It would seem it never rains but it pours with conferences and hot on the heels of iPres 2016 in Bern which I blogged about earlier came DCDC16: Discovering Collections: Discovering Communities which is organised jointly by the UK National Archives and Research Libraries UK. The theme this year was “From potential to impact” and certainly through the conference we heard quite a lot about academic impact especially in the context of the Research Excellence Framework.
There were four keynotes all of which were excellent and certainly delivered impact. All DCDC presentations are made available via their website where they should soon be available. If I were to choose one it would have to be the presentation from Phil Lyons and Sarah Coward from the National Holocaust Memorial Centre whose powerful keynote focussed on the importance of preserving memory and testimony. Their centre, amongst other things, seeks to keep the myriad testimonies of holocaust survivors alive. Visitors to the centre can meet, hear and speak to those who survived the holocaust. However they are faced with the problem that the average age of their witnesses is 87. The centre is well aware that a huge part of the impact the speakers have comes from the interaction and personal engagement so the experience is not a passive one. Visitors can question and interact with survivors: this will no longer possible once they have died. The NHMC have developed some fantastic software which aims to record the voice, moving image and memories of the survivors in such a way as they can be captured as life size projected image which can be questioned and will respond. This was developed by recording hours of footage of survivors responding to hundreds of questions. These are then transcribed, indexed and searched to provide a responsive and powerful experience.
The first session I attended was “Progressive Partnerships: creative collaboration between academic and cultural organisations” with a varied but engaging panel of Sarah Price from Durham University, Alice Purkiss from the University of Oxford/National Trust and Sue Gillett from La Trobe University, Australia. The collaborations discussed were very different but all were inspirational for using opportunities and expertise from different sources to promote and further engage different audiences. Sarah Price’s work at Durham University has helped tackle the growing funding gap in local authority cultural offers. With the closure of the local Durham Light Infantry Museum in Durham the university offered both space and expertise to help maintain access to these popular collections. The university worked very hard to identify stakeholders to plan for the future. They worked with users and non-users as well as developing relationships with the local authority. The key message was about working with the strong local sense of identity and listening to people about what they wanted.
Alice Purkiss spoke about a unique collaboration between the National Trust and Oxford University funded by Knowledge Transfer Partnerships. It is very unusual to have these awarded for a “Humanities” subject but the aim here was developing and creating online articles relating to aspects of National Trust properties (historical, architectural etc) using expertise drawn from the academic community at Oxford University. It enables the wider dissemination of research benefiting students, visitors and academics (by raising their profile). The example she gave was the article about Coade Stone which gives a concise and authoritative introduction whilst at the same time encouraging people to visit properties to find out more. The model was definitely about encouraging visitors and improving the visitor experience.
The final session in this panel came from Sue Gillett who talked about developing an educational programme at La Trobe University in Australia. They collaborated with two regional galleries – Bendigo Art Gallery and the Modern Art Museum of Albury – to create a changing programme of undergraduate study that was interdisciplinary and offered students an opportunity to engage with and respond to collections and exhibitions hosted by the partner organisations. Her example was a course based on the exhibition “Imagining Ned“, bringing together artefacts and art associated with and inspired by the iconic Australian folk hero Ned Kelly, including Kelly’s original armour and works by Sir Sidney Nolan. It brought up opportunities for public engagement which had not been anticipated. I particularly enjoyed seeing the student responses to the art – I wish I could have done a course like this when I was an undergraduate!
There was a whole panel session devoted to metadata and after all – what’s not to love about metadata? It’s what binds together all our collections in the form of catalogues and descriptions and there were some excellent presentations looking at ways in which we can use “metadata” (ie catalogues) to work harder for us. Neal Grindley from JISC introduced their KnowledgeBase+ project which aims to link libraries to accurate resources with the specific aim of efficient sharing of e-resources. The task of gathering and linking catalogue entries to provide a UK-wide resource sounds simple enough but often the data underlying it is not consistent so the task is nowhere near enough as straightforward as it sounds. The provenance of the current cataloguing metadata which is out there in the wild is, we are told, “murky”. Neil Grindley described it as the “library shaped black hole in the internet” which gave us all a pause for thought. It might be a question of licensing and then sharing, but in a world where (metada)data has significant commercial value, this is not easy. Grindley also looked forward to a point where we could use linked open data to connect to archive, museum and other resources.
We also heard from Dr Ben Outhwaite who is working on the Cambridge University Cairo Genizah project. The project is slowly conserving, digitising and cataloguing nearly 200,000 Hebrew manuscript fragments. A genizah is a sacred store for holy texts which can no longer be used but should be treated with reverence either by burying them storing them. Therefore any texts stored in a genizah are likely to be in a fragile or nearly illegible state, fragmentary and hard to interpret. The Cairo Genizah, whose fascinating story can be read here, also contained many other secular texts including invoices, shopping lists, legal documents etc which shed light on the thousand years of so history of the Jewish community of Fustat.
The collection is vast and using traditional methods it will take decades to transcribe and catalogue. Outhwaite discussed how the project used text mining techniques to interrogate the pre-existing literature written about the collection which allows some metadata to be created for the vast collection of fragments. Readers are also invited to add comments – a form of crowd sourcing – although Outhwaite admitted the audience for this was small – although quite active! Having the documents digitised does allow scholars from across the world to contribute and engage with the project. Outhwaite also suggested talking about metadata and text mining is a better way of getting funding than talking about a library cataloguing project…
The conference was packed full of fascinating presentations and I was only sorry I couldn’t clone myself and go to many more of them. By the end of the conference we were all preparing to wind down a bit only to be jolted out of our complacency by a rip-roaring final seminar from Ronan Deazley of Queen’s University Belfast, Andrea Wallace of Glasgow University and the National Library of Scotland and Simon Tanner of Kings College London. The session presented “Display At Your Own Risk” a “research-led exhibition experiment” which looked at the public re-use of digital surrogates.
The project explored the way in which cultural institutions expose and reproduce their collections leading on to an interesting debate about copyright and how this interplays with reproducing images. There was a further discussion exploring the risks/barriers both perceived and real to institutions using and reusing their collections online.
The Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam allow virtually unlimited re-use of their collections as well as exposing the metadata for creative re-use.
We were all impressed by the creative re-use Andrea Wallace had put the metadata to in making her very own metadata skirt:
There was a general plea for a sharing and documenting of experiences (good and bad) of copying and sharing cultural assets. People want “an easy answer” but there is no easy answer and there needs to be a “community of norms of practice” developed. There was certainly a lot to think about in this presentation!
As ever DCDC was a wide ranging and thought provoking conference which gave me lots to take, not least exploring the creative possibilities of metadata!
[all photographs author’s copyright unless otherwise indicated]