We stand up #NDFNZ

Earlier this week I had the pleasure to give the closing address at the National Digital Forum’s annual conference in Wellington. As the outgoing chair of NDF’s board, I felt truly honoured to be able to speak to such a wonderful group of people. Here’s what I said.

First up I’d thank you all for being here in what for many are trying and tense times. It’s a testament to the quality of the conference and commitment of the conference organisers, speakers, and all of you that we’re here, together, sharing this event.

Your presence and the point of so much that we’ve heard over the last two days shows that people matter – the people here and the people we serve.

I’ve been involved with NDF for 5 years, over that time I’ve done worked on the conference and most recently as chair of the board. In that time I’ve met wonderful people and contributed to an incredible community.

But I’d like to speak not as the board’s outgoing chair or as a staff member of a particular organisation. I’d like to talk simply as a person who’s privileged enough to be able to address this audience at the end of one very strange year.

We probably all remember this man…

By AVRO - Beeld En Geluid Wiki - Gallerie: Toppop 1974, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=17768919

By AVRO – Beeld En Geluid Wiki – Gallerie: Toppop 1974, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=17768919

and this one too…

By penner (http://flickr.com/photos/penner/2450784866) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons

By penner (http://flickr.com/photos/penner/2450784866) CC BY-SA, via Wikimedia Commons

Their deaths were sad events for many who saw in them creative genius that spoke to the great variety or humankind.

We can only read so much into celebrity deaths. But as Matariki Williams said yesterday, things have changed this year. The likes of Nigel Farage, Boris Johnson, and now Donald Trump, have unleashed an assault on human decency the likes of which we haven’t seen in decades.

We can argue about the future of parliamentary democracy or the validity of neo-liberalism, or the breakdown of progressive politics. But I think what we can all see is a fractured world of increasing inequality and division.

Much of this we watch from afar, and hope or think that we’re safe. But it’s at door too. We have – after all – people sleeping in cars.

More recently we have reports of increased racial abuse – not just out there – but here in New Zealand, emboldened by events overseas.

And just last week, Brian Tamaki thought it was ok to blame a natural disaster on sexual orientation among other things.



It’s the sort of abuse I’d hoped we were starting to put behind us. We’re not immune. We’re part of a global community and share many of the good and the bad with other countries.

This is the BAE share price reacting to Trump’s election.



That’s the big jump. What does this say about the potential for conflict in our world? Right now it’s anyone’s guess but it’s not a good sign that the world’s most powerful leader-elect inspires such confidence in the weapons industry.

This is voter turnout in the US election.



The figures have probably changed a bit since this post, give or take, but over 100 million Americans didn’t vote.

This is New Zealand voting in 2014.



Smaller scale and smaller percentage, but still over 700,000 who didn’t vote. That’s disengagement on a huge scale.

So what do we as a sector do?



We probably won’t solve homelessness or change voter patterns. But can we help to create a society that people want to belong to? And reach out as a society and invite people back in?

We need to look to our organisations and ask:

What is the work that connects us most strongly with all New Zealanders?

Are our education and community programmes as good as they can be?

Are we working with the right organisations to target those most at risk of disengaging?

Are we reaching the disadvantaged, the vulnerable, the forgotten? (And it was great to hear Robyn Hunt remind us yesterday that we’re here for all people.)

Are we providing spaces for people to tell their stories and valuing the contribution they make?

I look to our regional organisations, out there working in New Zealand communities. As a sector we need to think about how we support them, and how our national organisations can work with and through them.

We need to see our role as central to working with communities, with people, and doing all we can to halt and repair the sort of social breakdown we’re witnessing.

New Zealand is so well positioned to rise to this challenge.

I turn to our Treaty of Waitangi. It hasn’t been honoured properly but reparations are at least heading in the right direction. And what it signals is a commitment to partnership that we all need to honour. It’s in our interests to learn from each other, if for nothing else than to look to Ngati Whaatua’s response to homelessness and Ngai Tahu’s response to the recent quakes.



To honour that partnership, Takarei Norton’s talk this morning pointed to us being open with our collections for communities like Ngai Tahu to use them. It’s a really useful place to start – partnership based on what you can right now to help.

The recent interest in the New Zealand Wars shows a real thirst to explore and understand, recognise and acknowledge, what M?ori suffered in the colonial period and think about how we move on as a country from that.

And 2018 will mark the 125th anniversary of women’s suffrage. It’s a chance to celebrate certainly, and talk about democracy and voting. But it’s also a chance to talk about income inequality, domestic violence, systemic sexism, and what we want to do about those issues.

These are real conversations that as a sector we need to be involved in. What’s the contribution we can make to support and nurture those conversations, ensure voices are heard, combat a post-truth world, make people listen to the lessons of the past?

