database engineer must keep regarding the Humanities expert, who is the user of the applications that he designs and develops.

The Libraries world is more normalized than the Museums one. Hence, the internal data structuration have less alternatives. Nonetheless, there is not a unique format but preferences for some of them. This is the reason why the BABEL fundamentals have still a place within the Libraries applications for services provision.

Another general objective of BABEL is to capitalize the investments made by European projects, financed by several Consortia, the European Commission, and in the case of Spanish partners, also by the Comisión Interministerial de Ciencia y Tecnología of the Spanish Government. Specifically, the most relevant investments have been made within the
RACE Programme: RACE 1078 EMN Project (European Museums Network) [7] and RACE 2043 RAMA (Remote Access to Museum Archives) [2], both of them with very strong Spanish participation. The capitalization of their results in Spain consists of the projection and expansion of the fundamentals of those projects, mainly the RAMA Project. The Spanish investment in RAMA was 4.5 million ECU out of a total investment in Europe of 18 million ECU. The capitalization of the RAMA results in the different member states of the European Union was a commitment of the RAMA partners in front of the European Commission. The way in which the results projection in Spain has been carried out is described in section 1.3.2.

1.3.2 Particular objectives

The first particular objective within the projection of the RAMA project into the Spanish reality was the creation of the Museums and Libraries network in Spain. Such initiative has been made with the support of the Institutions and enterprises that ensure the success of this venture: Telefónica of Spain (ensuring the existence of access segments to Internet), and the Spanish Ministry of Education and Culture (ensuring the postproject maintenance of the BABEL fundamentals). The Spanish Museums and Libraries network will allow the remote database consult from any point of a public network, by means of a rerouting to Internet.

The next particular objective consists of the development of the necessary gateways between the common system with unique manual of BABEL and the databases of the Museums and Libraries participants in the BABEL consortium. It must not be forgotten that those databases have heterogeneous data structuration, as a result of the personalization carried out by every Institution, mainly the Museums. Furthermore, gateways must be also developed for the Institutions joining BABEL as associate members (status described in sections 1.1 and 1.2) for them to be able to join the BABEL network in Internet.

Regardless of the above, the projection of the RAMA results in Spain must be carried out taking into account the particularities of the Spanish environment. The purpose of the European Commission in any initiative financed in the past within the RACE Programme (RAMA, EMN), or actually founded within the
ACTS (SICMA Project) and ESPRIT (MENHIR Project) Programmes is to make feasibility prototypes supported by experiences based on advanced network technologies. The purpose of BABEL, financed in a Spanish Programme made as the mirror of the "Telematics Application Programme" of the European Commission is very different. The idea is to concentrate on expanding a real network providing services for/from Museums and Libraries, using the existing technological resources (mainly dealing with public network access); such resources must have a reasonable cost in order to ensure that the number of Museums and Libraries (as well as remote users of the services provided by them) involved even as associate members is the largest possible. Hence BABEL has not got advanced network experiences as a requirement, which would mean a selection, and therefore a constraint, with respect to the Museums and Libraries to join BABEL. This happened in RAMA (just when the Internet was being born), and actually happens in SICMA, where ATM connectivity among Museums is sine qua non condition.

On the other hand, the Spanish reality arises a number of specific lacks. BABEL is paving the ground for the resolution of those lacks, by means of pointing them as minimal requirements for Museums and Libraries to join the BABEL network. Those lacks can be summarized as either the non existence of digitalized multimedia archives, or the poor data population of those archives in case of existing, or (mainly) the non existence of access segments to public networks to be rerouted to the Internet. This last lack is very important, since the most of the Museums and Libraries have the normal telephone connection at most. The role of BABEL is to act as engine to remove the lacks: this is another reason why the Spanish Ministry of Education and Culture is a sponsor of BABEL.

