Museums and the Web 2005
Screen Shot: CCA Collections Online Search Screen

Reports and analyses from around the world are presented at MW2005.

Re-presenting Data: CCA's Collections Online

Elspeth Cowell and Dirk De Meyer, Canadian Centre for Architecture, 'Canada' or


The Canadian Centre for Architecture began developing a Web interface in October 2003, to give on-line access to catalogue records for works in the CCA collections. This demonstration will present the resulting CCA Collections Online - a searchable on-line catalogue giving access to records for over 150,000 photographs, drawings, albums, models, prints, related artifacts, documents, and ephemera in the Prints and Drawings and the Photographs collections. In addition, the on-line catalogue provides access to name and subject authority records. These records give detailed information on creators and other individuals/entities associated with objects in the collection and on the buildings and other subjects depicted in these works. The target audience for the on-line catalogue is the scholarly and research community interested in obtaining more information on works in the CCA collection and in selecting works that they wish to consult on-site. The project posed several challenges. The interface needed to effectively re-present collection object information from an existing cataloguing system for internal staff use to an on-line public. The type and detail of information included on works in the CCA collections vary according to the level of cataloguing that has been completed. Therefore the selection of fields from the databases to be presented on-line was required to simultaneously ensure a consistent minimum level of information on all works, and give access to more comprehensive information for works, which have been fully catalogued. The searching capabilities needed to enable users to undertake both broad keyword inquires by subject, geography and other criteria and highly focused inquires to find specific works. The search options also had to facilitate the different methods used to search the diverse range of object types in the CCA collections. Finally, Collections Online was to be developed entirely by in-house staff and resources in as short as possible a time frame. The Collections Online with access to the Prints and Drawings and the Photographs collections was launched in September, 2004.

Keywords: collection, search engine, database, research, scholars, architecture


Canadian Centre for Architecture (CCA)

The Canadian Centre for Architecture (CCA), located in Montréal, Québec, was founded in 1979 as a new form of cultural institution to build public awareness of the role of architecture in society, promote scholarly research in the field, and stimulate innovation in design practice. The CCA is an international research centre and museum founded on the conviction that architecture is a public concern. Based on its extensive collections, the CCA is a leading voice in advancing knowledge, promoting public understanding, and widening thought and debate on the art of architecture, its history, theory, practice, and role in society today. Over 30 years ago, architect Phyllis Lambert began the collection that would become the cornerstone of the CCA.


The CCA holds one of the world's foremost international research collections of publications and architectural design documentation conceptual studies, drawings, plans, models, prints, and master photographs, archives and oral histories of individual architects, related artifacts and ephemera. The collection now comprises over half a million examples that testify to the diverse ways in which architecture has been imagined, conceived, observed, and transformed for the past six centuries. It is a collection in depth, whose strength derives from a range and volume that allow for wide-ranging study of relationships among ideas, the evolution of tendencies and movements, diverse theoretical and practical approaches, and new architectural and urban forms. The guiding purpose of the collection is to make comprehensive and integrated bodies of material available for advanced, interdisciplinary research.

The Prints and Drawings collection at present consists of over 100,000 works, ranging from the late 15th century to the present. Holdings document the architect's conceptual process from initial sketch, through models and presentation drawings, to contract and working documents that trace the study, critical reception, and representation of buildings. The collection also documents the history of representational techniques, from the moment when the art of printing revolutionized the circulation of architectural ideas, to contemporary digital imaging, information networking, and computer modeling, whose impact is being felt throughout the culture of architecture today.

The Photographs collection offers another avenue for the interpretation of architecture and the built environment. Holdings include some of the earliest photographs made, dating from the 1840s to the present day. The CCA has also generated interpretive commissions that function as polemical or editorial statements and offer novel readings of buildings or places. The collection now numbers over 55,000 images, and includes many early photographs (some of which are not found in any other collections), panoramas, albums, large-scale contemporary images, and new digital prints.

The Architectural Archives were founded with the aim of conserving the archives of individual practitioners, offices, and collectives whose work has particular resonance. The Archives span the fields of architecture, urbanism, and landscape design, primarily of the 20th and 21st centuries and with a focus on Québec and 'Canada'. Today, more than 130 individual fonds or archives have been assembled, in addition to other groupings of archival materials held in the Prints and Drawings and Photographs collections.

