D-Lib Magazine
June 1998

ISSN 1082-9873

Information and Communications Technology in the Cultural Sector

The Need for National Strategies

Seamus Ross and Maria Economou
Humanities Advanced Technology & Information Institute (HATII)
University of Glasgow
Glasgow, UK,

Table of Contents

  1. Introduction
  2. The Need for National Strategies
  3. Digital Collections
    1. Retroconversion of Existing Collections
    2. The Creation of New Digital Collections
    3. Digitisation as a Means for Preservation
  4. Education
  5. Conclusions
  6. Notes and References

1. Introduction

Between August and December 1997, the Humanities Advanced Technology and Information Institute (HATII) at the University of Glasgow carried out a study of the opportunities and obstacles posed by the use of Information and Communications Technology (ICT) in the heritage sector in order to establish a funding policy. This was commissioned by the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF), one of the six agencies which distribute the proceeds from the UK's National Lottery. The Trustees of the HLF approved all the recommendations outlined in the report [1], and these have helped to shape the Fund's policy and guidelines on the support of ICT.

In the report, we made 74 recommendations, some of which were outlined in our Clips article in the March issue of D-Lib Magazine [2].

2. The Need for National Strategies

The report aimed to assist the HLF by providing direction and shape to its thinking on the funding of ICT. For this reason, many of the recommendations are only directly relevant to the HLF and other UK funding bodies. However, the study highlighted the broader need for a national strategy for ICT in the heritage sector that would extend beyond the limits of the HLF. The lack of such a strategy is a large omission not only in the UK, but also in other countries, given the cultural, economic, and social importance of the heritage; the significant investment that ICT requires; and the opportunities that ICT can offer for improving access to and understanding of the cultural and natural heritage.

The heritage sector in all countries contributes to the generation of national wealth by providing attractions for tourists, helping us to preserve our habitats, providing exciting foundations and settings for education, and offering resources to commercial activities including advertising, publishing, radio and television.

In the course of preparing the study, we consulted widely within the cultural sector. Staff at heritage organisations (e.g., archives, biological recording centres, countryside organisations, libraries, and museums) who responded to our survey and interviews referred time and time again to the vital need for such a national strategy on ICT in the heritage sector. A national strategy would provide what Val Bott from the Museums and Galleries Commission (MGC) found lacking in heritage uses of information technology: vision.

Without a national strategy on the use of ICT in the heritage sector:

A national ICT strategy in the heritage sector will help funding bodies in this area to adjust or create their own funding strategies of ICT in a coherent, cohesive, and collaborative way. This will lead to better informed applicants, who are able to prepare applications in a cost-effective manner, addressing the risks and issues of ICT usage. This will prevent wastage in the heritage sector by applicants for funding investing heavily in the development of proposals which are not selected for funding.

The process of creating a national strategy will involve the examination of issues such as the impact of ICT on conservation of, and access to, the heritage assets; on education (both conventional and lifelong learning); and on tourism. The strategy would view ICT as a tool for developing our national heritage resources for maximum public benefit. A national strategy would do at least the following:

    1. establish clear priorities for which heritage resources should be created (or retroconverted [3]) and in which order;
    2. identify the priorities for the use of ICT in the heritage sector in the provision of infrastructure, training, the development of education strategies, and research into the effective use of different technologies;
    3. enable the creation of a national heritage network, including libraries, museums, archives, biological recording centres, with links to public networks;
    4. help to ensure synergy between projects creating digital resources, whether these are generated through the creation of new information assets or the retroconversion of non-digital resources;
    5. identify and encourage the use of optimum technologies, practices, and standards that will produce consistent and interoperable digital resources (e.g., catalogues which support cross-heritage searching);
    6. identify and propose ways of resourcing the ICT training needs of both users and workers in the heritage sector;
    7. establish criteria for supporting the development of software, documentation, and other local ICT needs of the heritage sector;
    8. address the problem of managing the expanding digital record for contemporary users and future generations, whether through distributed data services or more novel preservation strategies;
    9. establish clear guidelines on the commercial exploitation and expected return on investment in heritage assets when created in digital form;
    10. ensure that all those organisations and sections of society which can benefit from the creation of heritage information do so;
    11. ensure a synergy between bodies which are supporting content creation as part of heritage conservation and preservation, and those which are supporting infrastructure provision, and
    12. identify the roles and ways in which the heritage sector can use ICT to promote education (in school and in later life) and employment.

As a starting point in establishing guidelines for prioritising ICT funding, the consultations we conducted indicated that the following criteria might be applied. Where it is necessary to choose between heritage ICT projects, the selection should be carried out in the following order of priority:

Two key areas where such a strategy and these guidelines could assist are (i) the development of national digital collections and (ii) education. These are the ones that we will explore here.