Another particular objective of BABEL is the creation of a Virtual Museum and a Virtual Library in Spain, to act as common information point (
PIC) in the Internet. A PIC provides mainly a directory service, and will consist of a database server populated with descriptors of the data contained in the database servers belonging to the different Museums and Libraries (BABEL members and associate members). The navigation within this PIC requires a minimal commitment regarding some database fields, therefore being the last but not the least goal of the project. This unification does not break the heterogeneity and personalization of Museums and Libraries archives, because the descriptors will contain a very reduced number of fields, while their local databases can keep local heterogeneities in any data structure. This is another reason for the participation of the Spanish Ministry of Education and Culture as a sponsor of the project to host any initiative on normalization although involving minimal commitments and consensus. Hence, although BABEL fundamentals are the respect to the heterogeneities to provide services within a common system, it is also a platform for showing the usefulness of a normalization regarding data structure by demonstrating that the provisions of services is more powerful in a normalized environment. The PIC can also reroute the communication to the desired Museums or Libraries within the same session, although this is actually an open issue. Furthermore, its physical implementation is to be decided if distributed (server networks appearing as a unique virtual server in the Internet) or concentrated (only one server in the Spanish network).

By means of the above objectives, BABEL is pioneering in Spain within the field of the new role that the Cultural and Academia Institutions are called to develop: the use of knowledge coming from their traditional research to provide services to other Institutions or even to professional and lay public users. Furthermore, the use of the Internet as the basic network does not restrict the BABEL network to Spain. Any Museum or Library can join BABEL as associate member, never mind its location throughout the world.
2 Technological Bases

2.1 Products and Required Developments

The Comisión Interministerial de Ciencia y Tecnología of the Spanish Government (CICYT) emphasized that BABEL should focus on the following issues:
    • Any action directed towards the implementation of network experiences is the most important one.
    • Any development that is not explicitly directed towards network experiences must be reduced or even removed.
In the light of the above, it has been decided to install several products already developed in other projects. Changes in the user interface of such products have been discarded, and only gateways to new databases will be developed. These decisions are translated into the reality as follows:
    • To install the MIRA product for the professional user. As evolved from RAMA, MIRA's manual is compatible with that of the RAMA project for use in Europe. MIRA technology has been developed by the authors [5] . The MIRA client can be downloaded by free from the BABEL WWW site . It requires the development of the gateways to the databases at the server sites.
    • To make it possible the access from a conventional WWW navigator to the same databases as from MIRA. This access type is mainly destinated to the lay public user. The gateway technology to the database servers has also been developed by the authors [4] . It also requires the development of the gateways to the databases at the server sites.
    • To develop and install WWW pages for the BABEL members and associate members from contents given by the corresponding Museums and Libraries.
    • To develop the Virtual Museum and the Virtual Library (PIC) and to start its service provision.
The developments and installations require a series of actions to be carried out directly by the Museums and Libraries involved. These actions are as follows:
    • Massive population of the databases in case of existence (all the BABEL members have got it) or acquisition of a database management system previously to make the database population (for associate members, if they have not got it).
    • Acquisition management and installation of commercial HW, SW, and communication platforms.
    • Installation management of public WAN access segments to the Internet.
    • Management of the database contents during service provision through the network.
    • Agreement about the specifications and common fields to navigate through the Virtual Museum and the Virtual Library (PIC).
    • Aspects of intellectual property rights.
    • Assessment from the viewpoint of the users.
All the above actions must be complemented with the search for associate members.
2.2 Network and Configuration

BABEL project title is "Multimedia Services for Museums and Libraries via Internet". Therefore, the Internet is the public network supporting BABEL. All the participants, either BABEL members or associate members must have access to the Internet, regardless of how the access segments to this network are provided by the public network operator. A general scheme is shown in Figure 1. The Museums and Libraries which are BABEL members appear in the bottom part of Figure 1. They are both information providers (servers) and users (clients). The top part of the same Figure 1 shows the associate members participation, which can be carried out either as users (clients) exclusively, or as information providers (servers) and users (clients) simultaneously.

