Fragments and story telling at NDF

The annual conference of New Zealand’s National Digital Forum was held in Wellington recently so like many of my colleagues from the National Library I trooped along for two days of digital show and tell. The conference opened with a film screening of the remastered This Is New Zealand. I’d love to have the time to review it more closely but it’s probably enough to ask what would be in such a film were it made today and what would have disappeared? Would it be endless shots of Lord of the Rings spliced with call centres and computer operators?

Leith Haarhoff from Culturenet Cymru presented the keynote address on the Welsh Gathering the Jewels project. It’s impressive: bilingual Dublin Core metadata for all images, collected together in a central database that presents the official story of Welsh culture and heritage. He made some interesting points about Web 2.0 (provide tools to communities to digitize their collections; how to distinguish between the official and unofficial record; is there a need to translate user-generated content) and introduced a curious metric for measuring the effectiveness of your web project: work out how much each page view cost to produce.

In marked contrast to the Welsh approach was Bill Macnaught‘s presentation on Puke Ariki, which commenced the conference’s unofficial and unintended theme of fragmentation. What was really good to see was Tryhard Production’s amateur film about Inglewood’s train station. According to Bill it was evidence of young people learning about copyright issues (they couldn’t use their original soundtrack, a song by some rapper) but I couldn’t help thinking he was taking the piss – did the makers ever really imagine their dirge would be viewed reverently by the good and the great of New Zealand’s government online digitization community?

The presentation on War Art from Archives New Zealand raised a lot of questions about the effectiveness of the NDF. I’ll try not to get personal but it was noted by many that the people involved could have asked their partners in the forum for advice on subject and media classification. That they didn’t, and admitted so without a shadow of self-realization at a conference on convergence, told a sad tale about the state of collaboration in the digital space. What was more embarrassing was that Archives staff should be surprised by questions of naming authorities and data normalization. Surely someone in that organization has dealt with these questions and could have shared the knowledge?

Still, it prompted a few thoughts, one about user tagging: is it a good thing when an event like the month of Movember prompts users to tag every digital object in a collection in which a moustache appears? Hardly a great advert for the wonders of Web 2.0. Does it really have a place? Could a site like Papers Past let users tag a page for people mentioned in an article, or that an article contains birth, death or arrivals information? Is this just getting the public to do poorly what we should be doing well? Does the record end up being skewed by personal interest when a user comes along and tags all mentions of their relatives but not all the other people mentioned in an article? Is there a place for any control when one person’s brother John is the same person as another’s Uncle Jack? Seems there’s a fundamental tension between letting users create content and creating useful information.

In the bigger picture areas of my mind I started drawing little schematics of databases that could interact with each other, which might be the only feasible approach to
a) letting everyone tell their own stories and build their own websites, while
b) being able to aggregate them all through some national or subject discovery service.
We could then set about building discovery services that harvest metadata and allow users to search and display results, then either redirect users to partner websites or (wherever possible) pull content from the partner database to display in the discovery service interface. Any takers?

The man from Vernon sought to provide the answer at least for smaller museums by deminstrating what looks like a collection gobbling service. Vernon provides an online service for museums to build digital collections. Good idea in principle, especially – as a colleague pointed out – for the many local museums with barely enough resource to open on a daily basis let alone build and maintain a website. I couldn’t help worrying though about the wisdom of depositing a community’s digital memory with a third-party (and a commercial one at that) and wonder what sort of contractual issues those museums will find themselves up against in years to come when they decide they want their stuff back.

Joan Hori‘s presentation on the University of Hawaii digitization projects got me back to thinking about how everybody wants to tell their story and to do so on their own website. The Hawaii experience was in marked contrast to Gathering the Jewels and the Memory of the Netherlands, with a seeming lack of coordination between the multitude of websites. My mind wandered and I realized that the big national database in the sky will probably never exist (or that it does already and it starts with a capital G) and returned to that idea that we need to make all the little databases talk to each other. Technology aside, it’s stories that keep coming up as a theme of this conference – whether it’s a national or global or an individual one within a bigger narrative – and it’s part of the human condition that we want to tell them and we want to tell them our way. People will tell these stories and define the medium and technology used as they see fit; they won’t consult the digital forum or it’s members and they won’t be dictated to by government or industry standards. If something aids the story then it might be used but if it gets in the way then it won’t be. So what’s the role for librarians? A hard one to answer but maybe they have to accept the human condition and start using their traditional skills such as cataloguing and classifying to contribute to the story telling.

Ingeborg Verheul presented a detailed description of work on the Koninklijke Bibliotheek’s Memory of the Netherlands project. I took a lot of notes, none of which are worth reporting, but what was interesting was the big government approach that the Bibliotheek took and how it’s now starting to unravel. They have one incredibly impressive website and a programme behind it of such efficiency that it could only happen in northern Europe, but the partner organizations involved are now starting to want their collections back. What was once hard and expensive – digitization – is getting cheaper and easier meaning institutions themselves want to start controlling their digitization efforts and websites. (Vernon take note!)

The next session reported on a couple of initiatives to record or tell local and iwi stories. It was at this point that I realized that initiatives such as those in Wales and the Netherlands could only happen in countries with a clear sense of what and who they are. Sure there’ll be local stories from Welsh valleys and villages but chances are they’ll somehow link into and contribute to a bigger national narrative with a similarities in experience and theme. Can the same be said of the many stories being told in New Zealand? Does an attempt to keep the Taranaki dialect and iwi stories alive bear any relationship to tales of Scandinavian settlement in the Manawatu? What sort of a national story are they contributing to and is it one that easily knits together? Is it a narrative where the only similarity is difference?

By this stage in the conference I was running out of steam, and after a day-and-a-half in the unheated Wellington Town Hall, a head cold was setting in. There were some good speakers in the parallel sessions, notably Joanne Evans from the University of Melbourne who talked about the Australian National Biography and the connections they made to other national databases. None of it was rocket science but good to see it in place: persistent and citable URLs, control lists for names, using other databases for supporting content like images and additional bibliography, and custom searching of related websites. This was one of the most encouraging talks I’d been to throughout the conference showing that you can take some fairly simple steps and use appropriate standards to create valuable links for users.

I thought I should call it a day when I found myself thinking that the success of the ANB may have stemmed from its origin as a published project rather than a digitized one – that kind of thinking could get me in trouble in the library world – so that concluded my first taste of New Zealand’s National Digital Forum.