October 24-26, 2007
Toronto, Ontario, Canada

Paper: Advanced Information Communication Technologies and Heritage

Alan Bentley,  Ontario Ministry of Culture, Canada


Advanced information and communication technologies (ICTs) have the capability to support innovative and strategic responses to the challenges facing heritage organizations. These technologies, including GIS (Geographical Information Systems), electronic repositories, Web-based portals, and on-line communities of practices, have the capability to support strategic innovation within the heritage sector as organizations seek to respond to shifts in their environments. Increasingly, new technologies are expanding the horizons of heritage sector organizations, making their fieldwork, assessments and research more efficient, and the efforts to protect heritage properties more effective.

The paper examines current technology trends, how they are being implemented and the potential impact of these technologies on the heritage sector. Furthermore, it explains how heritage organizations are currently adapting and incorporating these technologies in the pursuit of their missions. In particular, a case study of the Ontario Ministry of Culture demonstrates how ICTs, including web portals, electronic repositories and collaboration technologies, have been used to reconfigure key information flows to support the promotion of heritage conservation, enhance the management of heritage property inventories, and improve the exchange of knowledge by heritage professionals.

Keywords: heritage, conservation, information, technology, culture


The heritage sector in Canada is facing fundamental shifts in the social, economic, and political spheres in which it operates. Increased pressure on heritage buildings is occurring at the same time as competition for both funding and volunteers is growing and heritage organizations are facing acute pressures to deliver performance improvements. These factors demonstrate the need for organizational transformation if the heritage sector is to position itself effectively for the future.

 Advanced information and communication technologies (ICTs) have the capability to support innovative and strategic responses to the challenges facing heritage organizations. These technologies, including GIS (Geographical Information Systems), electronic repositories, Web-based portals, and on-line communities of practices, have the capability to support strategic innovation within the heritage sector as organizations seek to respond to shifts in their environments.

Increasingly, new technologies are expanding the horizons of heritage sector organizations, making their fieldwork, assessments and research more efficient, and the efforts to protect heritage properties more effective. (McCarthy & Stein, 2006) In evaluating the impact of information and communication technology (ICT) on heritage conservation, one could ask why ICT has not had a greater impact on our field. The use of computers, networks and other forms of technology have become commonplace at our places of work and homes, and yet many people have the opinion that we are not being as effective or efficient in our usage of technology as we might – or that ICT is not delivering on its promises.

To address these points, it is important to first look at the current state of information technology prior to focusing on IT trends and technologies which can be and in fact have been adopted by many organizations, specifically electronic repositories, on-line portals, collaboration technology, and GIS. In particular, a description of how the Ontario Ministry of Culture is using ICT for heritage will be used to illustrate how one organization is using ICT to build the capacity of the heritage sector.

Information and Information Technology Trends

Grantmakers for Effective Organizations (Wing 2003) identified organizational capacity as a key challenge to the growth and development of the organizations. Bryan & Joyce (2005) also noted that building organizational capacity can be a difficult, time-consuming and expensive endeavour. Consequently most managers, particularly those in small and medium-sized organizations, prefer to spend their time and financial resources on current programs and not on maximizing their economic and social impact through the building of capacity.

In his research, Bentley (2001) found that the explosion of information and communication technologies and specifically the Internet is making it easier and cheaper than ever for people and organizations to build capacity simply by providing ready access to detailed information. However, many organizations aren’t effectively using this tool; many people get ‘bogged down’ in the sheer volume of information that can be found on the Web and are unable to efficiently search for data. As well, many individuals are unable to distinguish what information is accurate or relevant.

Dickey & Hall (1999) noted that the growing mountain of information on the Internet is threatening people’s ability to stay abreast of it. With the amount of staff time it can use up, the Internet can be the most expensive free service in the world. People can spend hours in fruitless Web searches when the information could have been easily obtained through other sources. The key is to be selective.