Figure 1 - The BABEL Network

The BABEL architecture is based on the client server paradigm. The client configuration is a low cost one, PC based, and the server is a UNIX machine. Details of these configurations (including options) are shown in http://www.gti.ssr.upm.es/~babel. Actually, BABEL servers have been compiled and are working in several UNIX platforms, such as HP, SUN, SGI, and IBM. The database management system (DBMS) can belong to any manufacturer: the gateway to be developed has different degree of difficulty depending on the manufacturer and mainly on the internal data structure of every Museum or Library. The recommended option is to have DBMSs with a precompiler supporting embedded-SQL sentences (as native language of the relational databases) directly into the BABEL server application. In case of database management systems are resident in other machines where UNIX is not the operative system, there must be another gateway between the UNIX machine where the BABEL server application is resident, and the machine where the DBMS is resident. This second gateway must be provided by products made by the DBMS manufacturer. This is the case of some of the BABEL members, where e.g. the DBMS is resident in a machine under SCO. Actually, the BABEL server is stabilized with two DBMSs: ORACLE and INFORMIX. 3 CDs and Alternatives for Service Provision

During several years, the multimedia applications have been associated to CDs, because this was the only technology able to combine random access, large storage capacity, and low cost for large scale distribution. While other initiatives in this direction were undertaken in the past or continued (CD-I), and the number of CD-ROMs to be edited is expected to increase, large amounts of money have been also invested in services based on telecommunications. These services reflect the common strategy followed by the most of the enterprises involved in the multimedia market: the common goal is to provide a transactional value added, and not only to provide information on electronic supports. This involves the use of databases in realtime.

Additionally, the sell of a service gives greater benefits because the marginal costs to add new services based on the same information contents are less than the investments required to create a new product. For instance, the cost of updating and adding new items to a database is completely marginal compared with the production cost of a new CD-ROM. This cost is precisely the starting point where a service provided with databases in realtime makes sense with respect to the production and sell of a CD-ROM, even more when the information contents are changing or very frequently updated. On the other hand, this point is more evident for services involving remote and distributed databases (belonging to different Institutions) in realtime, which can be considered as "electronic libraries" with respect to the CD-ROMs, which can be considered as "electronic books".

The explosion expected in the multimedia communication services market has created the obvious necessity of the existence of contents to be transferred. Actually, several service providers have invested large amounts of money to achieve licences and rights on multimedia informations coming from different owners. This race to achieve licences and rights brings a description of the actual map as "information provider paradise": in the risky market of the multimedia technologies the information providers have the most privileged position because they can license their information contents.

There are two ways to implement "Culture services provision" as contribution to those "electronic libraries" in a telecommunication network by the Culture and Academia Institutions:
    • Information (or content) providers: this is indirect service provision. It is carried out by means of exploitation licenses of their information contents to an intermediate entity who will be the service provider. The contracts must reflect clearly the limits and the way in which the property rights of the informations licensed are to be handled by the service provider.
    • Service providers: this is direct service provision. The Culture and Academia Institutions directly assume the role of service providers to exploit directly the services based on their information contents. There is no contract with any intermediate service provider, but the Institutions must have knowledge and experience on strategies of service provider operators.
Whichever is the formula adopted for the service provision (direct or indirect), there is the need of emphasizing that given the coverage of the service (may be international, as this the case of Internet), there may be different laws about the intellectual property rights in different countries. As a consequence, there may be different limits about what the final user can do with the information contents. Particularly, this issue is to be taken into account within the contract with the service provider in the case of indirect provision.
4 Time schedule of the project

BABEL started officially September 19th, 1996. It will be extended for 3 years. The tasks will be executed throughout those 3 years as follows:

1. First year:
    • Museums and Libraries which are BABEL members will provide the tables of their databases in order to make it possible the development of the gateways from the BABEL server. Implementation of those gateways to access the databases from the MIRA client and from a conventional WWW navigator.
    • Equipment acquisition plus SW installation (basic commercial SW platforms plus project platforms, e.g. MIRA SW).
    • Exportation of database contents to a UNIX machine with a DBMS or provision of the gateway from a UNIX machine to the DBMS server.
    • Installation management of the WAN access segments and first network tests.
2. Second year:
    • Population of databases as well as management of network tests with real information contents.
    • Improvement of the flexibility of the gateway development procedure (gateway between the DBMS and the BABEL server, using the database tables).
    • Associate members search, with installations and gateway developments to their databases.
    • User assessment during network real tests.
    • Definition, specifications, and agreement of common navigation fields regarding the Virtual Museum and the Virtual Library.
3. Third year:
    • Development, installation and provision of services of the Virtual Museum and the Virtual Library.
    • Agreement on information copyright aspects, converging with the Memorandum of Understanding for the Culture Dissemination signed by Institutions and enterprises under the umbrella of the European Commission.
    • Progress on associate members search, installations and gateways developments to their databases.