The Library documents the history of architecture across all countries and languages, from 15th-century printed books to 21st-century Websites. Developed in parallel with the other CCA collections, it currently comprises nearly 200,000 printed monographs and approximately 4,500 runs of periodicals, plus a number of architecture-related artifacts and ephemera (including toys). The library collection also reflects the interdisciplinarity of architectural research, providing primary source material linking architecture to related areas such as engineering, ornament, construction, and photography.

Prior to the launch of CCA Collections Online in September 2004, only the Library had an on-line catalogue. CCA Collections Online expands Internet access to the catalogue records for over 150,000 photographs, drawings, albums, models, prints, related artifacts, documents, and ephemera in Prints and Drawings, and Photographs Collection. A search interface for the Archives is projected to go on-line in 2005.

CCA Collections Online

CCA Chief Curator, Dirk De Meyer, with Elspeth Cowell as project coordinator, initiated the CCA Collections Online project in October 2003 within the rubric of a broader program of increasing access to the CCA Collection for scholars. Collections Online was conceived as a resource for obtaining descriptive information on works in the CCA Collection and to facilitate the consultation of works by scholars. Prior to the implementation of Collections Online, publicly available information on the Collection, with the exception of the Library, was principally limited to three sources: collection profiles on the CCA Web site, the various CCA exhibition catalogues, and records available CHIN's Artefacts Canada. All in-depth inquires about the content of the collections required either the collection curator or reference staff to undertake the basic research and to assemble the pertinent information for the scholar.

This situation restricted the ability of scholars to take advantage of the full potential of the Collection. The specificity of their requests and the availability of CCA staff to undertake the research limited their knowledge of works relevant to their research. Yet a wealth of information on works in the Collection already existed. For more than a decade, the CCA has been actively documenting the collection. This documentation is currently contained in MINISIS databases. The majority of collection objects have at least a brief descriptive record, and many have much more detailed researched cataloguing records in MINISIS. In addition, the object cataloguing records are complemented by subject and names authorities which provide detailed information on the creators and architectural subjects (buildings, competitions, etc.) of the works.

The CCA MINISIS software configuration requires cataloguing records to be searched, sorted and formatted using a command-driven interface, rather than menu-driven interface, making it inherently difficult to make the information available to external researchers for either searching or reviewing. The information needed to be downloaded and reformatted in order to make it easily readable. So in essence, the goal of the CCA Collections Online was to re-present collection catalogue data from an existing system for internal staff use to on-line users. Collections Online enables scholars to search and browse the Collection unaided, opening up the potential for discoveries that will enrich their research and broaden our knowledge of the architectural treasures held by the CCA. This paper will discuss the content strategies used to realize this project, rather than the technical aspects of its realization.


Before describing in detail how this re-presentation was achieved, some background about the documentation of architectural records and its implementation at the CCA is useful. The description of architectural documents combines the techniques of cataloguing works of art, archives and bibliographic materials. The development of systematic cataloguing standards for describing architectural documents is a relatively new endeavor. The CCA has been on the forefront of this development. The conceptual structure of the MINISIS databases is based on the ideas put forward by the pioneering efforts of two organizations in which the CCA played a key role -- the Architectural Drawings Advisory Group (ADAG), and the Foundation for Documents in Architecture (FDA). ADAG formed in 1983 and was composed a consortium of North American and European depositories of architectural documents, who were interested in developing descriptive standards for architectural drawings. The group aimed "to build consensus concerning cataloguing standards that could ensure to scholars the availability of a consistent set of research information across repositories, perhaps eventually through an electronic network"(Porter and Thornes, 1994). The Foundation for Documents in Architecture, a nonprofit corporation formed in 1986 by several ADAG members (the CCA, the J. Paul Getty Trust, National Archives of Canada, the National Archives and Records Administration of the United States and the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.) shared the goals of the ADAG, and took steps toward their implement them by testing ADAG's recommendations in an automated cataloguing environment and translating ADAG's recommended standards into guidelines for cataloguing in both electronic and print form. These efforts resulted in the publication of the Guide to the Description of Architectural Drawings in collaboration with the Getty Art History Information Program (AHIP). This book describes the principles and guidelines for documenting architectural drawings developed by the FDA and ADAG.

