Archives & Museum Informatics








last updated:
April 17, 2012 4:27 PM

Unifying our cultural memory: Could electronic environments bridge the historical accidents that fragment cultural collections?

in Information Landscapes for a Learning Society, Networking and the Future of Libraries 3, 1998. and presentation at UK Office of Library Networking Conference, July 1998.

David Bearman and Jennifer Trant, Partners, Archives & Museum Informatics, USA


I. Abstract
II. Introduction
     A. Networked Access to Cultural Information Resources
III. Intellectual Barriers
     A. Actors in the Discovery and Retrieval Process
     B. Purposes of the Actors and their Consequences
          1. The User Seeks to Satisfy a Purpose
          2. Different Repositories
          3. Knowledge Models and Reference Data Resources
     C. The Goal of Integrated Access
     D. Mechanisms
IV. Social Barriers: The Humanities Research Process
     A. Stages in the Research Process
     B. Finding Information
          1. Discovery
          2. Retrieval
     C. Using Information
          1. Collation
          2. Analysis
          3. Re-Presentation
     D. Metadata declarations and dialogue
          1. An example of metadata in a process
          2. Towards models and methods
V. Conclusions
VI. Footnotes


Several hundred years of collecting the artifacts and products of our cultural heritage in libraries, archives, museums and private repositories has saved a significant portion of the record of human history. But this preservation has had the peculiar effect of separating artifacts physically from the contexts that gave them meaning and intellectually from documentation of similar objects housed in other, and especially in different kinds of, institutions. To some it has been an element of faith that the electronic environment will enable us to bring these disparate, and differently documented, resources together in a universal library of cultural heritage. While this is a worthy aim, it is by no means a simple consequence of networked access, Rather, fully integrated access to cultural heritage information would be a significant social, economic, institutional and especially intellectual effort. This paper offers a model of how to translate between the purposes of users and the documentation practices of repositories and reference resources. It suggests a framework in which to integrate user and resource declarations into a metadata dialogue tailored to the research process.


Networked Access to Cultural Information Resources

Despite promises that connectivity will result in universal accessibility of resources for the public, students and scholars at all levels, the reality of networked access to cultural resources is, and will remain for quite some time, a political aspiration. The barriers to universal accessibility of networked resources are many. The ones which interest us in this paper are not those of social policy - the vast effort and cost of converting our cultural heritage into digital form and the provision of affordable access to users worldwide - but rather barriers intrinsic to the idea of access to resources under distributed control. Specifically, we will focus here on the consequences of centuries of collecting and cataloging the documented history of mankind, of constructing reference resources about people, places and things, and building an economic system to support commercial publishing. Ironically, many of these barriers to access have been imposed by efforts to enable it.

This seems perverse when first encountered, but once considered it becomes not only perfectly reasonable but obvious. By classifying a frying pan as a cooking utensil, we don't consider the aspect of it which is a copper tool, or a potential murder weapon, or a ladle, as certainly as by describing it in English, we preclude access to it in French. By describing a collection of many pots as the household belongings of Benjamin Franklin, we call attention to one aspect of their potential significance while obscuring the fact that they include a pot for rendering tallow, which could be of significance to someone researching commerce in candles. Biographical dictionary entries will necessarily be too brief to tell us about a cook in Benjamin Franklin's household. The economics of publishing on paper ensure that more complete entries can never be financed; the mechanics of printing and the cost of first copy production ensure that new, tangential, information cannot be contributed by a reader and made available to others.

In this paper we will explore some fairly regular distortions of this kind, which are related to the approaches society has taken to managing cultural heritage and to publishing. We will examine some possible strategies for bridging the barriers to access that have been created by specific traditions of custody and documentation. Our exploration of these issues will cross from theory into the arena of technology and practice and back again several times, because the methods of the community of humanities researchers have employed are intertwined with existing technologies and economic constructs.

NEXT: Intellectual Barriers

Informatics: The interdisciplinary study of information content, representation, technology and applications,
and the methods and strategies by which information is used in organizations, networks, cultures and societies.