For example, in 1999 there were approximately 2 million Web sites indexed on commercial search engines, comprising more than 1 billion Web pages, and these were increasing by 7 million pages per week. In two years, this number had increased to more than 36 total million Web sites, most of which are not indexed by the commercial search engines, and by 2007, this number had increased to over 122 million. Numerous studies have revealed that public information on the ‘deep Web’, which includes pages of content that are hidden from the view of commercial search engines, is between 400 and 550 times that on the commonly used ‘surface Web’. For example, the ubiquitous Google currently indexes approximately 21 million pages and 300 terabytes of information. Using this number, it is estimated that the World Wide Web contains between 8.4 and 11.5 trillion pages and approximately 50,000 terabytes of information, most of it on the deep or invisible Web. (Godin, 1999, Evers, 2002, Netcraft, 2007)

A cataloguing system for the Internet does not exist. As Ruderman (1999, Page 21) observed:

The net has been compared to a huge used bookstore (or dare one say library?), in which all the books have been piled higgledy-piggledy after being wrenched from their bindings and having their indexes and front matter removed. There would be souls – dedicated serendipitists with time on their hands – who would enjoy spending hours searching in this vandalized library for meaningful clumps of text and pictures without bothering from whence they came or which human mind created that text and those pictures.

Bergman (2000) states that the difficulty in finding relevant information is further complicated by the fact that most commercial search engines are very limited in what they can search, partly because they rely on Web-page indexes that are compiled many weeks before. It is not just the time sensitive and recent information that is missed, but pages deep within Web sites are also ignored by commercial search engines.

No one in a heritage organization, or any organization for that matter, has the time to search through the reams of information on the Internet, some of it potentially golden, while much of it is irrelevant. Given enough time, anyone can uncover interesting tidbits of information on the Internet. However the staffs of heritage organizations operate on a tighter time frame than that enjoyed by the casual Web surfer. Their goals are to not only find the information, but to find it efficiently; that is to say, find the best information in the shortest amount of time.

While many applications of information technology reduce the cost of learning, others focus on the output side of the productivity equation by helping individuals to learn more or better, or to learn new skills by simulating environments that enable students and trainees to practise skills intensively. In particular, Internet-based applications provide people with the ability to communicate cost-effectively with different mentors, collaborate on projects with peers, gather data and access resources from remote sites, and confer with experts. For these reasons, they hold great potential for people within the heritage sector to access the knowledge and resources needed to help build the capacity of their organizations.

In discussing the topic of how information and communications technologies can improve the capacity of the heritage sector, three basic categories of technology will be reviewed:

  • Portal Technology and Electronic Repositories
  • Collaboration Technologies, and
  • Geographical Information Systems

Portal Technology and Electronic Repositories

Across Canada, tens of thousands of cultural heritage resources have been documented, and this number is growing by hundreds and perhaps thousands of new resources annually. Access to data on heritage resources is increasing as local, provincial, territorial and federal governments assume a more active role in heritage preservation planning. However, planning needs are met only when information requests are answered by the prompt return of up-to-date information.  Relational databases, portals and electronic repositories, are powerful technologies for managing information about cultural heritage resources. 

McArthur & Lewis (1998) found that the Internet has revolutionized methods for conducting basic archival searches. Furthermore, the use of on-line/electronic repositories to display heritage properties is becoming so widespread that each member of the public could probably name a few - such as the English Heritage, United States National Parks Service, Parks Canada and the Australian Heritage sites - without even thinking. Web portals (a term that is often used interchangeably with gateway) on the other hand are gaining popularity with heritage organizations for providing a broad array of resources and services, such as e-mail, forums, search engines, and links to other sites.

There are general portals and specialized or niche portals, and most portals have adopted the ‘Yahoo’ style of content categories with a light-weight, text-based page that loads quickly. Typical services offered by public portal sites include a directory of Web sites, a facility to search for other sites, news, weather information, e-mail, phone and map information, and sometimes a community forum. Private, password protected portals often include access to internal phone directories, company news, and company reports.

Harrison Murray & MacGregor’s study (2004) found that most people use the Web to find relevant information that is from credible sources and do not want to spend large amounts of time sifting through unrelated materials. Consequently, they turn to niche portals which focus on specific topics and allow the user to ‘drill’ deeper to obtain more information on just the specific topics. As a result, in the heritage sector, portals are being used to assist people in the finding of information on specific heritage topics.