This isn’t about making ourselves relevant. We need to get past arguing that we’re relevant and just be relevant. Relevant to building social cohesion, and a shout out to Mark Crookston for talking about this and Treasury’s Living Standard’s Framework. It’s a tribute to New Zealand that public servants, even in Treasury, actually think about social cohesion as being important. Similarly Lillian Grace talked about how she hasn’t met a person yet who doesn’t care about our country’s future.

Our sector has a role here, in building a society where people want to look after each other, and where hate can’t survive.

One thing’s for sure, it’s about building and celebrating community, and with that we turn to celebrate some of the people in our community with our second annual awards.

We closed the conference be presenting awards to our community. Check out the NDF Awards page for this year’s winners.

The long and the short of it

This is the text of a talk I gave at A Very Informal Lightning Series on Digital Culture, organised by members and friends of the National Digital Forum. It was a good evening (disrupted only by repeated fire alarm tests in the building), with a lot of crossover and agreement across all the talks. My talk’s original title was ‘The Long and the Short of it: a future for Te Ara and NZHistory’.


I have to start with a confession and that’s that I came up with the title for this talk in a hurry and before thinking about what I’d talk about. I’m quite happy with the first bit, ‘The long and the short of it’, but I’m not sure about the subtitle even with the rider that it’s only ‘a’ future. Instead I’ll talk about this: Some Things to Talk About When Thinking About the Future of Te Ara and NZHistory.

Long and short

Te Ara is the online encyclopedia of New Zealand – a landmark born digital encyclopedia that’s been drawn together over the last 10 years. NZHistory is its slightly older sibling, or perhaps rotten uncle. Together they’re some of the most heavily used websites in the cultural and heritage sector.

Someone asked me last week what the difference between them is. In reply I drew them a picture a bit like this one.

Te Ara and NZ History content

In some ways they’re very similar – they cover New Zealand’s culture and history in its many forms.

But Te Ara is incredibly broad. It covers the full range of New Zealand subjects, from politics, social history, Maori culture, natural history, creativity, and more.

NZHistory – as the name suggests – focuses more on history: political, cultural, and a lot of coverage of war history.

Typically Te Ara entries are highly structured and relatively short. NZHistory on the other hand is almost anarchic and has the freedom to cover subjects in more depth. It’s a gross generalisation but one that’s useful to point to the complementary nature of short and long content. Depending on our users level of interest it allows us to serve up the right amount of content for them.

That’s one thing to think about: short and long content is complementary.

Content development

I said it’s a generalisation – both sites have content that doesn’t conform to such an easy statement. One of the things that NZHistory does for example, are tiny but useful pieces of content that sit on top of the deep content and act as hooks to draw people into deeper content.


It’s something I think we need to do a lot more of, while bearing in mind that it’s probably a huge task – literally summarising all our content. But it has interesting spin-off uses. For one thing it’s more mobile friendly for users looking for a quick answer or fact. And as Virginia Gow pointed out, it’s also far more useful for sharing and posting to social media by us and our users.

At the other end of the scale we’ve got all these gaps in our long content. There’s a huge potential here for us to develop content that fills these gaps or work with other groups to do so. It could even be the content exists and we just need to look at mechanisms for connecting it up.

Nuggets and data

I heard the scientist Hamish Campbell talk recently about the ebook he released with Bridget Williams Books BWBText series. As books they’re short, but they’re decent length essays that Hamish Campbell felt gave him the space to develop an argument in a way that newspaper or magazine publishing doesn’t.

That’s a format I’d like to see explored on our websites – not so much ebooks but more indepth content that responds to contemporary issues and draws on the breadth of our content. That establishes a cycle between short an long content: short content provides a foundation to build arguments which in turn establish new facts that inform the foundation.

That’s the second thing: short and long content inform and develop each other.

A couple of other quickish things to mention…

Project calabash

Something I talked about at NDF last year was a small pilot project that we’re working on with Te Papa to create better links between Te Ara and Collections Online. We’re still working through it but at its simplest form it links images of Te Papa objects that appear on Te Ara to the record for the object on Collections Online and vice versa. Basically it means people can get more information about the object through a simple hyperlink.

Two calabashes

It’s a hardwired connection between two sites. Once we get it working with Te Papa we’ll extend it to other collections. At that point we start making connections not just between two sites but by association across the network – where our stories use objects and items from different collections, we effectively create a network of subject based links between collections.

That’s the third thing: stories link objects into a wider context.

Dynamic connections

We’re currently redesigning NZHistory. That’s how it started out anyway, but then our lead designer and NZHistory’s product manager got to talking behind our developers’ backs and decided to redevelop it at the same time.

Where they’re going with it is to add a new navigation that’s driven off keywords, with the keywords broken down into People, Places, Events and Subjects. We’re using the keywords to generate what we’re calling dynamic pages – effectively pulling together all the content from across NZHistory that has that keyword and the displaying it in the same sorts of content groupings.

David Lange on the new NZHistory

Here’s mockup based on a People keyword, so it’s got a hero image and story – the biography – as well as related media items, events, and articles. I think this is exciting, but it’s only the start – next we’ll look at pulling in Te Ara content and use DigitalNZ to pull in content from other websites.

