D-Lib Magazine
January 2002

Volume 8 Number 1

ISSN 1082-9873

Illinois Digital Cultural Heritage Community - Collaborative Interactions Among Libraries, Museums and Elementary Schools


Nuala A. Bennett
Visiting Special Projects Librarian
Digital Imaging and Media Technology Initiative
University of Illinois Library at Urbana-Champaign

Beth Sandore
Associate University Librarian for Information Technology Policy and Planning
University of Illinois Library at Urbana-Champaign

Evangeline S. Pianfetti
Associate Director, Office of Education Technology
College of Education
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Red Line



This paper describes how face-to-face and online collaboration enabled diverse institutions to achieve the most salient goals of the Digital Cultural Heritage Community project. The primary purpose of the project was to create an online database that housed digitized materials from museums and libraries for use by elementary school teachers in their classrooms. Section 1 is an introduction that provides background information about the project. The Dublin Core (DC) metadata schema was chosen for the database but required some qualifications by our partners, particularly museums. Section 2 outlines the rationale behind the DC field name choices made for the online database and describes the database framework. Section 3 lists the motivations and expectations of participating institutions and an evaluation of how well these expectations were met. The project was evaluated by analysis of Web site use statistics and focus group interviews. The results of this final evaluation are described in Section 4, together with recommendations and conclusions for future continuation of the project.


In collaboration with diverse institutions, the Digital Cultural Heritage Community project (DCHC) [1], funded by the Institute of Museum and Library Services, sought to develop, document, and disseminate both the processes and products of a Model Program of Cooperation between museums, libraries, archives and schools, thereby demonstrating how access to innovative technological resources could enhance educational programs. Through the use of digital technologies and the Internet, the primary goals of this project were to:

  • Build a model and a test electronic database of historical information collected from participating museums, libraries, and archives;
  • Establish a framework for the creation of the database;
  • Test its viability to meet the curriculum needs of teachers in upper elementary school classrooms in East Central Illinois; and
  • Test the efficacy of the electronic database as an educational resource.

This paper describes how collaboration enabled these varied institutions to achieve the final outcomes of the project. The overall goal of the project was to build and evaluate a model collaborative digital environment that would provide elementary classrooms with access to multimedia information on topics that addressed Illinois State Board of Education Learning Standards for Social Science [2].

1.1 Funding Source

The Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) provided grant funding under its Library-Museum Collaboration program. The over-riding goal of this IMLS program is to support innovative projects that model how libraries and museums can work together to expand their services to the public. The program emphasizes serving the community, using technology and enhancing education [3]. Successful projects funded under this program should provide models that can be replicated nation-wide. The DCHC project was funded for two years under the 1998 Library-Museum Collaboration program.

1.2 Project Participants

The participants in the DCHC project were located in East Central Illinois, and the project was administered by the Digital Imaging and Media Technology Initiative at the University of Illinois Library at Urbana-Champaign. At the outset of the project, museum partners included the Early American Museum [4] and the McLean County Museum of History [5]. The Illinois Heritage Association [6], which is a museum service organization, also partnered in the project. Library partners included the Lincoln Trail Libraries System [7] and the Rare Book and Special Collections Library of the University of Illinois [8]. As the project progressed, other museums and libraries took part in the project at different levels, either by attending workshops or adding data to the online database. Three elementary schools [9] also participated, with concentration on third, fourth and fifth grade classrooms.

1.3 Goals of the project

The DCHC was built on the concept of a digital community -- institutions would contribute to a database images, text, other multimedia objects and descriptive information addressing common themes. Teachers would then use the database to engage their students through more robust lesson plans. The database framework would provide museums, libraries and archives with a basis for identifying common ground among their collections, experimenting with formats, developing best practices, and determining new ways in which they would provide digital access to their materials. The project aimed to make it easy for elementary school teachers to utilize these resources, enabling incorporation of online materials into their classroom activities in meaningful ways for their students.

2. Database Framework Design

A number of factors determined the choices of themes for the images and data to be included in the database. Primary among these factors were the social sciences curricula that the teachers were using in their classrooms. From the outset, the participating third, fourth and fifth elementary grade teachers shared their social sciences curriculum units with the museum curators and librarians. The curriculum units covered topics such as "How we learn about Communities", "Celebrations and Festivals", "French in Illinois", "Government in Illinois" to "Westward Expansion" and the "Revolutionary War".

The curriculum units also incorporated a broad range of the Illinois Learning Standards for Social Sciences. The Illinois State Board of Education recommends these standards for teachers as guidelines for measuring student progress and ensuring that students are meeting statewide and national expectations. Selection of content for the database was determined based on the curriculum units, the corresponding learning standards and subsequent discussions with the museum curators, archivists and librarians. Through online discussions, the teachers became more familiar with the collections available. Additionally, the curators and librarians became much more aware of what types of artifacts and documents the teachers would find most useful in their classroom presentations.