While portal technology, per se, is not currently being widely used by the heritage sector, many of the previously mentioned heritage sites act as gateways to heritage information, and thus emulate early portal technology. For example, the English Heritage site provides information on British heritage events, research and conservation, links to other heritage sites, and learning resources.  The Australian Heritage site contains information about the conservation of Australia's natural, Indigenous and historic heritage, including the management of Australia's World Heritage, the National Heritage List, the Commonwealth Heritage List and other Australian Government responsibilities.

In discussing portals, Burt & Taylor (2003) observed that the current trend in information technology is in the development of niche portals, and this is also true for the Heritage Sector. The National Parks Service’s Historic Preservation Learning Portal (http://www.historicpreservation.gov/ NPS_Portal/user/home/home.jsp) and English Heritage’s Heritage Gateway (http://www.heritagegateway.org.uk/gateway) are two of the best examples of this trend. They were created to provide users with ‘quick and easy access to cultural heritage resources information’ through their search engines.

Bozany (2004) noted that electronic repositories and portals are information systems that are designed to provide users with ready access to a body of knowledge on specific topics. Frequently, they provide access to information not found through searches on a commercial search engine since the information is on the ‘deep Web’. Reviewing information about previously recorded heritage sites on heritage-based repositories is an essential step by heritage professionals in heritage preservation planning efforts and by the general public for general interest, heritage tourism and other topics.

Collaboration Technologies

On-line knowledge exchanges are a rapidly developing sector. Zack (1999) stated that while this on-line market segment did not exist a few years ago, it is becoming an increasingly popular private sector activity. Many companies have formed with the explicit purpose of managing the exchange of knowledge, for a fee. As well, it is important to recognize that knowledge exchanges are not merely a private sector phenomenon; governments are also recognizing the importance of e-knowledge. As Davis (2001) noted, the Dutch Government, for example, acknowledges that while Holland is a world leader in the global market for flowers, other regions around the world can mount a challenge to their dominance. Realizing that it is their ‘horticultural knowledge’ that ensures their pre-eminence, they have established an e-knowledge exchange amongst centres of horticultural knowledge in the country as a tool of social capital to keep their market leadership strong.

A great deal of knowledge creation is not the result of the many formal and highly visible knowledge management efforts by organizations, but happens in less visible, but increasingly recognized and supported groups, or communities of practice.  Wenger (1999) states that the ways that organizations can use technology for collaboration are many, ranging from basic e-mail exchanges to discussion boards and forums through to blogs and on-line communities of practice. Since most people are well versed in the usage and potential of e-mail, which is by far the most popular form of collaboration technology, as well as some of these other techniques, this paper concentrates on on-line communities of practice, since this is an area which offers great benefits to the heritage sector.

Wenger (1998) defines Communities of Practice as groups of people who are informally bound together by shared experience and exposure to a common set of problems in a particular area. They serve to connect these individuals with each other in self-organizing, boundary spanning communities. Communities of Practice complement existing structures by allowing for collaboration, information exchange and sharing of best practices across boundaries of time, hierarchies and organizational structures.

Communities of Practice provide their members with access to relevant and high-quality information from both inside and outside the community. Skyme (1999) observed that they help to maintain valuable business contacts and contribute to the generation of new ideas. They help members solve daily problems, answer questions and foster individual competencies, thus making a significant contribution to individual and organizational learning. Community members also benefit from a shorter learning curve by being able to refer to prior experience of other, recognized experts. The transfer of best practices and information frequently leads to significant cost and time savings as experience gained by one person can be shared with other, otherwise disconnected individuals that may encounter similar challenges.

Communities of Practice play a critical role as the building blocks for creating, sharing, and applying organizational knowledge. Lesser and Prusak (2000) propose that communities of practice are formed by individuals who need to associate themselves with others facing similar issues and challenges within an organization. They exist without formal charters or operational mandates. Social capital is the Web of social relationships that influences individual behaviour and thereby affects an organization’s growth. They suggest that communities of practice serve as the primary vehicle for building social capital.

