By Christian-Emil Ore, Research Director
Abstract for a poster at the 5th European Conference on Research and Advanced Technology for Digital Libraries, September 4-9 2001, Darmstadt, Germany.
Norwegian university museums are custodians of large bodies of knowledge and data about societies, culture, nature and the environment in Norway, both historical and current. An important role of the university museums has been the compilation and dissemination of this information. It is no accident that museums have formed the nucleus for the founding of Norwegian colleges and universities.
Due to the magnitude and the organisation of the university collections, they have not been readily accessible for use in research, teaching and public services or for inspection by the general public. In order to maintain their position as the country's leading institutions and information pools for object-based research, the university museums must revitalise their collections. An important step in this process is the introduction of information technology at all levels in the museums. However, this calls for an extremely costly reassessment and conversion of existing archives into a digital format, requiring extra effort and additional funding. In some cases, establishing the databases will entail a complete revision of some of the museum collections.
The Museum Project was established in the spring of 1998 as a national collaborative project involving all four Norwegian universities. It is planned to run until 2005 with an annual budget of 1-2 million Euro. The aim of the project is to develop common database systems for the management of collections for all the Norwegian universities museums. Ideally, these database systems should be able to handle all reference information related to artefact and specimen collections inside and outside the museums. Important aspects include internal requirements regarding the management of collections, fieldwork, research and dissemination, and external demands from the authorities and the public concerning access to reference data. The work is motivated by an ambition to develop IT-based systems that will offer users centralised and efficient access to information regarding the Norwegian cultural and natural heritage. With the help of common user interfaces and links between data from different fields of study, it will be possible to generate new information combinations and new insights in the various disciplines.
The Museum Project includes a systems development group that is responsible for modelling and constructing the databases. This group is a direct continuation of the systems development group in the Documentation Project. In addition the project employs at least one scientific consultant from a relevant discipline for each of the sub-projects. The consultant is responsible for the follow-up of the scientific aspects of the digitisation process and works in close co-operation with colleagues in the relevant field and with the project's system developers.
The Museum Project involves the museums of natural history as well as the museums of cultural history. It is organised in various subsections, with sub-projects in the fields of archaeology, ethnography, cultural history, botany, zoology, geology and palaeontology. Each of the sub-projects is responsible for the digitisation of large collections; some so complex that getting even an overview is difficult. Once the digitised material is recorded, it undergoes a quality control procedure before being entered into databases. The completed databases are all built on the same platform. This implies that while each database accommodates the specific features of each collection the different databases will nonetheless be compatible with one another. The computer programs and methods used for the electronic recording of data are determined by the structure of each collection, and to some extent by the traditions of each discipline.
The Norwegian University Museums cover a wide range of disciplines, from archaeology and ethnography to natural history. The project organisation has taken over the responsibility for maintaining and developing the data base systems for the department of lexicography (old Norse and modern Norwegian) and place name studies.
The development of the new systems has been a continuous process for the last 6 years. It has been done in parallel with giving assistance to the ongoing digitisation of the museum collections. The design and implementation of the common systems and interfaces is now completed in its first version and will be presented at the conference.
To make data base systems for the large number of disciplines is a challenge for a small group. An extra challenge is the requirement for interdisciplinary searches. The number of databases and the inter-disciplinarily has forced us to try to make as generic database solutions as possible. The new information systems replace in turn older, mostly stand alone database applications. This is fortunate since it is easier to create new interconnecting systems instead of connection old ones, although technologies like the Z39.50 standard have open for relatively easy interconnection of databases.
The system group has tried to think generically along two axis:
In the modelling phase, each collection has been described as a set of different object types. We will here use a simplified model for archaeology as an example. The collections of an archaeological museum consist of artefacts, classification and acquisition catalogues, excavation and conservation reports, photos and so on. We have modelled this as object types such as:
The latter used to describe the movement of the artefacts inside and outside of the museum and is shared with other museums and collections. Other shared object types are persons, publications and geographical places (both natural formations and abstract geographical entities like counties and municipalities).
Most database interfaces we meet in our every day lives have not very elaborated tools for storing search result and for sharing such information with colleagues. The Internet browsers have the bookmark or favourite folders. Some museum and gallery databases are equipped with a possibility to create more or less personal collections. In our work at the museums and collection departments we got the understanding there is a wish among scholars and scientists to have the possibility to build up their own "databases" or notebooks based on the results from querying collection databases. To meet this need we have designed list feature. Conceptually a list is a set of objects of any of the object types in the system. A list can be created by storing (a part of ) the result of a query or several queries. Such lists are static in the sense that they are "hand picked", but can be increased by adding new elements. A second type of lists is the lists bound to queries. These are dynamic in the sense that the content will changes according to the state of the databases. An example of such a list will be the list containing all artefacts undergoing conservation or books being lent out. The dynamic lists are useful to mimic the movement of object in a collection. All lists can be private to a user, to a group or public. A list can contain objects of a single type or objects of heterogeneous object types.
All the object types are implemented as relational databases in Oracle8i. This is not an object oriented DBMS, but the object view of the data is taken care of by a common meta database containing a subset of the data model of each database (scheme). The user interface applications comes in two versions, one advanced version implemented in DELPHI5 and a somewhat simpler WWW-interfaced based on plain HTML and Java-scripts. Both versions use the information in the meta database to automatically create a user adjustable search forms and result tables or grids. In the DELPHI5 version each object type is also supplied with one or more object viewers presenting the data connected to a given object. That is, by clicking on a line in the grid of result, a more detailed view of the data is presented. In the photo database a digital photo filing card with detailed information and a thumb is presented. In a dictionary database a formatted entry will occur.
The second common feature of the system is the so-called list module. The visual metaphor is the ordinary file hierarchy with nested folders and files. The "file icons" represent stored queries, hand compiled lists of parts of one or many search results. A list can consist of objects of different types, say, photos from a site, information about artefacts and excavation reports. The folder hierarchy is used to systematise the lists. The lists and the folders can be global, shared by a group or private. When opened, a heterogeneous list will be presented as a collection of icons and some basic information. Each element can be inspected by a viewer corresponding to its object type. A list of objects of the same type can also be seen as a result grid with a predefined layout. Summing up
The last ten years the Norwegian Museum Project and its predecessor the Documentation Project have been major efforts to digitise information at the University Museums and the collection department at the Norwegian universities. Ten years ago there was little information electronically available and the focus was on how to create digital resources. Today almost all information produced is at some stage in the production process on electronic form and there is perhaps too much information available through the Internet. But a large majority of the older information is still on a non-electronic form and most of it will very likely never be digitised. The university museums are research institutions and will try to convert as much as possible of their referential information to electronic form and including it into a coherent information system. Today the digitalisation is a well-developed process and the critical factor is funding. Today major challenge seems to be to develop and integrate electronic information systems into the everyday activity of the working scholars and scientists and the interested public. This is both a technical but also an organisational challenge.