Even more importantly in reference to on-line public access catalogues for architectural records, these organizations understood, years ahead of the widespread availability of the necessary technology, the importance of a computer network for broad access to research information on architectural documents. In 1988-89, FDA undertook an experimental computerized cataloguing project, which they hoped "would allow scholars to manipulate catalogue information in ways that would yield new views of the material itself." But while this project suggested "unprecedented possibilities", it was decided that a computer network was beyond the reach of the FDA (Porter and Thornes, 1994).

Since these initial concentrated efforts, the increased use of computerized database systems and networks to give broad access to information anticipated by ADAG and FDA has lead to an ever-increasing pressure to standardize the description of architectural records. In addition to using the guidelines published in Guide to the Description of Architectural Drawings collecting institutions have adopted and adapted norms, guidelines and standards for cataloguing archives (EAD and ISAD[G]), bibliographic materials in libraries (MARC), and museum objects (CIDOC Guidelines for Museum Object Information) to the specific needs of documenting architectural records.

Many of the ongoing and emerging concerns regarding the description were addressed at the Architectural Records Conference organized by the Conservation Center for Art and Historic Artifacts in Philadelphia, May 3-5, 2000. Of particular relevancy here, Kelcy Shepherd's paper on Electronic Access to Architectural Collections discussed the importance of on-line access to collections: "networked resources provide another outreach and reference tool to attract users. Researchers are increasingly beginning to turn to the Internet as their first, and sometimes only, source of information"(Shepherd, 2000). She further stresses the important role of standards and guidelines in this process: "By using new electronic technologies to enhance existing standards and guidelines, we can capitalize both on the flexibility provided by electronic access and on the effectiveness of established practices in the archives, museum and library fields"(Shepherd, 2000).

The CCA Collection Online reflects this combination of flexibility offered by an on-line search interface and systematic standards of description provide by the CCA's existing cataloguing system. After the installation of the MINISIS system in 1987 (we are now in the process of replacing this system with The Museum System), the CCA developed an integrated computer-based cataloguing system. Based on the ADAG and FDA initiatives, the documentation process combines authority-controlled and free text fields to give consistent intellectual access to the Collection. The standards and procedures were formalized into an in-house Collection Documentation Guide in 1991. This guide, now in its third edition, continues to guide the cataloguing process at the CCA. While the underlying of the databases remains unchanged, cataloguing procedures have been adapted over time to reflect new curatorial priorities, the diverse nature of the works being catalogued, and to facilitate different levels of cataloguing.

In recent years, the need to extend access to information on the works in the CCA Collection has become increasingly urgent. Since 1991, the CCA has contributed records to Canadian Heritage Information Network (CHIN). These records are available on-line through the Artefacts Canada database ( English/Artefacts_Canada/). However, these records provide only summary information of a small percent of the collection. CCA Collections Online’s central goal was to significantly improve on-line access to the Collection by offering an interface that maintains the integrity of the structure and content of the existing catalogue data.

On-line access and the user

The varying approaches and focuses of collecting institutions in documenting their architectural records as well as their targeted end-users has affected the form of on-line access to these records. Most institutions with architectural holdings now have some form of web access to their collections from rudimentary lists of archives or architects represented to sophisticated web interfaces. Some have chosen to offer on-line access through focused thematic, archive or architect-specific image galleries or searchable databases. Others have formed cross-institutional initiatives to develop networks that bring together similar materials from multiple collections in a single searchable databases such as the Philadelphia Architects and Building Project ( and Lineamenta, a database of architectural drawings from the Roman Baroque being developed by Bibliotheca Hertziana in Rome in collaboration with other institutions ( Similarly, projects have been developed that give access to archival finding aids of architectural (and non-architectural) records from multiple depositories such as the Online Archive of California ( Other institutions have integrated their architectural records, often reflecting the established structure of their collections, into public access library catalogues (for instance, the Getty Research Institute Research Library Catalog) or their museum collection databases, (for example, the Centre Pompidou Whole Museum Collection).