Putnam (1995a p66) describes social capital as the “features of social organizations such as networks, norms, and social trust that facilitate coordination and cooperation for mutual benefit”. Networks, norms, and trust are interrelated and essential parts of the theory of social capital. Trust eases cooperation, and the more that people trust others and the more they feel that others trust them, the greater the likelihood of cooperation among these people. According to Putnam, this social trust arises from two related sources: norms of reciprocity and networks of civic engagement. Although there are several norms of behaviour that compose social capital, the norm of reciprocity is the most important. With this norm, there is a belief that “good acts”, or pro-social behaviour will be reciprocated at a later point. Reciprocity is the key to involving the staff and volunteers of heritage organizations in on-line communities of practice. With limited resources and staff, people will not become or stay involved in a community of practice if they do not see a return to their efforts and contributions.

Wenger (1998) suggests that while reciprocity is important, leadership is the key to developing and nurturing communities of practice. Whether the communities arise spontaneously or come together through seeding and nurturing, their development depends on leadership. In order to legitimize the community as a place for sharing and creating knowledge, recognized experts need to be involved, whether or not the do much of the work. This establishes the credibility of the community.

The leadership may be formal or informal, may be concentrated in a core group or widely distributed. In all cases, however, leadership must have intrinsic legitimacy within the community. Lesser and Prusak (2000) state that, to be effective, managers of organizations must work with communities of practice from the inside rather than merely attempting to design or manipulate them from the outside. Effective leadership will legitimize participation, negotiate the communities’ strategic context within organizations, and provide financial, people and technological support to the community.

Communities of practice do not usually require a significant amount of infrastructure or organizational resources, but the members do need sufficient time and space for collaboration. While they don’t require a lot of management, they do require leadership.

For the heritage sector and communities that will span organizational relationships, the mantle of leadership will need to be assumed by individuals and organizations that strongly believe in the merit of the topic and community. In many cases, these people will need to “self-identify” themselves and be willing to assume the leadership role with little reward other than to support the sector; in other words, they will be volunteers.

Connectivity, however, does not ensure community. Simply providing electronic access to communities and even setting up these forums does not mean that community members will participate in them. Wellman & Gulia (1999) point out that membership in virtual communities is voluntary, and although we might assume that people will naturally affiliate when given the opportunity in a social environment, we know very little about the process by which virtual communities are created and maintained. Therefore, we might identify the factors by which virtual communities increase social capital and involvement, but we do not know how to encourage the development and active participation in on-line communities of practice.

The potential of on-line CoPs for the heritage sector is almost limitless. The asynchronous nature of the Internet and collaboration applications is especially useful for distributed communities in disparate locations and even across time zones.  This helps communities keep in touch, interact, and do things without having to meet in person.  In discussing the potential of on-line CoPs, there is one thing which has been learned about technologies and CoPs: good technology in itself will not make a community, but bad technology will make a CoP so difficult to manage that it can ruin it (Wenger, White, Smith, & Rowe, 2005).

 Geographical Information Systems

A GIS (Geographical Information System) is mapping software that links information about where things are located with information about what things are like. Unlike with a paper map, where ‘what you see is what you get’, a GIS map can combine many layers of information  (Whatis.com, 2007).

To use a paper map, all you do is unfold it. When you open it you see a representation of cities and roads, mountains and rivers, railroads and political boundaries. The cities are represented by little dots or circles, the roads by black lines, the mountain peaks by tiny triangles, and the lakes by small blue areas.

As on the paper map, a digital map created by GIS will have dots, or points, that represent features on the map such as cities; lines that represent features such as roads; and small areas that represent features such as lakes. The difference is that this information comes from a database and is shown only if the user chooses to show it.

Each piece of information in the map sits on a layer in the database, and the users turn on or off the layers according to their needs. One layer could be made up of all the roads in an area. Another could represent all the lakes in the same area. Yet another could represent all the cities. (National Parks Service, 2007)

Of the many sorts of information which people use, maps are among the most useful. Maps are the most indispensable illustrations in any heritage conservation study. Maps are useful in comparative studies and research, heritage planning and management, route planning, environmental impact assessment, and analysis of threats such as wildfires and landslides. Maps have the additional benefit of being a graphical rather than a textual information source, and are therefore understandable by people who speak different languages. Language barriers are an important consideration for any organization, and particularly for those whose mission includes the dissemination of information.

