Special Issue on Information Access to Cultural Heritage

Martha Larson
Delft University of Technology

Kate Fernie
Kate Fernie Consulting

Johan Oomen
Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam
& Netherlands Institute for Sound and Vision


This special issue grew out of the Workshop on Information Access to Cultural Heritage, which was held in conjunction with the European Conference on Digital Libraries (ECDL) in Aarhus, Denmark in late 2008. The workshop brought together researchers in the area of information access technology and practitioners working in the cultural heritage field to consider the new ways in which technological developments can promote and support access to cultural heritage content.

All activities in museums, archives and libraries are targeted towards providing meaningful access to their collections. Access is ultimately the driving force behind investments in conserving, digitizing, labeling and distributing heritage.

The Web has made it easy to make digitized objects from heritage collections available. Users and institutions are beginning to inhabit the same, shared information space. This is an exciting prospect, as we are now witnessing new paradigms for engaging with our shared heritage. 'Netizens' are using technological advances, offered by cultural heritage institutions, publishers and other commercial entities, as well as objects from a great variety of sources to shape this information space. With these new techniques, new knowledge is being built on top of existing knowledge.

Such a potentially vast knowledge exchange can flourish if certain preconditions are in place. Seb Chan, Head of Digital, Social & Emerging Technologies at the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney recently listed five 'rules' for museum content. Their applicability clearly extends to the broader cultural heritage domain:

  1. Discoverable – it is where I am and where I look for it.
  2. Meaningful – I can understand it.
  3. Responsive – to my interests, moods, location.
  4. Useable/Shareable – I can pass it on and share.
  5. Available in all three locations – online, onsite and offsite.

Lists like these clearly demonstrate the pivotal role of information technology in allowing users to engage with content actively. The new paradigms imply, in many cases, the need for profound change in institutional practice. Such considerations formed the backdrop of the original IACH workshop. A subsequent call for papers was greeted with great enthusiasm from researchers in these areas and resulted in a healthy number of submissions.

This special issue features seven papers jointly covering a broad spectrum of interrelated topics. The papers can be clustered into four topical categories:

Indexing spoken heritage collections

The paper entitled Towards Affordable Disclosure of Spoken Heritage Archives discusses ongoing work aiming at affordable disclosure of real-world spoken word archives using automatic annotation produced by speech recognition technology. The authors describe how to provide search on such archives and flexible ways of presenting search results.

Next, the paper Advanced Information Access to Parliamentary Debates shows how proceedings in PDF format can be transformed into deeply nested XML. The author also describes five applications scenarios that exploit the availability of this data in XML format.

User-centered system design

In User needs in television archive access: Acquiring knowledge necessary for system design a methodical approach is presented for generating thorough knowledge about users as essential information for designing and constructing digital information access. The approach is illustrated with an explorative study of information need characteristics in a television broadcast context.

Distributed architectures

The paper, Toward Semantic Digital Libraries: Exploiting Web 2.0 and Semantic Services in Cultural Heritage proposes a service oriented architecture for managing information in digital libraries. The authors describe approaches implemented in the PIRATES framework which enable archivists and end-users to tag content using information extraction tools to suggest tags, thus building a structured domain knowledge base. The lessons learned in implementing the framework in the e-Dvara digital library to offer adaptive and personalized services are described.

Creation and use of semantic representations

Three papers explicitly deal with improving metadata management by using web standards. Metadata and Semantics in Digital Object Collections starts with a discussion of the Resource Description Framework (RDF) and the Web Ontology Language (OWL), semantic web technologies that will play major roles in future digital libraries. The paper examines how two well-established metadata frameworks (the CIDOC-CRM and DC) can be translated into OWL and shows how applications can benefit from such a transition.

In the cultural heritage world the data in question is very often a mixture of structured database fields and related textual documents. In Putting Hybrid Cultural Data on the Semantic Web, the author describes how relational databases and associated natural language text can be transformed to RDF, describing the so-called txt2rdf process.

Lastly, Extending Domain-Specific Resources to Enable Semantic Access to Cultural Heritage Data describes how focused crawling and automatic information extraction technologies can be applied to semi-structured information sources to expand domain resources, enabling cross-referencing of collections and thus improving visibility and end-user information access. The authors present a case study describing how ULAN's coverage of artists and their semantic properties was extended using information extraction techniques, the issues involved and the use of this domain resource in the semantic annotation of collections to improve visibility of artists' information in Tate Online.

The special issue editors would like to acknowledge the EU-funded project MultiMatch: Multilingual/Multimedia Access To Cultural Heritage, which sponsored the original IACH workshop at ECDL 2008. As a final note, we would like to express our warm gratitude to the authors, reviewers and the members of the JoDI editorial team for sharing our interest in information access to cultural heritage and for making this special issue possible.