Conference Papers

Museums and the Web: An International Conference
Los Angeles, CA, March 16 - 19, 1997

John Eyre, Senior Project Manager, IIELR

Architecture for Online Museums of the Future
An Object Server for the Future (ELISE II)


De Montfort University Library has a long history of being at the forefront of providing electronic services to its users. Originally one of the first universities to have an electronic catalogue system, the modern library has led the way in researching the requirements for providing access to the actual text of books in electronic form.

Now within the Division of Learning Development and working closely with the recently established International Institute for Electronic Library Research (IIELR), the library has secured a string of projects funded through various programmes and companies including the European Commission, JISC, the British Library, IBM and others. The first notable project was ELINOR (Electronic Library Information On-line Retrieval), funded by the British Library and IBM, it started in 1991 and established a new library at the Milton Keynes campus which provided access to the texts of required books via a networked computer system.

At the beginning of 1993 the Library established research links with the museum world with an image project funded by the EC and named ELISE (Electronic Library Image Service for Europe). The Victoria and Albert Museum, IBM, Tilburg University and DMU came together to investigate the possibility of providing museum and library images to users via the Internet. At that time there was no WEB and the Internet was still the domain of academia and the selected few.

The IIELR has been established to take these and other related research topics forward; the emphasis is on use of open standards, use of freely available Web browsers and provision of easy access to data no matter where and how it is held. The ELISE project is now in its second phase and has five additional partners. DMU has joined CIMI (the Consortium for Computer Interchange of Museum Information) and has been working with this North American based group for the past two years, in the areas of SGML, Z39.50 and access to disparate datasets.

ELISE II is concerned firstly with building a practical and sustainable image service, which includes support for user registration and validation, copyright management and charging mechanisms and cross database searching.

System Requirements

System design is led by user requirements, and these are shaped by their experience and expectations. No longer is it acceptable to provide simple terminal type access to minimal glossary text. Modern users are becoming more aware of the range of possibilities open to them and more sophisticated in using the tools and applying the results of their work. With developments in cinema special effects, computer based multimedia, speed and price performance of personal computers, quality of screen displays and the widespread easy access to the Internet and the expectations of modern users, bring significant technical problems.

At the same time as user expectations increase, more sophisticated tools to fulfil these aspirations become available. Often the tools lead the way and increase expectations. In many ways the requirements for developing new systems have become simpler and more universal in their nature. For example, everyone now expects to access data via the Internet with the use of a Web browser application, which for many users can be easily acquired and used free of charge.

Problems occur when new technology appears to offer something today, which is actually still in its very early stages of development. Intelligence and interaction inside Web browsers was sold to the public with the high profile launch of Sun's Java toolkits and later, Microsoft's Javascript and other plug-ins. While these tools do offer significant opportunities for developers, well-designed applications take a significant amount of time to bring to the market, while bad ones can appear much quicker.

Another area of system design which has always been a consideration for some developers is open standards. Allowing the data in one system to be seen in some way by other systems is not a requirement that has had a priority for many developers in the past. However, it is one of the major areas of concern for current planners. With the world becoming more of a global market and the Internet reaching in to every corner, users want to be able to locate data wherever it happens to be held.

Search systems need to be able to actively seek out new sources and offer them to their users in a way that is transparent and seamless. Users do not want to have to decide where to search for something, they typically will not know where the objects that they are likely to be interested in are held.

Search queries would be better limited by subject domain or geographical locations or time to retrieve data or even by whether items are freely available or charged for. The actual location of an object is only relevant once that object has been identified as being of direct interest to the searcher.

The question of access to data, organised by subject domain rather than by individual service sites, raises the question of agreed standards of data structures within domains and methods of transferring data between these sites. Then, a user could search across several domains, for example a search for 'flint' might apply to a geographical database or geological or even a cultural database. These databases will be designed and structured in very different ways and not even consistent within each domain.

To summaries, some of the important user requirements for a system that can provide access to museum data (and other domains) at a number of remote sites:

Single interface to the whole worlds data. This means more than just accepting that a Web browser can find information held anywhere in the world. It means that a well specified Web page (or set of pages) should provide all that is required to search and retrieve real data from databases held at sites all over the world. And, as new sites become available they are automatically seen by this Web page.