At this point it really starts to become a model that the digital heritage sector can experiment with as well – pulling content from multiple sources that fits a particular interest. This is just a New Zealand history take on it, but the possibilities for combining content around different subjects are endless.

That’s my last thing: dynamic connections will unlock the digital heritage sector’s collective potential.

A future?

I’ve failed to present a future, but I think these ideas point in the right direction. I’ve drifted away from the original idea of the Long and the Short of it, but it’s content in its many forms that we do well and that we contribute to the sector.

Recognising our internal strengths and playing to them while seeing how and where we can fit into the wider sector – providing context, providing links – and collaborating with the sector to help all our users create their own stories and collections has to be something to which we should aspire.

Your item is my story; my story is your item

This the text, more or less, of the talk I gave at NDF2013. It’s draws heavily on earlier posts, especially Project calabash and the pompously titled Open letter to cultural collecting organisations.

I was tempted not to give this talk after seeing Chris McDowall‘s talk on cross-walking collections, but in a way it supports that idea and also plays a bit with what Ed Summers had to say about small data and collections needing to be ‘regions of stability’ in his keynote talk, The web as a preservation medium. And more on that from Michael Lascarides in his talk and this pertinent tweet:

But I gave the talk anyway and this is what I said…


I have to preface this talk by saying that I’ll be talking about one very simple idea – linking a couple of sites to each other – and some more complicated ideas. They’re not really fully formed and aren’t really mine.

But they’re ideas that are floating around – what Virginia Gow refers to as shared ideas, or just ideas whose time has come and that we’re all kind of thinking about. And they’re not ideas I have solutions for, but they seem like problems that are staring us in the face and we should try to solve them.

The Web Team at the Ministry for Culture and Heritage (MCH) looks after all the Ministry’s websites, including our two largest sites, Te Ara – the encyclopedia of New Zealand, and NZ History – New Zealand History Online.

Unlike a lot of the organisations involved with NDF, MCH isn’t a collecting institution. We write text, a lot of it, both in print and online. Te Ara has maybe 3.5 million words; NZ History at least another million.

Where we intersect with collecting institutions is in the thousands of images that illustrate our stories.

Google image site search on Te Ara for 'Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa'

We’re probably one of the country’s biggest collection users – Te Ara has 25 to 30000 resources, most from collecting institutions; NZ History has maybe 4 or 5000.

When it comes to collections items, like this gourd, or calabash, or hue from Te Papa, our sites explain their significance and place them in the context of stories that demonstrate their relevance to other items.

I’ll come back to that idea of relevance later, but for now I want to talk about a very simple linking project that we’re working on with Te Papa.

We source images and other media from institutions like Te Papa. Most of these items are available on Te Papa’s website. What we’re doing isn’t rocket science: we’ll be providing links between the two sites based on the item. So if you see it on Te Papa’s site you can go and read more on Te Ara, and if you’re on Te Ara you can find the original version on Te Papa’s site.

Before I get to why we’re doing this, I should say why are we using Te Papa as a test case.

A big part of it is down to people, and I have to name check Adrian Kingston for coming up with this idea, and seeing this as something that was possible, relatively easy, and worth the effort.

Partly it’s also the synergy between what the two organisations and our websites do: we both take a national view, and in the case of Te Ara, we also take an encyclopedic view and try to cover all aspects of New Zealand culture and history in much the same way that Te Papa’s collections span history, culture, natural sciences and so on.

It’s also partly that the number of Te Papa images used on Te Ara is relatively small, about 500, so we’ve got a manageable set to work with manually. And Te Papa uses persistent identifiers for items on Collections Online. We can’t do this without persistent IDs that will be there forever.

The process is currently manual. It’s basically a spreadsheet of Te Papa images and where they appear on Te Ara. Te Papa staff are going through the spreadsheet and identifying the corresponding IDs and URLs.

With 500 items that’s not a major hassle, but at some point I hope we’re going to have to think about how to scale is beyond 500 images and automate. It’s a pilot so maybe we’ll never have to ask that question, but I’d love to be applying this to some of the larger collections we use like the several thousand images from the Alexander Turnbull Library.

Two calabashes

So we’re basically making item-to-item links. Well so what? You can look at this image on Te Ara or you can look at it on Te Papa. Surely if you’ve seen one image you’ve seen them all. But not quite.

Hue on Te Ara

What you’re getting from Te Ara is information on the item’s significance. It’s in the story on traditional M?ori warfare; it illustrates the page about preparations and entering into battle; and  from the caption you learn about its use in this context. Te Ara provides the context that signals why this item is important.

Taha huahua from Te Papa

From Te Papa on the other hand you can find out that it’s also called a taha huahua, or calabash, it’s made of harakeke, muka, gourd, dye and was purchased in 1905. You can see the collection it belongs to and what it was influenced by. And all those underlined words link to more items that share those classifications.

