JISC – Open Book Project

releasing open data for illuminated manuscript collection records and research…

Do collections exist?

lessons learned about modelling metadata

At the risk of following a philosophical path which I’m not qualified to tread, there is a Neo-Platonic tenet that states something along the lines of “The soldier is more real than the army.” By the same token a museum object could be said to be more real than a collection. An object has a physical presence. A collection exists only because someone says it does.

The problem with defining what a collection means, from a museum point of view at least, is that there are many different definitions depending on who is doing the defining and the perceived role and value (to the potential user) of the collection. Beyond collection records that group together items impractical to catalogue individually, they don’t fit well within a collections information management system and are not usually part of the normal curatorial cataloguing workflow.

Museum object records exist because museums have created them as a natural part of collections management. However, there is not the same imperative to create records at a collection level. They are more fluid, artificial constructs and don’t necessarily have a clear role within the organisation. Although published collection catalogues have always been within academic and curatorial scope, short interoperable collection level descriptions, which complement and provide context for object records, have perhaps only begun to find a real role with the advent of digital publication.

The JISC Resource Discovery programme has prompted us (and as a museum we are probably much further behind in this than libraries or archives) to make a greater distinction between publishing resources and publishing information about those resources. We have tended to think of item records in the former category but collection descriptions fall more naturally into the second.

In looking at how we represent the metadata for collections during this project we began also to question whether there was value still in having a distinct entity called a ‘collection level description’. Would a generic resource description, which encompasses collection descriptions (in all their various flavours) as well as online exhibitions, digital resources, and any other published grouping of objects, be a more useful concept? And who should create these resource descriptions – curators, education staff, documentation staff?

The notion of ‘sets’, implemented in the middleware CIIM (collections information integration module) for “Open Book”, has provided a way for us to model these entities. It also addresses the modelling and integration of metadata related to specialist research information generated by the museum (which has been another part of this project). As well as facilitating the publishing of open metadata derived from item records on our collections information management system (Adlib), the CIIM acts as a primary store for metadata describing collections, research outputs, electronic resources or anything else which we wish to publish as an aid to resource discovery. As a concept, the ‘set’ is generic but we are able to assign specific schema to each type of set, according to the metadata content and the purpose of the set. These sets can then be associated also with other sets as well as item level data and with ‘contexts’,  additional data beyond that extracted from the collections information database, which are wrapped around the object records. This has provided a very adaptable framework, helping us move beyond publishing only object records. Collections might not exist but we can now at least capture, store, connect and publish the metadata for them.

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