A level of intelligence in the user interface in order to provide an appropriate query interface and comprehensive support for different data types returned as part of result sets. This will include structured documents as well as unstructured text, images, video and sound.

Methods for refining a search. Apply new terms to previous result sets. Direct search terms to specific indexes, fields or access points. For example, search for 'Dickens' as a 'Creator' but not as a 'Subject'.

Apply limits to the result set. This can be done by redefining the search, but could also be done by applying other filters, such as location - by distance from the user or by country, by subject domains, by service supplier, by charging mechanisms or by the time it takes to get a return.

Additionally, data suppliers will be interested in seeing the following features catered for:

Copyright management - by the time individual item level data is supplied to the user, it should be accompanied by owner, location and access rights information. This may vary depending on who or where the user is. Copyright owners will require some reporting and associated fees relating to actual or likely use of their materials.

Charging mechanisms - once the user decides to look at an item of informa tion, it will be required that a record or charge is made in some manner. This could include direct billing to the individual, their group or service provider. It could also be supported by monthly or annual bills, or pre-paid subscriptions or a number of other models. It is probable that a global service would have to support many charging models.

Is all this possible or even desirable? The fact is that this is what users want and it is what many developers are working towards, so it will happen to some extent in many places. For the data provider the amount of effort involved in digitising and cataloguing their data will be immense. Still, nothing, compared to agreeing standards within, and across domains. These difficulties mean that other methods will need to be found in order to provide the functionality that the users require.

There is no real requirement for data holders around the world to unite and decide on a new and uniform way to specify their catalogues and collections. They can not be expected to rebuild their databases using new field names and attributes that do not match their requirements, simply to conform.

Efforts going on within domains to define agreed attribute sets are valid and will prove invaluable in the future, but this work is difficult and slow. It is more likely that a short term solution will be found that can take a small subset of access points which can be mapped to any database structure at a level that can provide global searching. Detailed searching would then be a domain or service specific function and might be supported by separate Web pages or even down-loadable applications.

Architecture Design

The CIMI consortium has been working for some time to provide demonstration systems that can demonstrate how data of various types and from different places can be accessed from a single user query. The CHIO project brought SGML documents, museum wall texts and object records together through a standard Web browser interface. Queries from the user are processed and passed to various database systems and returns are processed and displayed back to the user. Where the browser has additional support for SGML documents, the fully structured data can be downloaded and browsed.

This demonstration system is to be expanded by the use of standard protocols such as Z39.50 which will allow additional externally managed datasets to be accessed in the same way. CIMI, working with other partners and projects in America and Europe, such as ELISE and Aquarelle, are working towards this global access model of information retrieval.

The ELISE project has defined a model which will be the basis for its immediate development plans. It is based around an intelligent Web server that has functionality to cope with the user and supplier requirements mentioned earlier. It will be built as a modular system with expansion in mind.

A service can be provided simply, and expanded in a controlled way. A Web server with connections to a local database is relatively straightforward to set up. The next stage would be to expand the number and type of locally managed database systems. Then, using agreed standards and controls, make connections to remote datasets.

The standard architecture of the past was to build dedicated applications that provided the functionality required by the user as a complete system, delivered on discs or tapes. Applications that were designed to access remote data would be build using client-server technology, where a user interface would be provided which could connect over the Internet to the remote server system. These two parts are dedicated to each other and do not typically provide any links or compatibility with other systems.

The use of the Web and Web browsers has meant that user interfaces can be provided by one supplier while the server side can be developed and provided by other groups.

This is the standard architecture for providing Web access to remote databases:

Using this design, the site owner or service provider has complete control over what services are provided to users. The design of the Web pages, the features that are offered and the databases that can be accessed, all have to be designed and produced by the sight owner. However, the actual browser software can be provided by any supplier as long as it meets the required standards.

The first stage in providing a single user interface, including the content and functionality of the interface, to connect to remote databases in various locations, will be to use an agreed standard for transmitting the query over the network and return the results in an agreed format. The current standard being worked with in this area is Z39.50.

A Web service providing a similar Z39.50 connection could build this functionality into the server system.


In this new architecture it can be seen that there is a rather complex structure which replaces the previous use of the term Z39.50 Origin (client). This can be understood as everything that is required in order to process a user request and to translate this into a Z39.50 (or other protocol) Query to one or more database systems.