McCarthy & Stein (2006) maintain that a GIS makes map information even more accessible. One of the important reasons that many governmental bodies are developing GIS for heritage information is to provide spatial information access across departments, other jurisdictions and for the public. GIS can bring together a variety of spatial information - cultural, natural and administrative - to assist planners and developers in making informed decisions. With a GIS, spatial information can be combined and transmitted as needed. Also, since a GIS contains information in a digital format, it can be displayed or downloaded via the Internet.

The advantage of using GIS over paper maps is your ability to select the information you need to see according to what goal you are trying to achieve. For example, a tourist trying to map heritage buildings in a particular city will want to see very different information than a water engineer who wants to see the water pipelines for the same city. Each may start with a common map - a street and neighbourhood map of the city - but the information he or she adds to that map will differ. This is why layering so important.

But how does this relate to heritage? Heritage preservation planning is almost always undertaken with reference to project areas and properties that have explicitly defined locations and boundaries, and GIS offers a particularly powerful interface for visualizing and querying information of relevance to planning. It is possible to overlay an endless variety of different ‘maps’ of information to enable the user to access various combinations of data.

McCarthy & Stein (2006) point out that for heritage conservation, accurate geographical data is a key to the success of learning about historic building traditions and settlement patterns. As a result, one of the most important roles of GIS in the future will be as a cultural heritage management tool. The ability of GIS to incorporate heritage data within modern environmental and development plans will allow a more accurate assessment of their impact on the cultural landscape. Within this process the spread of urban areas, transportation networks and other agents can be rapidly mapped and the impact predicted. The use of GIS can improve the accuracy of obtaining building and property coordinates. The use of a site plan and the referencing features of GIS can help individuals locate other heritage buildings, map districts, determine spatial relationships between the features and potential threats. Consequently, GIS can make the mapping and documentation of heritage resources a more efficient and useful process.

The Ontario Heritage Portal

The Ontario Ministry of Culture approach to conserving Ontario’s heritage is to build the heritage capacity of local governments through a process of education, training, and ongoing support. To enhance the capacity-building process and facilitate the ability of the local governments to gather, evaluate and provide the required documentation on designated heritage properties, the Ministry of Culture created the Ontario Heritage Portal (OHP).

The OHP is a Web-based heritage property information system. It was developed by the Ministry of Culture and for the Canadian Government’s Historic Places Initiative (HPI) as an on-line gateway to heritage conservation resources. It is an interactive and searchable system that facilitates citizen engagement and capacity building.

The OHP provides access to information on heritage conservation and Ontario’s cultural heritage. It enables authorized stakeholders (municipalities and heritage organizations) to submit information and documentation on Ontario's more than 6,000 designated heritage properties, which can be used for listing these properties on Parks Canada’s Canadian Register of Historic Places (CRHP). As an outreach tool, the OHP provides for seamless service delivery, easy-to-access resources and timely responses to citizens’ and stakeholders’ needs.  Furthermore, the OHP integrates and centralizes the Ministry of Culture’s previously dispersed heritage databases. This system provides a centralized point of access for entry, updating and reporting of internal and external heritage information.

The principal objective of the system was to enable the provincial government, local communities and Ontario’s heritage organizations to preserve Ontario’s cultural heritage by integrating existing heritage information systems, such as the Ontario Heritage Properties database, the Municipal Heritage Committee database and the archaeology license, plans and site databases into a centralized and Internet-enabled system with a single point of access. As well, the OHP was designed to the enhance the HPI Ontario municipal engagement strategy by providing municipal partners and Ontario’s heritage organizations with the capacity to seamlessly submit information on Ontario’s designated heritage properties which can be used for listing the properties on the Canadian Register of Historic Places Website.

Furthermore, the OHP’s on-line collaboration framework encourages active communication between municipal staff and members of the volunteer-based municipal heritage committees and the Ministry of Culture’s outreach staff. The level of exchange that occurs between the external stakeholders and Ministry staff has improved the quality of information submitted and maintained active participation by the municipal staff and volunteers.