The approach taken in developing the CCA Collection Online reflects the CCA's mission as a research centre. The on-line interface is primarily aimed at those undertaking scholarly research on architecture and other fields related to the content of the collection (such as photography). This user community includes both scholars worldwide consulting the collection over the Internet, and scholars participating in two in-house programs: the CCA Study Centre Visiting Scholars Program, devoted to advanced research at the postdoctoral level, and a residency collection research grant program for doctoral students run jointly by the Collection Division and the Study Centre. In addition, the interface allows for better staff access to the Collection catalogue by providing a quicker and simpler way to consult the records. While accessible and potentially interesting to a broader general public, this is not a target audience for the on-line catalogue. The focus on a scholarly user group was also a determinate in the decision to emphasis access to information in the first phase of development, rather than access to images. Budgetary and time constraints also played a role in this decision not to undertake a large-scale digitization project in this phase.

Establishing Requirements For The System

Once the mandate to develop the Collections Online was set in motion, the next stage of the project was to establish the requirements of the systems. This process illustrates the capabilities of an on-line catalogue to work with idiosyncrasies of an existing cataloguing system, and to enhance the ability to search the collection. The establishment of the systems requirement can be summarized with several questions and their answers.

What data should be made accessible on-line?


On the level of collections, the CCA Collections Online offers access to the Prints and Drawings and Photograph collections. The four CCA collections – Library, Archives, Prints and Drawings and Photographs – have been conceived as an integral intellectual whole. That is as one Collection. Nevertheless, the divergent nature of the four components of the Collection has required different strategies in making information on them publicly available on the Internet, as is evident from the already-existing iPac system used to give access to the Library's bibliographic catalogue.

The Prints and Drawings, and Photographs are the most similar in the composition of the collections, structure of the existing data, and their access needs. Both collections consist of individual works – drawings, prints, photographs, models and so forth – as well as groups of works: physical groups such as albums and portfolios, and intellectual groups such as the archives of specific creators. The cataloguing data for both collections is currently in the MINISIS databases. In general, researchers search for works in these collections by creator of the work, subject of the work, and related information such as date and geographic location. Further, the two collections contain many areas of related material, making it desirable to be able to consult information on works in both collections together.

Initially the aim was to also include the Architectural Archives in the first phase of Collections Online. However it quickly became apparent that a different interface would be required for the Architectural Archives. With the exception of some test records, the information on the archival fonds has not been input into MINISIS. Instead, the Archives have followed conventional archival practices and developed finding aids for each of the fonds. So not only are these finding aids text files rather that database records, but also the requirements for searching and accessing archival data differ significantly from the other collections. Consequently it was decided that an Archives-specific module would become a second discrete phase of the project, allowing for the development of tools to view the fonds both by the hierarchy of the finding aids and by project.


Once the decision was reached to limit the data to that contained in the MINISIS databases, the next step was to assess which MINISIS fields should be included for searching and display in Collections Online. The MINISIS system consists of four databases: one for cataloguing information, one for collection management information, and two containing the authority records. The first two databases have a combined 156 fields, and the latter two have 35 fields each. Obviously the first fields to be excluded from consideration were confidential and collection management fields as well as fields that relate to cataloguing record management. In the cataloguing records, this elimination left five groups of fields for consideration: object identification, object physical description, form and genre, subject analysis and intellectual analysis.

In reviewing these fields, several challenges to utilizing the MINISIS-based cataloguing data for an on-line interface quickly became apparent. As documentation of the CCA collection is an ongoing project, the type and detail of information for the works in the collection varies from simple accession level records to highly detailed complete catalogued records. While MINISIS data has intellectual and syntactic integrity, the data format was not easily conducive to being searched and displayed on a public Web interface. The approach to these challenges was determined by the goal of Collections Online to give access to as much of the collection as possible, and make accessible valueable information not perviously available to scholars. Further, consultation of Collections Online is considered an intial stage of a scholar's research into works in the collections, rather than a source of all available data on the works. Subsequent to locating works of relevance to their research, it is anticipated that the scholars will contact the appropriate curator or reference staff to arrange to see the works and to establish if further information is available.

This view of Collections Online use led to several decisions in regard to inconsistenies in the MINISIS data. After some discussion as to whether accession level records should be excluded from display, it was decided that this exclusion would deny access to too great a proportion of the collection. The inclusion of as many records as possible is particularly important as one of the aims of providing greater access to the Collection is to encourage scholars to research undocumented works, thereby increasing knowledge of them.