3. Digital Collections

A national ICT strategy for the cultural sector is vital to support both the retroconversion of existing heritage resources in digital form, as well as the creation of new digital collections. The critical need for large amounts of more diverse digital resources has been widely acknowledged by local, national, and international organisations and researchers [4].

3a. Retroconversion of Existing Collections

The consultations we carried out on behalf of the HLF demonstrated that the retroconversion of catalogues and the creation of core data sets (e.g., research databases, sites and monuments records in archaeology, the cataloguing of uncatalogued holdings) were perceived to be fundamental to all future uses of ICT in the heritage sector. These provide the digital material to form the backbone on which more innovative heritage uses of ICT can be built, such as multimedia applications and Web sites.

Once library catalogues, archival finding aids, habitat and natural records, and museum collection documentation are converted to digital form from printed, typed, or manuscript catalogues, they will:

As organisations consider the digitisation of their holdings for particular purposes, they could usefully take into account that there will be numerous other ways in which these materials might be reused. Digital content can be manipulated, sorted, merged with other materials, analysed, and reconstituted to meet a wide range of heritage needs. In museums, libraries, archives, and archaeology, the effective use of ICT depends upon good documentation systems. By giving priority to the conversion of existing paper and other records to a digital format, by improving the character, quality, and security of existing databases, and by making them more widely available, institutions create assets with long term economic and social value. Once catalogues, finding aids, and other materials have been put into digital form, they can form the basis of information services for management, education programmes, visitor outreach, and curatorial purposes. These resources are the reusable raw materials of the information society.

Furthermore, research into interoperable catalogues is likely to have a significant impact on the ways we use heritage information. These allow cross domain searching--the ability with a single query to search biological, habitat, archaeological, built heritage, and documentary data for information related to a single topic. Standards development and software development can enable this kind of holistic approach to heritage information retrieval.

3b. The Creation of New Digital Collections

Apart from the conversion of existing resources, it is also valuable to start creating new digital resources in several areas of the heritage sector. More information is needed about the cultural and natural heritage to preserve, manage, and enjoy it. Collection of data to create databases of natural heritage (e.g., animals, habitats, plants), the built heritage, sculpture, and monuments, is fundamental to the development of important heritage resources. Much of the world's heritage is either not recorded in detail or is not recorded to a consistent standard. The benefits that have accrued from use of heritage records so far created provide the justification for further efforts to build more heritage databases.

3c. Digitisation as a Means for Preservation

Whatever its benefits, digitisation should only in exceptional circumstances be viewed as a preservation medium (i.e., as a substitute for the real object). Although it does help to preserve fragile and sensitive material by decreasing direct handling, there is still no certainty that digital media can be preserved in the long term. In the case of moving images and sound, the processes of digitisation do not yet capture all the information held in the analogue format. Even the highest commonly available digitisation standard for sound does not digitise all the information held on analogue recordings. This means that digitisation is only useful for creating portable and easy-to-use copies.

Only where analogue media are at the edge of loss should they be converted to digital form. Even then, the question must be asked as to whether or not an analogue copy would not be better. Digitisation projects should be restricted to collections or items of significant national and international importance (e.g., manuscripts, documents, photographic collections, moving image resources) where the benefits of access will justify the expenditure, or those collections which are not currently accessible but contain information important in documenting particular local communities or heritage sector developments.

Among the many issues which need to be addressed is the problem of prioritising material for digitisation. This is extremely important because of the costs of digitisation projects, the importance of creating complimentary resources, and the need to make accessible resources which bring the greatest public benefit. As a starting point, the consultations we conducted indicate that the following criteria might be applied when defining digitisation initiatives and selecting projects for support.

Digitisation projects should only be supported:

The crucial factor in the development of a national strategy will be the agreement and adoption of national and international standards and guidelines [5]. At present, there are no widely accepted digitisation standards, and it is difficult to identify best practice. For example, while it is possible to demonstrate minimal acceptable resolutions for capturing manuscripts and printed material, suitable metadata guidelines for data which need to be associated with the images themselves are only just emerging. Furthermore, standards for preservation may not be suitable for access and vice versa. For digital moving images, there is currently no suitable preservation standard, and the same may apply to other image formats such as early photographic collections. In the latter case, the current digital formats may offer better preservation prospects than the original medium itself.