2.1 Choice of Dublin Core Metadata Schema

The online database was set up using the Dublin Core (DC) metadata schema. Because of the diversity among partners, we chose to adapt some of the DC field names and to make the user interface simpler to understand in the long-term for our schoolteacher users. From the outset, museum curators, in particular, were concerned that the DC fields did not fully allow them to describe their materials. We subsequently broke down several DC fields into sub-fields that all participants agreed would be more appropriate for the database. For example, the Description field was broken down into four sub-fields -- Description, Interpretation, Curriculum Units and State Learning Standards. Museum curators and librarians entering data about an object into the database used these four fields to describe the artifact in the image, to interpret the artifact for the teachers, and to specifically describe which of the teachers' curriculum units and learning standards matched the artifact. In order to ensure uniformity of metadata, we designed the database using a final set of fields that we felt would cover as much of the information as possible coming from the partner institutions [10, 11]. An example of a complete record is shown in Figure 1.

Screen shot from DCHC database

Figure 1. Example of complete record from the DCHC database.

3. Participating Institutions' Expectations and Project Evaluation

The IMLS National Leadership grant program funded the DCHC project as a Model Program of Cooperation. The evaluation component of the project was designed to gather feedback on whether and how the framework of this project could serve as a model for museums, libraries and archives to use and build upon in providing widespread, authoritative, and useful access to digitized primary source materials for K-12 institutions. In this section, we synthesize the evaluative information received from our participants that addresses the success of the project as a Model Program of Cooperation, from the human, organizational, and technology perspectives.

A critical and technical prerequisite to building a model digital community was the development and testing of an experimental electronic database to which each museum and library could easily contribute information, and from which teachers and students could easily retrieve information. The structure and the content of information from museums, libraries, and archives provided the basis from which we established a framework for the database creation. A final outcome measure was our testing of the viability of the database to meet the curriculum needs of teachers in elementary school classrooms in East Central Illinois.

The database was designed with the intention that it would be both robust and extensible -- able to function fully for at least two years beyond the life of the project with minimal maintenance, and flexible enough to accommodate additional functions as well as changes to metadata formats. Variables used to evaluate the project were Web use statistics and focus group interviews with teachers and museum and library partners. These analyses suggest that the database structure and the search engine functions have succeeded in addressing the core needs of the participants. This success can be directly attributed to the constant involvement of our user group from the initial design through the final use phase of the project.

3.1 Database Framework

In using the Dublin Core metadata schema for the framework of the database, several of the fields were qualified. In particular, subject fields were qualified with sub-fields, including keywords. This scheme helped to accommodate the different vocabularies and descriptive structures used at the various partner institutions as well as to include reference to the teachers' curriculum units and the Illinois Learning Standards. In turn, these sub-fields can be easily mapped into the "Subject" field to accommodate cross-repository searching, which is now implemented on a preliminary basis using Open Archives Initiative (OAI) protocols.

Through interactions with the museums, we found that they were much more interested than libraries in the interpretation of material. They were also concerned with the provenance and usage of their materials. Although the DCHC database was designed to make digitized material accessible from the partner institution's various collections, it was not originally intended as an aid to interpreting the meaning of these artifacts for teachers. Although the original DCHC concept contained no provisions for an interpretation field, after persuasive argument from the museum participants, the database fields were modified to include a separate interpretive sub-field in the subject field. This field provided a method for adding interpretive information that is crucial in the museum community to the understanding of a specific object or document. Moreover, the interpretation of the database images helps to make history come alive for the elementary school children as well as decreases the time teachers must spend researching the historic significance of a database artifact. As a result of the DCHC project, the library community as well as the other partners understand that the significance of having an interpretive field in the database includes both ensuring proper historic documentation and appropriate integration into the curricular unit.

Finally, time was spent considering the use of controlled vocabularies at the different partner institutions. Each of the partners was encouraged to use standard vocabularies such as the Art and Architecture Thesaurus, Library of Congress Subject Headings or the Thesaurus for Graphic Materials when entering data into the database. However, our experience is that the usage of controlled vocabularies varies greatly across participating institutions. We will need to spend a considerable amount of time analyzing the data in the Subject field to see how variant it is and how we will work on developing a method of mapping the various terms used.

3.2 Motivations to Participate

In the final quarter of the project, focus group interview sessions were held for all of the project participants in order to obtain feedback on what they felt were the most salient outcomes of the project. These sessions were audiotaped and later reviewed by the project administrators. Representatives from each of the participant institutions were interviewed together in groups. Someone familiar with the project but not directly participating on a daily basis posed the questions. The participants answered the questions informally, and the questions led to much dynamic group discussion.