The Web Server which is a standard Web tool and provides the means of transferring user queries across the Internet in a well defined and agreed manor. The transactions at this level are using HTML with enhancement via the possible use of JAVA and Javascript programming. Web servers and browsers are available for all major computer platforms and are essentially compatible with each other.

In order for developers to take advantage of this generic level of Internet access, while enhancing the features provided, they are able to concentrate on the server side of the process. The intention of the ELISE project is to develop the intelligence and flexibility required, into a BROKER package which sits behind the Web server and becomes a client to the distributed world of data objects.

In this way the BROKER can be enhanced to take into account results from other development work and other projects. User management, copyright and charging, thesauri expansion, video streaming, use of different protocol layers, can all be considered as enhancements in this tool.

So, how does this architecture manage standard queries and distribute them to various databases?

If we start by looking at a possible Web page and see what kinds of things might be presented to the user. The process can then be followed through the system.

Figure 6: Possible Web Search Screen

In the first stage system a simple forms based page could be presented that has no user validation or database selection options. It simply presents a query entry box and an access point selector and applies all searches to its locally managed databases. The access point selector should provide a list of attributes that are readily understood and that can be applied to any kind of data store. This would be a good use of the Dublin Core, being an agreed list of such elements. It is not expected that these attribute or element names have to appear as fields in all the databases supported, simply that the server maps field contents to appropriate access points for the purpose of general level search and refinement.

The access point selector should be able to manage multiple selections and have an option for selecting all, which would then be interpreted by the server as search the global index or search all indices.

The user enters the search term 'Dickens' and applies it to the Access Point 'Creator'. These options are fed back to the server in standard HTML Forms structure. The server uses the CGI link to pass the search terms to the Database Server. This server can handle multiple database models, including proprietary systems as well as standard protocols such as Z39.50 and ODBC. The terms are packaged appropriately and sent to the various databases. Returns are received by the server, from each of the databases. Some will have no hits, some will have hits and report the fact but return no content and others will return a number of brief records. It is for the Database Server to manage these different types of response and present a consistent view back to the user screen. The returns could be presented in the form

The search was for 'Dickens' and applied to the 'Creator' access point.

There are:

select one of the above in order to see Brief records or enter more search terms to refine or start a new search

(the above databases are fictitious)

From this point things would progress as expected. If images or other objects are attached to a record then icons would appear with the brief record allowing full object files to be retrieved by clicking on them.

It is easy to imagine how the user interface could be enhanced to offer more choice for the user and allow for some of the more detailed management tasks that service providers will require. New features required at the user side are simply implemented at the 'Server-Broker' by adding functions in a controlled manor.

In order to gain full advantage of this design, the link to external databases needs to be supported. The extended broker has full knowledge of the characteristics of the databases under its control. By the use of standards such as Z39.50 to transmit the query in an agreed way and the Dublin Core to provide high level mapping of data elements, this design can very easily cope with feeding queries to compatible systems in remote locations.

The system is divided into three distinct sections. Each one separated by a heavy line which could represent Internet connections. In order for two or more of these systems to communicate with each other, there are several possibilities.

An intelligent Web browser could have enough local knowledge to be able to communicate with several brokers at the same time. In this case, the browser would have to present the query to several brokers and handle the returns, whatever their format. This is asking too much from a standard web browser, and enhancing a browser to do this would be moving away from the concept of using standard tools.

The broker could communicate with other brokers. This appears to be a useful option. The broker is sophisticated enough to handle this kind of technology. The collections management database could hold information about other compatible brokers and where they are. The difficulty comes with user authorisation, copyright management and billing requirements. Each broker has information relating to these areas, but they may not be compatible with each other and moving this data along with queries and returns could add significant overhead to the network traffic and programming complexity.

The Layer between broker and servers offers the opportunity to connect directly to remotely held databases. The broker knows about the locally held databases and how to connect to them. It also has information stored in the collections management database which allows for user management and the other functions described earlier. The broker supports well established protocols such as Z39.50 which are technically capable of directly accessing any other Z39.50 database wherever it is on the Internet - given the appropriate information. All that is required is a paper negotiation between service providers.

One service site (A) offers a number of databases to a defined user group at negotiated costs and usage rights. Another site (B) offers similar services to another grou