5 Conclusions

BABEL is a project aiming to create a network of Museums and Libraries in Spain, compatible being with the European initiatives, to make it possible a teleconsult of their databases either from the Internet or from any public network point with access segment to the Internet. The teleconsult system must be based on a common manual, but respecting heterogeneities, particularities, and personalizations of the object registration cards resident being in the different Museums and Libraries (may be also at the level of different Departments of every Museum or Library). BABEL is a capitalization of results coming from projects sponsored by the European Commission, and the idea is to extend a network as much as possible by means of incorporating associate members to BABEL. These associate members may be information providers and users simultaneously, or only users.

Another objective is the creation of a common information point to enter the Culture Spanish network (PIC) called Virtual Museum and Virtual Library. The user can navigate through descriptors resident being in this PIC, and then decide which databases are to be consulted. Normalization of a few fields must be agreed to make it possible the navigation in this PIC, but the personalization of the registration cards is kept in the different databases belonging to the Museums and Libraries.

Actually the project is being carried out within the foreseen framework to achieve both its general and particular goals. The technological achievements and the dissemination of results have been balanced. The commitment of important sponsors is crucial for the success of the project and for the postproject continuation of the BABEL fundamentals.

BABEL is in line with the preparation of Museums and Libraries for its new role of service providers, converging with initiatives such as the Memorandum of Understanding launched by the European Commission.


The authors wish to thank to the Comisión Interministerial de Ciencia y Tecnología of the Spanish Government for financing BABEL.

  • [1] BABEL description in WWW , verified October 1997.
  • [2] G. Cisneros, J. Bescós, and J.M. Martínez, "Telemuseum Services Via Internet: Present and Future", Information Services and Use, 16(2) IoS Press 1996, pp.81-101.
  • [3] J.D. Gilbert, "Are we ready for the virtual library? Technology push, market pull, and organizational response", Information Services and Use, 13(1) IoS Press 1993, pp.3-15.
  • [4] J.M. Martínez and F. Morán, "A WWW Gateway for RDBMS", Proceedings of the AACE: World Conference on the Web Society", 1996, pp.342-347.
  • [5] MIRA description in WWW , verified October 1997.
  • [6] N.R. Smith, "The Golden Triangle - users, librarians and suppliers in the electronic information era", Information Services and Use, 13(1) IoS Press 1993, pp.17-24.
  • [7] F.Visser, "The European Museums Network, an interactive multimedia application for the museum visitor", Information Services and Use, 13(3) IoS Press 1993, pp.409-419.

BABEL is the acronym of "Multimedia Services for Museums and Libraries via Internet", project financed by the Comisión Interministerial de Ciencia y Tecnología (CICYT) of the Spanish Government.

RAMA is the acronym of "Remote Access to Museum Archives", project financed by the European Commission under the RACE (Research on Advanced Communications for Europe) Programme. This work was cofinanced by the Comisión Interministerial de Ciencia y Tecnología of the Spanish Government.

MIRA is the acronym of "Multimedia Information Remote Access", product resulting from a project financed by the Comisión Interministerial de Ciencia y Tecnología of the Spanish Government. It works in the Internet, copyright of the authors under Universidad Politécnica de Madrid, and protected by the Spanish and harmonized European laws on intelectual property rights. The MIRA client can be downloaded by free from the BABEL WWW site.

RACE is the acronym of Research on Advanced Communications for Europe, which was a Programme for research and development projects promoted by the European Commission.

ACTS is the acronym of Advanced Communications Technologies and Services, which is a Programme for research and development projects promoted by the European Commission, successor of RACE Programme being (RACE Programme objectives were over by the end of 1995).

ESPRIT is the acronym of European Estrategic Programme for Research on Information Technologies, which is a Programme for research and development projects promoted by the European Commission, emphasizing the research aspects.

PIC is the acronym of "Punto de Información de Cultura" in Spanish (Culture Information Point).

E.T.S. Ing. Telecomunicación, Universidad Politécnica de Madrid, 28040-Madrid Spain

Tel: +34.1.336.73.53; Fax: +34.1.336.73.50

e-mail: babel@gti.upm.es; URL: http://www.gti.ssr.upm.es/~babel

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