So what we’re doing is helping people find the information that’s relevant to them. If they’re interested in the story behind something, get it in one place; if they’re interested in the detail about it, get it from another. What you get in each place is what’s most relevant to where you are but you can easily find other information if that’s what you’re interested in.

I just want to mention a couple of other examples that probably bring this into sharper relief.

Abel Tasman

This is Abel Tasman. Eric Ketelaar from the University of Amsterdam spoke earlier this year at the GLAM symposium held at Victoria University. I’m hazy on the details but he was talking about the many copies of Tasman’s journals that exist around the world.

Some  exist as simple scans; others as transcripts of the Dutch; others as translations. Duplication isn’t the issue; as archivists tell us, lots of copies keep stuff safe. The issue is that none of these copies are linked to the others.

The copy you happen to stumble across directly affects your experience and ability to use the materials.

If you can’t read long-hand the scans are no good to you; if you can’t read Dutch, the transcripts won’t help; if you can’t read English, you might be better off with the Dutch. It wouldn’t be hard to link them together – they’re on the web so it’s just hyperlinks that are needed – so if you find one copy you can get to the copy that works for you.

H series

Another example is images like this one from what’s called the H series – a collection of World War One photographss commissioned by the New Zealand government and taken by Henry Armytage Sanders. The Alexander Turnbull Library holds the original glass plate negatives and copies are held by other organisations around the country.

Auckland Museum for example has copies in photo albums, and that points to story of how the images were originally used. They were put into albums with captions, and the albums were distributed around the country so that soldiers and their families could order prints. This is why they’re all numbered so people knew which photo to order.

Again linking the originals to the albums gives people the chance to experience and use the images in different ways. If you want a hi-res copy, the best place to go is the Turnbull; if you want to experience what it was like for a nation to see what the war had been like in page after page of photos, you can view the albums. Making that simple link makes those things possible.

Back to Te Ara and the relevance of items to other items. I’ve written a bit over the last few years about the way that something like Te Ara – but any publication really that uses collection items – is kind of like the meat in the sandwich between collections. Where a publication uses items from different collections it’s effectively creating an inferred relationship between the items and the collections.

I keep coming back to the calabash. Its many names are part of the complexity, as are its many uses. As we’ve seen, it illustrates the story about traditional M?ori warfare, but it also illustrates the story about rongoa, or the  medicinal use of plants.

Another hue from Te Ara

Within that story it’s suggesting relationships with items as diverse as other plants to an engraving of a M?ori warrior, a Lindauer portrait of the tohunga, T?hoto Ariki, and a cartoon of M?ui.

Hue and friends

Through that one story we have inferred relationships forming between Te Papa, Turnbull, Auckland Art Gallery, the Department for Conservation and Godwit Publishing.

Inferred relationships

Some of these links even start to get a little playful, in the way that Cath Styles talked about in her game Sembl last year, where you let your user make the connections between items.

Collecting on Te Ara

Just to get a little meta about it, Te Ara’s story on collecting brings together a really wonderful assortment of subjects from Turnbull himself and his book plates to firearms and Barbie dolls. It starts to coalesce around a subject that an institution might not think of, but once it’s in a user’s hands, those connections start to form.


Where else can we go with this? At a simple level item-to-item linking opens up a few options. We can potentially share our content more easily with other organisations if they want it – that saves them the effort of writing new content about their items.

We can also use it as a hook to update copyright or other information when the institution changes their record. Or we could look at pulling their descriptions of items in as alt text for screen readers to use.

We’re also interested in sharing our content with third parties to build new publications, websites or apps. Currently we can only share the text as that’s our copyright, but if we have a direct link to an item, then it’s easier for a third party to find sources of images and be able to negotiate re-use rights directly with the holding institution. Services like Digital NZ could also use the information and map our stories to institution records and expose those relationships through their API.

But more than all that, we could as Adrian Kingston suggests start to use the items to catalogue the stories they illustrate.

Te Ara subjects are at a very high level – the story title and page title is in effect the main subject. That’s fair enough, it’s an encyclopedia after all, so the title is a headword, and a headword by default is a subject. But what if we used the items to infer more specific subjects that the story might relate to?

From that we might see that the story about M?ori warfare and this image of a taiaha…

Taiaha on Te Ara

…is also a story about woodcarving and the use of materials like feathers, dog hair and flax in M?ori society through Te Papa’s catalogue record.

Taiaha kura from Te Papa

And through that connection is related to thousands of items in their collection. Not all the Te Papa subjects will be directly relevant to Ta Ara’s story, but by being able to choose which ones are, we can make direct links from a story to a much larger pool of related items on Te Papa’s site.

And where this starts to head is towards an idea that Virginia Gow threw at me recently which picks up on some work in the Netherlands. The National History Museum there joined up with some other websites and created what’s basically a trusted network of sites. When one site links to another site in the network, the links gets reciprocated automatically. It’s the sort of thing you could start letting your users do for you.