The teachers, museum curators and librarians were first asked to identify why they initially agreed to participate in the DCHC project. Teachers indicated that they were attracted to participate in the project because it provided an opportunity to match mandated state learning standards with classroom activities. Curators and librarians indicated that they were motivated to join the project because it provided them with the impetus to do a number of things that they considered were institutional priorities but often had been un-funded mandates, including:

  • Focusing on a community outreach project;
  • Forming new partnerships with previously un-served or under-served groups; and
  • Identifying and assessing collections for digitization.

3.3 Curators' and Librarians' Expectations

Curators and librarians agreed that involvement with other institutions was an important factor in their decision to collaborate with other partners on this project. They indicated that the project and database provided a concrete avenue for community outreach, offered a good fit for a model set at the national level with state and regional partners collaborating with schools, as well as made the endeavor concrete, manageable and useful for standards. Their initial expectations were met because of the fit between the partners. All partners listed the practicality of the project as important in their decision to participate.

3.4 Teachers' Expectations

The teachers participating in the project wanted to match Illinois State Learning Standards with a practical project, as well as to discover innovative ways of using information technology in their classrooms. Teachers felt their expectations were met, but they expressed interest in continuing to use the database and to find means by which other educators and students could be made aware of its existence. As a result of the teachers' expectations, several handouts were produced that the participating teachers could share with their colleagues who had not been directly involved with the project. Access to the DCHC database was also extended to teachers throughout the State of Illinois and elsewhere.

3.5 Usefulness of the DCHC Database in the Classroom

Teachers felt that the project had the potential to be very useful,

"I thought interpretation and links to other resources were extremely important aspects of the database" (museum educator)
"So simple, even a teacher can use it!" (3rd grade teacher)

Teachers were not able to use it as much as they would have liked because networking and display capabilities were limited in the classrooms.

"I can't display database objects to the whole class." (4th grade teacher)
"I have to ask kids to come around the computer." (4th grade teacher)
"There are not many possibilities for either whole lab instruction or for kids to do research independently." (5th grade teacher)

Teachers did have some specific and constructive suggestions for improving the usefulness of the database. For example, they indicated that it was not easy to tell what was in the collection from the interface search screen, and suggested that more detailed summary information would allow a user to receive a better sense of the database content. Teachers also suggested that they would like to have a component where users could submit commentary on objects. Curators and librarians welcomed this suggestion and indicated they, too, would find it useful to receive feedback from users about objects, documents, interpretations, and descriptions.

3.6 Age-Appropriateness of Information in Database

The focus group participants were asked if they thought that the interpretations of database images were understandable by the students or, put simply, at a "kid level". Teachers agreed that interpretations were not only age appropriate but, indeed, could be adapted to higher grade levels. There was still further discussion of the usefulness of the descriptive and interpretive information in the database, with teachers reinforcing the point that it was possible to utilize this information for different purposes and for a variety of age groups, not just the 3rd, 4th, and 5th grades targeted for this project.

"…in one grade you might be studying the concept of expansionism and might need information about Lewis & Clark and then in another grade level you are studying explorers and would need information on Lewis & Clark - so different units, different grades would all have reason to want access to the database." (5th grade teacher)

3.7 Importance of Interpretive Information

During the focus group discussions, one museum curator posed a follow-up question to the teachers about whether having no interpretation might affect teachers' use of particular images. The curator was particularly concerned that artifacts from her institution did not initially have adequate interpretation because of a lack of manpower at her museum during the course of the project. (Museum curators and librarians pointed out that adding textual data to the database alone could take up to 25 minutes per record.) As a result of time constraints, the museum curator decided to go ahead with entering primary factual "thin" information about the artifacts into the database records but to defer adding interpretive information. She was interested in hearing from the teachers whether this method would affect their use of the database.

The teachers responded that interpretations were extremely important because sometimes they or their colleagues did not know the significant details about specific primary source materials. They also did not have the time or facilities to research the details about the materials. Furthermore, the teachers identified quality of items and descriptive and interpretive information as being more important for them than having a large quantity of thinly documented information. It was widely agreed by curators, librarians and teachers that the interpretive and descriptive information was critical to the success of teachers and students in forming the correct (historical and factual) interpretation of the use and context of primary source materials. One curator commented that

"the interpretation provides the historical context -- it is a key factor...without an interpretation, the bed key would just be two pieces of wood." (museum curator)

Teachers agreed that the database gave them the feeling that the Internet was

"easy to navigate." (4th grade teacher)

They commented that in the past, it was difficult to find historical and social science primary source material using the Internet because there was so much information available. They liked the DCHC database because it put usable information in one central location and

"you could trust the information." (3rd grade teacher)

4. Recommendations and Conclusions

Partners felt that the project encouraged museum curators, educators and librarians to take a good look at their collections. It forced them to

"dust off some pictures that might otherwise have been forgotten." (librarian)

Additionally, the project helped the partners see how various parties might relate to artifacts, documents, and their descriptions and interpretations in different ways, depending on their institutional perspective (school, museum, or library) and the intended use of the information. In order to see the DCHC database used more widely, in late 2000, it was chosen for inclusion in the alpha-testing phase at the University of Illinois of the implementation of the Open Archives Initiative (OAI) Metadata Harvesting Protocol [12]. OAI represents an international effort to standardize digital resource discovery across diverse information formats [13].

