Eye. Meet beholder.

I ran past the National Library at lunchtime today. It’s big, or seems big for a three-story building, and a lot of people thinks it’s big and ugly. I don’t. I’m one of its apologists, being something of a fan of the brutal in our buildings.

But something else struck me as I ran past: my three-year-old son still thinks I work there. I haven’t done for over a year now and I’ve pointed out to him the drab office block on The Terrace in which I now work. But he’s got an eye for architecture, or that’s what I tell myself, and just won’t believe that I work in a nondescript building. For him, it’s the National Library or bust.

Not that I’m advocating all cultural institutions be judged by toddlers: when I said to my dad once how I’d grown to love Te Papa since having a child to take there, he opined that that was hardly a ringing endorsement…

But there must be something in the fact that the Library sticks so firmly in the mind of a three-year-old, some kind of strength of purpose visible in the structure, and that’s worth retaining.

Image source: from the organisation record for the National Library of New Zealand — Te Puna Mātauranga o Aotearoa at the New Zealand Electronic Text Centre

Newspapers on speed

In case you haven’t heard and/or noticed, Papers Past has recently been updated with new titles and all existing titles have been fully digitised and are now searchable. What’s more, it’s also heaps (heaps I say) faster.

Included in the new titles is NZ Truth up to 1930, making it the most recent newspaper they have. Tacky as it seems, it’s one of those muck-raking papers that broke news in spite of itself. And as a muck-raker it’ll provide a rich source for social history.

The new titles are:
Ashburton Guardian
Ellesmere Guardian
Kai Tiaki: the Journal of the Nurses of New Zealand
North Otago Times
NZ Truth
Otautau Standard and Wallace County Chronicle
Oxford Observer
Poverty Bay Herald
Victoria Times
Waikato Times

There’s more information at the National Library website. A wonderful resource just got even better.

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.

Learning something new

I’ve been working at a library now for over a month, a big one too, no messing around with the local publics, this one’s national, it’s got plans and ideas that are big. So now that it’s been a month, maybe I should engage with it here for a bit.

The quick story is I’m a product manager in a newly-formed digital library; where it’s gets interesting for me is that I’m new to libraries as I’ve worked since the mid-nineties in publishing. A lot of that was in digital, online encyclopedia mainly, of long and short varieties, notably groveart and grovemusic and general reference. So I know a bit about the digital world, and the similarities between my old and new employers are certainly there to find, but so is the dissonance, and it’s the latter that really intrigues me.

A couple of good examples sprang up today.

The library had a curiously brief moment of glory when Russell Brown’s post carried links to some of our digital heritage materials. Unfortunately the link produced a failed search page. The stems from the library’s use of library cataloguing systems for publishing, a scenario that is as backward as it is inefficient. This is what he had to say about the broken link:

Oh, and I’ve fixed the links in the post… The URL for the results page doesn’t bring up the search results — you have to grab the search URL before it outputs. What a bad way of doing it …

Couldn’t agree more, and there’s a simple lesson that libraries could learn from publishers: you don’t create and manage content in the same system as you publish and distribute it. The processes are different and are best done by different systems. (For digital publishers the irony of the broken link will not be lost: librarians as purchasers would rightly criticise any digital subscription product that didn’t use readable, easy-to-use URLs for functions like search, just as they’d expect permanent, stable URLs for content pages. The latter is another thing library-run websites regularly fail to provide.)

In a further comment (most comments discussed copyright and creative commons, but as someone with 12 years in publishing I’m not quite up to considering copyright), Russell Brown noted that…

Archives and libraries spend forever debating what to digitise. No one seems to grasp the fact that not every decision has to be top-down, and that part of what is digitised (and, ideally, made freely available thereafter) should be things that members of the public have a use for.

It’s that last bit that’s really interesting as it points to the need for libraries to engage with this unruly mob called the public and find out what they, as users of information, want to see in a digital library. Where publishers succeed in this is that they have paying customers that demand engagement; if there’s something a customer is prepared to pay for then you can bet that a publisher somewhere is going to cotton on and come up with that something.

It’d be glib to say that that’s the market and the market knows best. Sure, the market knows what it’ll buy and the market and publishers are smart enough to know to talk to each other. But two groups talking has been known to happen without money driving the conversation. It’s that conversation – between libraries and their public – that needs to happen, and happen quick if we’re to fully engage and satisfy our users.