It shouldn’t be impossible. It’s the kind of thing Facebook does when it lets you tag someone in a post or photo, or that WordPress does when you allow pingbacks to a blog post. What they’re doing is building a system that’s aware of the network it’s part of and letting users take advantage of the network.

Simply linking items to items is going to take some work, and it’s obvious we’ll need to work out ways of doing it automatically when we look at a set larger than the Te Ara Te Papa set. Could we let our users do it? Could we just start sharing our data with each other in such a way that machines can start making the matches for us?

It plays into the work that Chris McDowall demoed yesterday – making matches across collections based on people. That sort of thing can be done automatically, by the right person with the right tools. All we need to do is let people like Chris use our websites and collections and see what they can do.

People are easy – ish; so are places, and even some events. They’re hooks that can connect our websites, and connect our content. Subjects and classifications are potentially no different. A little more ambiguous at times but not impossible.


Historical accidents

One of the things you notice when you look at collections is they’re never as comprehensive as you’d hope. They’re riddled with historical accidents. No institution has everything related to a subject or person or place. Or think of the Treaty of Waitangi – held by Archives New Zealand, soon to be housed in the building of the National Library, but arguably as relevant to Te Papa’s collection.

Look at any significant artist and see how their works are scattered across museums and galleries around the country (if not the world).

That’s history – different things get picked up by different institutions at different times, and we can’t change it. But for the user it’s infuriating. Why can’t I see all of someone’s work in one place? Or everything on a particular event all together?

National stories

The beauty of linking all our content together is that it creates a layer of meaning and use that sits above individual collections. It lets us all play to our strengths. Organisations can maintain their own web presence that talks to their mission, their collection, and their community, but it lets a much wider community tell their own stories that cross-walk all the separate institutions and collections. Through that we and our users could create truly national stories using all the different parts held in different institutions around the country.

That’s taken us away from the simple idea of linking items to items. That network is hard but we need to do it. At the same time, let’s not forget about doing the simple stuff. If there’s stuff you can connect your collection items to, just do that. It’s a start, and if it gives more use and meaning to your users then you’re doing something right.

But keep the hard stuff in mind – agitate for it, remind people why it’s worth doing, do it if you can and share the results with as much of the network as possible. That way we build a richer digital ecosystem for developers and our users.

Remarks not made

We’ve just come to the end of the National Digital Forum‘s annual conference, NDF2013. I’m on the board for NDF and organised this year’s conference. It was a true privilege; I wasn’t alone and worked with some wonderful and deeply committed people (you all know who you are I hope) and had the delight to meet four wonderful keynote speakers from the US, UK and the Netherlands, and a whole host of speakers and attendees from New Zealand and Australia.

At the start of the conference I had planned to offer up a few things that have buzzed around my head over the last however-many months. Running out of time, I left it all out, but here’s what I would have said. Short and I hope to the point.


It feels a bit like we’re close to a tipping point. Maybe it’s that there are now enough people doing enough work in the digital area, and digital is now so infused in how society operates, that we’re on the cusp of real change.

I’m thinking of work like Te Papa’s recent commitment to make 10,000 images available for free download and re-use this fiscal. Sure, some will say 10,000 is a drop in the bucket when you think abuot a collection like Te Papa’s, let alone the combined collections of all New Zealand collecting institutions.

But it’s a start, and a hugely significant start at that. So big ups to them.

Who’s going to follow? Who isn’t? Or are we on the verge of the great openness wars of the 21st century where institutions vie to release more open content than other institutions?

There has to be a point to all this, and to my mind the point is simple: we’re here to make people’s lives better, now and in the future. We have to be thinking of people – our users – in every decision we make. We’re here to enrich their experiences, give them stronger and deeper experiences with their culture, their communities, their stories and their histories.

As anyone who’s tried will tell you, measuring the value of our work is fraught with difficulties. Simon Tanner will address that with greater insight than me later this morning, but I’d like to share this quote.

It’s from Ganesh Nana’s chapter in Max Rashbrooke’s book, Inequality: A New Zealand crisis:

…it is difficult to escape the conclusion that much of our decision-making remains driven by narrow financial analysis based on monetary measure of benefits and costs.

It’s on us as a sector to take on that kind of thinking and argue for a much broader concept of value. We need to argue for – if not fight for – a definition that includes the worth of our work and its contribution to cultural and social well-being. And beyond that we need to take seriously the contribution our work makes to a more equitable society.

There are perhaps times when we all question why we work in this sector, rather than chase money in the private sector or follow a more lucrative career. But our work has an effect, a direct effect on people – user and communities, groups who put their trust in us to guard and protect their taonga, people who draw on us for education, inspiration and a sense of belonging.

We serve our communities and we believe that serving them improves their lives. That’s why we do what we do.


As I said, it was a wonderful conference and many of the speakers said much more on some of the ideas above than I could ever hope to. My deepest thanks to all who contributed so much.