It was interesting to hear museum curators, librarians and educators report that they still needed to use traditional print means to inform administrators and boards about this new outreach project. One museum director suggested that she could share brief summaries or periodic milestones about the project with the museum board members, institution directors and CEOs, but that they would not be interested in reading an entire interim report.

The review of the collected evaluation data resulted in five key recommendations for future continuation of the database.

  1. Continue linking content to statewide learning standards. Linking digitized content to these standards was judged to be very valuable by teachers.
  1. Continue to ensure robustness of the database. The current database was robust enough to serve searching and deposit of materials from diverse institutions.
  1. Concentrate more on enabling teachers to utilize images and metadata off-line in the classroom and for assignments. Quality -- not quantity -- of resources was deemed important.
  1. Continue evaluation of database use. The time line of the DCHC project did not allow for adequate use and evaluation of digital resources in the classroom.
  1. Ensure that information in the database continues to be "trustworthy". Educators assigned a high value to the availability of "trustworthy" primary source information via the web.

Additionally, the successful creation and continued development of a digital community requires a certain amount of ongoing human energy and sustained interest among the partners. Framing a project around State Learning Standards serves as a positive motivation for K-12 teachers, curators and librarians. Learning Standards are ubiquitous, so this component of the model can be easily replicated in other states -- especially those where Learning Standards exist and teachers are mandated to follow them.

In this project, the viability of using curriculum to drive content selection for digitization was tested. The results suggest that this model is successful as long as curriculum is used as one of several driving forces behind content selection. Other driving forces include: curator knowledge of collections, institutional priorities, and funding. Curriculum units and interaction of K-12 teachers provide tangible examples of interest and needs. From this standpoint, the project demonstrated that curriculum goals ought to be reviewed in tandem with content selection wherever possible.

Further funding was received from the IMLS for a second project, "Teaching with Digital Content -- Describing, Finding and Using Digital Cultural Heritage Materials" [14]. The funding is for a two-year period. Using the database that the DCHC project developed, ten museums and libraries have signed on to include their digitized materials. In addition, fifteen K-12 teachers will be integrating the database into their classroom activities, and a partnership between the teachers and the University of Illinois College of Education will be maintained. The emphasis of this new grant project is to develop a program that not only supplements the database and enhances the educational programs of museums and libraries, but also helps teachers and pre-service teachers to further integrate digital primary source materials into K-12 curriculum and assignments.


The DCHC project was funded by the Institute of Museum and Library Services under their National Leadership Grants Program, Grant No. NL-80113.


[1] Digital Cultural Heritage Community Project, <>.

[2] Illinois State Board of Education Learning Standards, <>.

[3] Institute of Museum and Library Services, <>.

[4] Early American Museum, Mahomet, Illinois, <>.

[5] McLean County Museum of History, Bloomington, Illinois, <>.

[6] Illinois Heritage Association, Champaign, Illinois, <>.

[7] Lincoln Trail Libraries System, Champaign, Illinois, <>.

[8] Rare Book and Special Collections Library of the University of Illinois, <>.

[9] Lincoln Trail Elementary School, Mahomet, Illinois, <>. Oakland Elementary School, Bloomington, <>. Thomas Paine Elementary School, <>.

[10] N. Bennett, B. Sandore, P. Miller, A. Grunden, "Integration of Primary Resource Materials into the Primary Classroom", Proc. Museums and the Web 2000. Available at <>.

[11] N. Bennett, B. Sandore, "The Illinois Digital Cultural Heritage Community: Museums and Libraries Collaborate to Build a Database for the Elementary School Classroom," Spectra, Spring 2001, Vol. 28, Issue 1, pp. 48-55.

[12] The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign Open Archives Initiative Metadata Harvesting Project, <>.

[13] X. Liu, K. Maly, M. Zubair and M.L. Nelson, "Arc - An OAI Service Provider for Digital Library Federation", D-Lib Magazine, Vol. 7, No. 4., April 2001.

[14] Teaching with Digital Content-Describing, Finding and Using Digital Cultural Heritage Materials, <>.

Copyright 2002 Nuala A. Bennett, Beth Sandore, and Evangeline S. Pianfetti

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DOI: 10.1045/january2002-bennett