It was decided that some fields that contained data that may not be immediately clear to the user would be included as these same fields may also contain valueable data. An example of this type of data is the research sources, where some standard source may be cited in abbreviated form, yet at the same time these bibliographic fields contain references to less-common sources that may be of great value to a researcher. The quantity of existing data made it impossible in the project time-frame to "clean" this data for display. Consequently, it was accepted that some data which would require further explanation would be displayed.

The decision whether to include various fields for the information they may offer the researcher had to be weighed against overall clarity of the displayed record. For instance, descriptive fields such as inscriptions and watermarks available for fully catalogued works may contain very precise information useful the scholar, but can also add substantially to the length of the displayed records, making them difficult to read and evaluate. These fields were, consequently, excluded with the knowledge that interested scholars would request this information in a future phase of their research.

The need to maintain clarity in the displayed record also led to the decision to use some fields for searching purposes only, and not to display these fields. An example of this type of field is alternate titles. In addition to the principal object title in English, some records include additional titles such as inscribed and published titles, sometimes in languages other than English. These fields increase access to the record, but if displayed add to the length and reduce the clarity of the displayed record. Similarly, catalogued records contain authority-controlled lists of terms (either Art and Architecture Thesaurus or local authorities) that describe the subject of the work. By including these terms in the fields searched, greater access to a record (especially in a keyword seach) can be obtained, but once displayed, the title and other included descriptive fields provide the information necessary for the reseacher to assess whether the work is pertinent to their research.

The final selection of displayed fields was as follows:

  • Name(s) -creators of the work
  • Title
  • Date(s)
  • Object (quantity and type)
  • Medium
  • Dimensions
  • Subject(s)
  • Associated Name(s) - eg. clients
  • Credit Line
  • Accession Number
  • Notes - encompassing both notes describing the work and researched notes documenting the works historical importance and context.
  • Research Sources

As previously discussed, not all records will include all these fields. At a minimum, the name, title, date, object information, medium, credit line and accession number will normally be displayed. The searched fields are:

  • Name
  • Variant Names -forms of the name that differ from the established form
  • Associated Names
  • Title
  • Alternate Titles
  • Translated Titles
  • Geographic location -in both modern and contemporary forms
  • Subject Name
  • Subject descriptive and classification terms
  • Object Type
  • Accession Number
  • Authorities

Similar considerations were taken into account when assessing the authority records in the development of Collections Online. The names and architectural subject authority records created by CCA Collection Documentation staff, in addition to establishing a definitive form of individual, corporation/entity, or subject name to ensure consistency in the databases, frequently include valuable historical and biographical information on the individual, entity or subject that they document. The name authorities relate not only to the creators of the works, but also to other individuals/entities associated with them, such as clients, builders, and design consultants. Likewise, the architectural subject authorities contain information on the successive phases of a building's conception and construction, and on related projects. So while authorities are accessed in Collections Online through the works that they were created to document, they have added research potential. Especially when the person, entity or subject is not well-known, documentation undertaken by Collection Documentation staff serves as an excellent starting-point for further research by scholars. The selection of fields for names and architectural subjects was significantly more straight-forward than the object catalogue database due to the small number of fields to select from. The following fields from the names authorities are viewed:

  • Name
  • Variant forms of the name
  • Nation -country of birth, citizenship
  • Place and date of birth (or when established, for a corporation)
  • Place and date of death (or when dissolved, for a corporation)
  • Locus / Years of Activity
  • Occupation
  • Related Names
  • Biographical Notes
  • Source of established form of name
  • Other sources of information on the individual or corporation;

and from subject authorities:

  • Subject name
  • Geographic location
  • Related Names
  • Historical Notes
  • Source of established form of name
  • Other sources of information on the subject
  • Subject type(s).

All searching of subjects and names is undertaken in the same search interface as objects with the names (and variant names), subject names and geographic locations as the fields searched.

How should this data be searched? How should the results be presented?

The Web interface was one of the most challenging aspects of the development. Many design iterations were proposed and tested to refine appearance and usability. The emphasis of both searching and presentation of data was that it should be simple and intuitive, requiring a minimum of instruction to users familiar with standard on-line search engines. The objective was to create a search interface that could be mastered through a small amount of trial-and-error. A small section of search tips provides basic instructions and outlines strategies for using each search type. The interface is bilingual (French and English). However, the predominant language of collection documentation at the CCA is English. Consequently, most records are in English.