Digital publishing in a cultural world

The following are notes for a talk at the Auckland NDF barcamp, 10 July 2013


When Bruce asked me to come and be the guest today, we were pretty vague about what I should do. In the end we agreed I should talk about the things that are on my mind at the moment. That’s mainly about publishing – that’s what I do – but it’s also about working with collecting organisations and looking for ways the cultural sector can be working together.

So a bit about me and the Ministry for Culture and Heritage. I manage the ministry’s Web Team. I’m also on the NDF board and am involved in organising their conferences. I’m not a collections person – 1 year at NLNZ – but working life mainly spent in publishing.

MCH does a broad range of work in the cultural sector. It provides policy advice on arts, culture, heritage, sport and broadcasting to government, It monitors and oversees funding to agencies like radio NZ, NZ On Air, Te Papa and others. It manages significant heritage sites and oversees the Protected Objects Act and national emblems. It’s also a major publisher of both printed and digital publications.

I’m involved in the digital publications, notably sites like Te Ara and NZ History – our big two sites – attracting 600 to 700k visits a month. We also run smaller community based sites like Vietnam Oral History Project and the 28 Maori Battalion sites, and have recently helped release the WW100 website that’s part of a project working across the sector to encourage collaboration around the 100th anniversary commemorations of WW1.

MCH as a collection user

Like me, MCH doesn’t have a background in collecting, it isn’t primarily a collecting institution. We write stories and produce a lot of text content, but we illustrate those stories with images and media from collecting institutions. Try this on Google Image Search: “site:teara.govt.nz auckland city libraries

We’re probably one of the country’s biggest collection users – Te Ara has 25 to 30000 resources, most from collecting institutions; NZ History has maybe 4 or 5000. As a user we’re interested in openness and ease of access and re-use – the more open collections become the easier our job is for sourcing content. But we’re mindful that it’s not as easy for collecting institutions though, but maybe we’ll talk more on that later in the day.

Multi channel publishing

As well as the websites, we’ve been experimenting in the last few years with multi channel publishing. Creating different formats of the same content in different places.

  • Roadside Stories is a good example: audio plus images, create video, publish in places like iTunes, YouTube, as an app.
  • ebooks are a new example – taking existing content and repackaging it into a new format so people can experience in a different way.

In some ways it’s picking up on COPE strategies, the idea that you create content once and publish everywhere. It’s a good idea – better systems, less duplication, updating and accuracy across all the places your content goes.

Finding the right channel for users

I find myself questioning the ‘Everywhere’ in COPE and what everywhere really means for different institutions. The web has opened up a huge number of channels to reach your users, or potential users, or at least that’s what we think.

In a fairly short period of time we’ve gone from bricks and mortar – or books in MCH’s case – to developing our own websites and on to social media and now apps. It’s caused its own chaos for many institutions who are trying to run multiple social media accounts on countless websites. At MCH we have about 20 uncoordinated accounts on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, iTunes, LinkedIn, and more I can’t remember.

So a question for us all: Are we doing it because we genuinely have users or potential users on all those websites, or is it just because we can or feel we should?

Finding the right format for your content

Something else I’ve thought of recently is the importance of finding the right format for your content.

For Roadside Stories our most successful channel has been YouTube – 120,000 views in 18 months or so. Not bad but far less than our websites, so perhaps not great. I think it’s symptomatic of a failure in that format for us.

Back to what we do really well – tell stories and write text. Without a lot of resource that doesn’t easily translate to moving images for YouTube. Other than our oral history work, creating video and audio content is a whole world that we don’t know a lot about or have the time to develop.

ebooks on the other hand suit our content far more easily and readily. We’ve got the text and with a some illustrations we can produce ebooks ad infinitum. So far they’ve proved popular with minimal promotion – about 1000 downloads in a month of content that’s already freely available.

So I’m interested in this idea of how we find the right channels and formats for our content. Others are doing it – Radio NZ has lots of audio, so they produce podcasts; National Library’s used Flickr’s cultural commons for sharing out of copyright images.

Maybe we can come back to that later in the day and talk about identifying relevant channels and formats for collecting institutions?

Building a system v just doing it

Another concern I have with COPE is organisational capacity. MCH is pretty poor at managing its content. I hope that will change, but in the meantime if we want to follow a multi channel publishing strategy it has to be on a just do it philosophy. We won’t do anything if we wait for the big system.

I don’t think that matters too much. We need to keep the many formats in mind as and when we start to develop a new system, but for now they let us experiment and explore the technology and get a better understanding of the outputs we need a system to support.

Digital content strategy

With that in mind I’m starting to push the idea that we need a comprehensive digital content strategy. Currently our websites are siloed – Te Ara has a content strategy, as does NZ History. We even have a print publishing content strategy and one for the oral history programme.

We need to look at all content and see it as a collection rather than siloed websites. Seeing our content as an asset that needs management as a whole. More than that, it’s a taxpayer funded asset and it’s incumbent on us to manage that asset on behalf of taxpayers. In that sense we’re no different to publicly funded collecting institutions in that we’re stewards of something that doesn’t belong to us.