The OHP is currently an amalgam of two of the three technologies that have been discussed, since it incorporates an on-line repository of heritage properties and collaboration technologies; however, it is important to note that the Ministry is currently in the planning stages to integrate GIS into this application. GIS will provide a spatial component and enable government staff to conduct more accurate assessments of the impact of development on the cultural-heritage landscape, and improve the public’s ability to locate heritage resources.

Utilizing a variety of technologies enhances the Ministry’s municipal engagement strategy of building community capacity by improving customer and client service and decreasing turnaround time. As well, the integrated structure of the OHP, its on-line collaboration features and documentation processes have changed the way community outreach and engagement has occurred. After the initial contact and heritage training, the heritage staff communicate and exchange information through the OHP. Additional travel, seminars and workshops are, in many cases, eliminated. This increases the amount of time that the Ministry of Culture staff can spend reviewing, and documenting heritage resources and reduces the cost.

Finally, the asynchronous format of this Web-based system enables users from across the province to review, edit and submit the documentation required for a heritage property or archaeological site at any time and from any place. This enables the Ministry and municipal staff as well as the consulting archaeologists and volunteer-based heritage organization members to organize their schedules in a manner that does not conflict with other work priorities.


The theme of this paper has been to review some of the current and developing technology options that are available to the heritage sector. Advanced information and communication technologies (ICTs) have the capability to support innovative and strategic responses to the challenges facing heritage organizations. The technologies that have been presented, GIS, electronic repositories and Web-based portals, and on-line communities of practices have the capability to support strategic innovation within the heritage sector and enhance the ability of heritage organizations to acquire, exchange and retain information. Technology is, however, only one part of the equation. The other part is usage. We need to answer the question of how technology will change the process of managing heritage information. With any application, taking poetic license with the “Field of Dreams” phrase, ‘if you build it, will they come - but more important, will they use it?’

Through the widespread diffusion of technology in our society, information is becoming more accessible than ever before. At the same time, potential users of heritage information are becoming more diverse and technologically savvy. This presents a challenge to organizations to ensure that information is not only accessible through a wide variety of media but also that the information is up-to-date and easy to find – nothing is worse than having out-dated material on your site or having information that is hard to find.

In today’s rapidly changing environment, heritage organizations frequently lack the capacity and technical expertise to keep up with the change and therefore may not effectively deliver their services. Traditional efforts to build organizational capacity have typically focused on expanding an organization’s resources. Interventions took the form of providing more money, staff or equipment. Simply providing more resources, however, is not necessarily the only answer to the challenges faced by today’s organizations. The way that resources are used is also a critical factor.

Technology has altered the ways in which routine, internal management tasks are handled and Internet access has provided organizations with the ability to enhance the delivery of programs and services. Technology has also broadened and facilitated organizations’ abilities to provide resources and collaborate with people both locally, across the country and around the world through a variety of collaboration technologies, portals and other systems. These technology options help to generate new ideas, increase public participation and expand networking opportunities.

Organizations have very different operational and technological environments, and this affects the adoption of new technologies. Comprehensive, full-featured solutions which require extensive integration, customization or development are suitable for sophisticated organizations with advanced technologies. But many organizations have to be content to use much simpler ware. Just as organizations differ, so do the range of technological options: from simple to complex; from ‘mix and match’ to integrated platforms; from borrowing, to buying or building. It is important, therefore, to adopt a design process that meets the specific circumstances of the organization.

As mentioned, many organizations in the heritage sector have already started to adopt the new technologies. There is a need, however, to think more holistically about technology as not only a set of digital capacities inside heritage organizations, but also as a new and more participative process of how heritage organizations should work in a digital society. The widening scope of technology and the Internet provides more than merely an opportunity for more efficient and convenient ‘customer service’. It offers the prospect of expanded engagement processes and more productive dialogues across the heritage community, governments and our stakeholders.


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Cite as:

Bentley, A., Advanced Information Communication Technologies and Heritage , in International Cultural Heritage Informatics Meeting (ICHIM07): Proceedings, J. Trant and D. Bearman (eds). Toronto: Archives & Museum Informatics. 2007. Published October 24, 2007 at http://www.archimuse.com/ichim07/papers/bentley/bentley.html