The search interface was designed to be versatile, allowing researchers to tailor searches to their specific needs by enabling users to undertake both broad and highly specific inquiries. The goal of this interface design was to provide for as many search combinations as possible in a single interface. The interface includes seven search options: keyword, name, title, geographic location, date, object type, and accession number. Searches can be combined as well as refined using Boolean logic. Up to five search terms or strings can be searched simultaneously.

Screen Shot: CCA Collections Online Search Screen

Figure 1: CCA Collections Online Search Screen

The broadest level of querying is by keyword, which searches for data in all the search fields other than date and object type. By searching for the same terms in multiple fields simultaneously, the keyword allows for a type of querying formally impossible to achieve with MINSIS databases. It has enriched the ability of not only external scholars but also CCA curators to search for works in the Collection.

While all searching can be achieved using the keyword search, the more specific options of name, title, geographical location and accession number allow a user familiar with the collections or looking for a specific work to conduct the search more quickly. The date and object type searches are separated from the other search terms fields to enable greater refinement in a single search. The object type is particularly important due to the diversity of materials in the Photographs, and Prints and Drawings collections. As these collections related to materials, it was decided that the interface would not directly allow restriction to one collection or another. For instance, a search by name for "Mies van der Rohe" generates results for drawings by Mies van der Rohe as well as photographs of Mies van der Rohe. However, if a restriction to a particular type of work is desired, the object pick-list allows for the specification of object type.

Navigation and display

Screen Shot: CCA Collections Online Results Screen

Figure 2: CCA Collections Online Results Screen

Like searching, navigation was designed to be as simple and straightforward as possible.

Once a first search is initiated, a "hits" screen appears with the results of the search, and then clicking on the short description (name, title, date, accession number) accesses the individual records. Results can be reordered by name, title, date and accession number. If a chosen record has names or subject authorities, these are accessed through hyperlinked names or subjects in the record. Navigation between active records and hits as well as the search page is accomplished with a taskbar at the top of the screen. When a feature is not in use, its title is grayed on the taskbar.

Screen Shot: CCA Collections Online Record Screen

Figure 3: CCA Collections Online Record Screen

Project Implementation

Due to financial constraints, all aspects of interface and supporting database needed to be developed by in-house staff and resources in as short as possible a time frame. From conception to launch, the project took just under one year. The core project team consisted of four staff members: a coordinator (Elspeth Cowell), who managed all aspects of the development; an IT system administrator (Stéphane Forget), who undertook the Web and database development; the Head of Collection Documentation (Louise Beauregard), who dealt with the collection documentation aspects; and a multimedia specialist (Alain Laforest), who advised on the architecture and design of the interface. The testing and evaluation was undertaken by a larger in-house consultation committee consisting of the collections curators, experienced users of MINISIS, and Library staff with experience in Web interface development. In the final period prior to launch, we encouraged all staff to try the interface and register their problems and questions on a pop-up log. Informal evaluation and improvement has continued to be an ongoing process since the launch.

Technical Information

While the focus of this paper is not the technical aspects of CCA Collections Online, a few technical details should be noted. In order to implement the Collections Online system, the data from the MINISIS databases was exported into Microsoft SQL 2000 with full text searching used to increase data retrieval speed. The Web pages were created with ASP (Active Server Pages) in conjunction with Javascript.

Future Developments

To expedite the initial development of Collections Online, added features were kept to a minimum: presently only a search history - to allow past searches to be reviewed - is available. CCA Collections Online will continue to develop. Projected improvements include a "basket" for saving records for future reference or for consultation requests. Web exhibitions to draw attention to specific areas of the collection are projected, as is increased image access (currently less than 5% of the records include a thumbnail image). It is also hoped that a project will be initiated soon to develop an on-line working tool for critical exchange of information and research on drawings with scholars worldwide. This project will virtually bring together for research purposes CCA drawings and related drawings in other collections throughout the world. Finally, the implementation of The Museum System will undoubtedly affect the collection documentation process at the CCA, and lead to adjustments and refinements to Collections Online.


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Cite as:

Cowell E. and D. De Meyer, Re-presenting Data: CCA's Collections Online, in J. Trant and D. Bearman (eds.). Museums and the Web 2005: Proceedings, Toronto: Archives & Museum Informatics, published March 31, 2005 at