4. Education

While a clearly thought-out and well implemented policy on the use of ICT in the heritage sector can help to prioritise digitisation projects, it also opens up possibilities for the use of heritage content in primary and secondary education (K-12 in the USA). Education can benefit from:

In projecting the impact and expectations of the use of ICT in the heritage setting, it is worth bearing in mind the changing educational landscape. While the educational objectives might vary among different countries, the UK offers us a useful model to demonstrate how digital resources can play a central role in the educational process. The UK Qualification and Curriculum Authority, formerly the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority (SCAA), is concerned that schools and teachers make effective use of IT. The SCAA published a range of materials to help schools fulfil their duties under the National Curriculum Order for Information Technology (IT), which focuses on developing IT capability in children [6]: 'Teachers will need to allocate time to ensure that every child develops IT capability. This time is required both for teaching IT skills, knowledge, and understanding, and for practising and consolidating them.' [7] The emphasis is not on hardware and software, but on generic IT skills:

In order to undertake much of this IT-based learning in the educational setting, schools need access to raw data which they can make available in the classroom. As more and more resources are generated in digital form across the heritage sector, they will provide materials which students can use as part of exercises in developing their generic IT skills.

It is, therefore, vital that a national strategy encourages the use of ICT to produce content that can support the educational activities of heritage organisations. It is also important that national and public funding bodies make certain that any digital resources created with their funds are freely available for educational purposes.

5. Conclusions

The creation of digital information resources will aid the better conservation and management of the heritage, promote its understanding and enjoyment, and contribute to the development of a culturally rich information network. This is true whether the contents of these resources are sites and monuments records, library or museum catalogues, archival finding aids, manuscripts, sound recordings, records of species, digitised photographs, computer-aided designs, or Virtual Reality models of the built heritage or landscapes. Much of this material will be created by the retroconversion or digitisation of existing catalogues, natural and environmental records, photographs, audio recordings, and maps, but some will result from new initiatives to record our cultural and natural heritage. All these activities provide material which can be manipulated, selected, compared, and sorted in ways which would not be possible with either the originals or other non-digital surrogates.

In order to promote judicious use of ICT and to avoid waste of public funds, it is important that national strategies are designed in all countries. These can promote the use of ICT on activities which unlock and promote access to, and understanding of, the heritage. In this way, national strategies will contribute to the creation of resources of lasting value. The relevant public bodies need to respond to these opportunities in a consistent and coherent way, driven by the information needs of the heritage community and the public, rather than the technology.

6. Notes and References

[1] The report is available as a Web document at (Back to text)

[2] Ross, S. and Economou, M. 1998. 'A Study of Information and Communications Technology Funding Policy for the Heritage Sector', DLib Magazine March 1998. (.Back to text)

[3] Retroconversion (retrospective conversion) is the process of converting analogue resources (e.g., catalogue records) to digital form by representing the information they contain as sequences of characters and numbers. This is carried out either by keying the data or by using optical character recognition software to convert it. (By comparison, "digitisation" is the process of creating a binary representation of an object--a photographic print, manuscript page, or text document--which can be manipulated, stored, transmitted, and displayed using digital technologies, such as a computer. (Back to text)

[4] For example, New Library: The People's Network (DCMS, 1997); A Review of Digitisation Projects in Local Authority Libraries and Archives (Library and Information Commission, 1998); Strengths, Weaknesses, and Opportunities in European Humanities Research, (Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research, Council for the Humanities, 1997); Information Technology in Humanities Scholarship: Achievements, Prospects, and Challenges (American Council of Learned Societies, ACLS Occasional Paper, 37, 1997); Research Agenda for Networked Cultural Heritage (Getty Art History Information Program, 1996). (Back to text)

[5] The British Library and the Library and Information Commission sponsored the study 'A Review of Digitisation Projects in Local Authority Libraries & Archives' which was undertaken by Information North and was published in early 1998. Other organisations, such as the Research Library Group, and The European Commission on Preservation and Access, and institutions such as Cornell are all contributing effort to addressing the issues raised by the process of digitisation and standards. In the area of imaging metadata see, for instance: (Back to text)

[6] Somekh, B. and Davis, N. (eds), Using Information Technology effectively in Teaching and Learning, (London, 1997), Clemson, D. 'Information Technology in the National Curriculum', in D. Coulby and S. Ward, The Primary Core National Curriculum, (London, 1996), 158-179. Here we have focused on the IT order itself, but nearly every UK curriculum order (e.g., history) has an IT requirement. An informal review of the available digital resources for teaching purposes indicates a real shortage of good materials. If they are to fulfil the obligations under the order, the availability of heritage materials will be key. (Back to text)

[7] School Curriculum and Assessment Authority, 'Expectations in Information Technology at Key Stages 1 and 2.', London, 1997, 3. (Back to text)

[8] School Curriculum and Assessment Authority, 'Consistency in Teacher Assessment. Exemplification of Standards.' 1996, 5. (Back to text)

Copyright © 1998 Seamus Ross and Maria Economou

Top | Magazine
Search | Author Index | Title Index | Monthly Issues
Previous Story | Next Story
Comments | E-mail the Editor