We’re also trying to think beyond websites – that’s where Roadside Stories and ebooks fit; yes you can view is on our websites but you can also see it other places – you don’t need to come to us. At the moment they’re kind of content tasters – little tastes of our content that promote our brand and the bigger pool of content we have.

But that’s still website centric – here’s what we have, how about you come and visit our sites to see more.

One of the big questions for us, and going back to the idea that this content is an asset – what if we stopped thinking about websites at all and started thinking about a database of content that gets used and distributed by other people – on websites, apps, databases, ebooks, whatever other people want to create? What are the threats in doing that versus the benefits?

Filling the gaps

But back to managing that asset… With Te Ara, we attempt to be comprehensive across all subjects but at a relatively easy to understand level. It’s medium content. NZ History on the other hand is more selective in what it covers and goes deep. They’re very complementary – people can chose the view the level of content that suits them.

But they’re separate websites so people can’t really make that choice, and we can’t properly manage the content across the two sites – we can’t identify gaps in coverage, we can’t easily ensure they don’t contradict each other, and we can’t easily update content on the same topic that appears on both sites. Nor can we see any content overlaps.

That’s probably our biggest challenges – how to bring them together, at least at a management level if not a user interaction level as well.

Why are we doing it?

We have to constantly ask why we’re doing this. Why does the government invest money in publishing? There’s clear demand from users, and as our stats follow to a large extent the school year, we’re clearly important to education users. But could a commercial publisher do the same job? Probably not, is our view – there’s a market failure at that level that requires government intervention. But intervention for what?

The Ministry’s mantra is that it works “to enrich the lives of all New Zealanders by supporting our dynamic culture and preserving our heritage.” For us that means answering as many questions as we can that users ask about our culture and history. We need to be about answering questions that people ask.

There’s something else here about how we answer questions in a digital world that is increasingly looking for fast answers. Most people don’t ask us; they ask Google. If we’re lucky Google sends them to us, which increasingly it does – currently provides about two-thirds of our traffic.

We’re also contending with rising mobile traffic – people on small screens wanting short information. Responsive design for mobile is on everyone’s minds, but I wonder if what we need is responsive content, tailored to provide the short pithy content that works well on mobile, in search results, in a tweet or facebook post.

We have a lot of that content already, but we don’t have the mechanism to mark it up and share it easily. If we did, again, it would provide those little tastes of our content that might lead users back to a fuller experience of the deeper content we’ve got.

Digital first

I put together a paper recently at MCH about a digital publishing strategy. It talked about that idea of making our content more responsive. Unfortunately I coined the terms ‘nuggets’ to describe the very short content, which was quickly turned into McNuggets. But that aside, it’s one of the areas we need to include in a content development plan. Short stuff that grabs users on Google or in their mobile devices and brings them through to us.

The major idea I pushed is that we need to be digital first. Our digital publishing is what reaches our largest audience and helps us answer more questions than any other format. To my mind it’s a no brainer that we prioritise digital over any other output, but it didn’t sit so well with the many historians at the Ministry who write history books.

It did provoke a good discussion of what’s happening in publishing at the moment as print publishers struggle to grasp what it meant.

For the writers they see the output as a driver of research and that typically means conceptualising their work as a book. A book gives edges and form to the way they conduct their research. The publishing process itself helps makes decisions – a new pitch for a book includes an outline of the book’s argument, it’s parts and chapters, all of which help the researcher structure their research.

So there’s a tension there. It’s a tension that isn’t helped yet by the web and its early attempts at long form reading. People will read short and medium length articles but I think there’s still resistance to reading something more like a chapter from a book, let alone a whole book.

People still want to read. In a survey we ran earlier this year, most of our users asked for more in-depth articles and text content over other types of content.

We seeing some interesting attempts at long form reading on the web. The NY Times Snowfall feature and the This Land interactive, and the Guardian’s interactive Firestorm are good examples. What Snowfall gets right is the priority it gives to reading over other content. Visual and audio content is provided, but it’s quietly placed.

Does digital matter?

I was going to ask at some point whether digital matters? It’s a topic that comes up at NDF regularly – what’s the line between the work that institutions do in the digital and physical space. It’s a probably a question that more relevant to those of you working in physical organisations. Is it to increase visitors? increase knowledge? other?

For us it’s definitely about increasing knowledge and as I’ve said, to my mind, digital offers us the biggest reach to do that. But this is where I flip-flop as there’ll always be something about print, not just the fact that hundreds of years of book publishing has honed the rules of readability and comprehension, but also the love people have of the book as object.

There’s always going to be a role for books as object, but increasingly they’ll be objects of desire, or even fetish. Digital will feed that – it’s the content that succeeds digitally that can stand the investment of print. Or that’s my view, a commercial publisher may well disagree.

But I want to find out how we break out of seeing the book as the driver of in-depth research and find a mechanism where deep research can be inspired by web. It feels like we’re just on the cusp of working out what that mechanism is.

