Linking Cultural Heritage Data

Last week I attended a meeting at the British Museum to talk with some museum folk about ways forward with Linked Data. It was a follow up to a meeting I organised on Archives and Linked Data,  and it was held under the auspices of the CIDOC Documentation Standards Working Group. The group consisted of me, Richard Light (Museum consultant), Rory McIllroy (ULCC), Jeremy Ottevanger (Imperial War Museum), Jonathan Whitson Cloud (British Museum), Julia Stribblehill (British Museum), and briefly able to join us was Pete Johnston (worked on the Locah project and now on the Linking Lives Linked Data project).

It proved to be a very pleasant day, with lots of really useful discussion. We spent some time simply talking about the differences – and similarities – in our perspectives and in our data. One of our aims was to start to create more links and dialogue between our sectors, and in this regard I think that the day was undoubtedly successful.

To start with our conversation ranged around various issues that our domains deal with. For example, we talked a bit about definitions, and how important they are within a museum context. For example, if you think about a collection of coins, defining types is key, and agreeing what those types are and what they should be called could be a very significant job in itself.  We were thinking about this in the context of providing authoritative identifiers for these types, so that different data sources can use the same terms.  Effectively identifying entities such as names and places are vital for museums, libraries and archives, of course, and then within the archive community we could also provide authoritative identifiers for things like levels of description. Workign together to provide authoritative and persistent URIs for these kinds of things could be really useful for our communities.

We talked about the value of promoting ‘storytelling’ and the limitations that may inhibit a more event-based approach. DBPedia (Wikipedia as Linked Data) may be at the centre of the Linked Data Cloud, but it may not be so useful in this context because it cannot chart data over time. For example, it can give you the population of Berlin, but it cannot give you the changing population over time. We agreed that it is important to have an emphasis on this kind of timeline approach.

We spent a little while looking at the British Museum’s departmental database, which includes some archives, but treats them more as objects (although the series they form a part of is provided, this contextual information is not at the fore – there is not a series description as such). The proposal is to find a way to join this system up with the central archive, maybe through the use of Linked Data.

We touched upon the whole issue of what a ‘collection’ is within the museum context, which is often more about single objects, and reflected on the challenge of how to define a collection, because even something like a cup and saucer could be seen as a collection…or it is one object?…or is a full tea set a collection?

For archivists, quite detailed biographical information is often part of the description of a collection. We do this in order to place the collection within a context. These biographical histories often add significant value to our descriptions, and sometimes the information in them may be taken from the archive collection, so new information may be revealed. Museums don’t tend to provide this kind of detail, and are more likely to reference other sources for the researcher to use to find out about individuals or organisations. In fact, referencing external sources is something archives are doing more frequently, and Linked Data will encourage this kind of approach, and may save us time in duplicating effort creating new biographical entries for the same person. (There is also the move towards creating separate name authorities, but this also brings with it big challenges around sharing data and using the same authorities).

We moved on to talk about Linked Data more specifically, and thought a bit about whether the emphasis should be on discovery or the quality and utility of what you get when you are presented with the results. We generally felt that discovery was key because Linked Data is primarily about linking things together in order to make new discoveries and take new directions in research.

book showing design patterns
Wellcome Library, London

One of the main aims of the day was to discuss the idea of the use of design patterns to help the cultural heritage community create and use Linked Data. It would facilitate the process of querying different graphs and getting reasonably predictable information back, if we could do things in common where possible. Richard has written up some thoughts about design patterns from a museum perspective and there is a very useful Linked Data Patterns book by Leigh Dodds and Richard Davis. We felt this could form a template for the sort of thing that we want to do. We were well aware that this work would really benefit from a cross-domain approach involving museums, archives, libraries and galleries, and this is what we hope to achieve.

We spoke briefly about the value of something like OpenCalais and wondered whether a cultural heritage version of this kind of extraction tool would be useful. If it was more tailored for our own sectors, it may be more useful in creating authorities, so that we can refer to things in a common way, as a persistent URL would be provided for the people, subjects, concepts, that we need to describe. We considered the scenario that people may go back to writing free text and then intelligent tools will extract concepts for them.

We concluded that it would be worth setting up a Wiki to encourage the community to get involved in exploring the idea of Linked Data Patterns. We thought it would be a good idea to ask people to tell us what they want to know – we need the real life questions and then we can think about how our data can join up to answer those questions. Just a short set of typical real-life questions would enable us to look at ways to link up data that fit a need, because a key question is whether existing practices are a good fit for what researchers really want to know.

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