Digital ecosystem

I was going to talk about open collections at this point, but I think that’s potentially a topic that warrants its own session later. I don’t have a collection so I’m not the best person to talk about it.

But a segue from that, I talked at last year’s NDF in my opening remarks about how we’re all part of a digital ecosystem. Together we form a huge collection of interlinked content and items that are all better for being part of a whole. It’s kind of where the LODLAM proponents are heading – if we link all our data it becomes that much more useful.

I don’t fully understand the hows of LOD but I want to jump to a conversation about a distributed national encyclopedia. What would or could that look like?

We’ve got all this content, and it’s content that provides context to your collection items. And there are new websites popping up all the time doing similar work. Typically though we only use one collection item to illustrate the story; why not be able to all the calabashes that Te Papa holds when someone’s reading about calabashes on Te Ara. And if they’re looking at Te Papa’s calabashes why not provide the context and information about calabashes from Te Ara?

Why do I need to go to Te Ara to read about natural history, NZ History to read about war, NZ On Screen or Audioculture to learn about popular culture, or Digital NZ to view collection items?

Why aren’t we all just contributing to one thing? If that ecosystem was brought together and we all found our niche and started contributing all our content into one system, wouldn’t that be serving all our users better than siloed websites?


So that’s I guess my pitch. There’s a big move toward open collections, and the LODLAM types are on our heels. how do we make sense of that, make it work for the sector, and mostly, make it work for all our users?

Open letter to cultural collecting organisations

Last week I spent two days at the NDF conference in Wellington. This is the lightning talk I wish I’d thought to give.

I work on web projects at the Ministry for Culture and Heritage.* We run some wonderful websites, sites like Te Ara, NZHistory, Vietnam War, 28th Maori Battalion, and others. They’re popular, especially the first two. Te Ara gets about a quarter of a million visits a month, NZHistory a bit under 200k. That’s not bad for government websites, in fact, it’s pretty bloody good.

There are a couple of really obvious things going on on our sites, and neither are unique. I won’t ask you to guess. The first…

1. Text

There’s a lot of it. It’s one of the main things our area of the Ministry does. We research, write and edit text, whether for books or the web. Text is something we’ve been doing since our origins in the historical branch of Department of Internal Affairs in the 1930s.

I’’ll come back to the second thing that’s happening soon, but first take a look at this:

It’s the Creative Commons licence from Te Ara. A similar one appears on NZHistory. It’s a complicated statement that attempts to say “you’re welcome to use the text – non-commercially – and some of the images”. Which leads me nicely along to the second thing happening on the site.

2. Images (etc)

Our sites use a ton of images, like the one above from Auckland City Libraries – T?maki P?taka K?rero (Reference: NZ Map 2664), video and audio files, interactives and diagrams. Images are the biggest group. We own some of them, maybe 10%, maybe as little as 5%. The vast majority of them, and this goes for video and audio too, come from organizations like National Library, the Turnbull, Archives NZ, museums, galleries and other organizations up and down the country.

To get a sense of how many images we use from big collecting institutions, try a Google image search of Te Ara for Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, Auckland War Memorial Museum, or the Alexander Turnbull Library.

Whats my point?

There was a lot of talk at NDF about the need for narrative around organizations’ collections, ways to connect the dots for users, as well as finding new ways to present collections, making interaction more about giving rather than expecting the user to ask for something. And that’s pretty much what we do – our text is the context for all the collection content that we re-use. Our content is context for that content.

Back to that creative commons license and what it’s effectively saying. As a user of our websites you can use our text for non-commercial purposes like research, study, mixing and mashing, etc. If you want to use it commercially, get in touch and we can talk. Of the images, where we own them you can use those as well. Our view is simple: New Zealand taxpayers funded the creation of this content and continue to fund the websites. It was created with the public good in mind, and sharing it widely contributes to that public good.

So what about the bulk of the images and other media files on the sites, can you use them too? No. They’re not ours and we can’t share them. You can use their captions – they’re ours – but sorry, not the pictures themselves.

The pitch

So here’s my pitch to the holders of our cultural collections: how can we work together to share our text and your images? How can we build on the narrative that Te Ara and NZHistory provide about your collections? How do we collaborate to make shared content and narratives available for re-use? And what could we do with that shared pool of content ourselves?

These seem like obvious questions to answer. Like our content, your collections are paid for and maintained by the taxpayers of New Zealand, and it’s on you to share and make this content available. Surely it would help your organization if you could easily find and re-use descriptions about your collection items? Or how about shared application like the beautiful Biblion iPad app from New York Public Library?

Like someone said at the conference, it’s just programming. This stuff should be easy. We’ve found the images, written about them, created a narrative, all we need now is permission and willingness.

* Full disclosure: as well as working at the Ministry, I’m also joining the NDF Board for 2012 and 2013. The views expressed here are mine and not necessarily those of the Ministry or the NDF Board.