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Travels into Several Remote Digital Realms of the World
PART I: A Voyage to Libraryland

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Location: Champaign, Illinois, United States


The aura of ownership

Martha Washington Gown (1780)
Through the synergies between my Museum Informatics and Metadata courses I've had the chance to look over several metadata standards such as VRA Core and the soon-to-appear CDWA Lite schema.

While the VRA and the Getty should be congratulated on their efforts, I do see a problem with extending these schemas beyond the art community and into general historical museums. Each of these schemas allow objects to be identified by their creators, but I haven't seen a schema that allows one to identify the "owner" of an artifact. Often artifacts in historical collections are not significant by themselves, but from the aura they attain because a historical figure owned them.
There is some mention of "ownership" in the CiDOC CRM, however it seems aimed at tracking legal ownership. I suppose one could consider the transfer of an object from the creator to the "owner" a legal transer does take place. Chaining this all the way to the present would allow scholars using the resource to see an artifacts provenance.

One of our examples was this gown owned by Martha Washington. While it may be a good exemplar of 18th Century costume, it's significance is closely tied to its owner. This information probably gets dumped into descriptions rather than being tagged seperately.

A quick scan of Cataloging Cultural Objects (CCO) doesn't seem to offer any suggestions on the best way to include this type of information in a record.

Another challenge to providing a common metadata format for museums as a whole.

I spent the weekend at a Text Encoding Initative (TEI) workshop. I'm wondering if the modular nature of TEI might also be useful to adopt for cultural heritage information. Each community who uses TEI has the ability to create customizations for their type of markup, but it's all built on a common chassis. I can already see the interoperability issues present in this approach, but at least it constrains things from being too hetrogenous.

(A quick aside - if you ever have a chance to attend a TEI workshop given by Julia Flanders and Syd Bauman I'd strongly recommend it. They are excellent and entertaining presenters!)


Policing Porn Is Not Part of Job Description

In the library community there's often talk about the Patriot Act and its conflicts with their core values of free access to information. While the arguments about the 'decency' of past museum exhibits aren’t directly related to Homeland Security, you have to wonder if the porno cops will be showing up next at the National Gallery of Art.

There are issues however related to the broader idea of making cultural heritage available. I understand that the USGS has removed locations of archeological sites from new maps in order to protect them. What are our responsibilities if we digitize older materials that reveal these locations and might be misused by looters, black marketeers, etc. What if we receive a cease and desist order from Homeland Security because those historic photos of a dam being built could be a security threat? Do we have a firm enough grasp on what our values are to respond appropriately?

Via BoingBoing

County Homeland Security Officers Try To Police Porn, Fail
Mo "Here's a story in today's Washington Post about two Montgomery County Homeland Security officers who try to police porn at a public library. After one patron is targeted and asked to step outside, the librarian resists. The police are called and the only ones ushered outside are the failed porn cops. I hope the librarian gets the librarian-of-the-month award for standing up for free speech and privacy."

Two uniformed men strolled into the main room of the Little Falls library in Bethesda one day last week and demanded the attention of all patrons using the computers. Then they made their announcement: The viewing of Internet pornography was forbidden.

The men looked stern and wore baseball caps emblazoned with the words "Homeland Security." The bizarre scene unfolded Feb. 9, leaving some residents confused and forcing county officials to explain how employees assigned to protect county buildings against terrorists came to see it as their job to police the viewing of pornography.

It's sad to see what happens when you give some people a tin badge and a cap. Link


Can images be metadata?

I spent some time last week reviewing various metadata formats for the Metadata in Theory and Practice course. It occured to me that discussions about metadata priveledge text over other ways we might provide metadata for cultural heritage artifacts.

Often museums create records that describe physical artifacts and attach an identification image to those records. In some ways this ID image is serving as a form of visual description, just as the textual metadata does.

Some of this bias may be due to the fact that the tools we have for analyzing images do not have a sufficient level of visual literacy to be able to extract meaning from the images. Image formats also differ from text, because they are essentially a long uninterrupted string of bits. In "Markup Systems and the Future of Scholarly Text Processing," Coombs, et al. mention ancient practices of scriptio continua in which there is no whitespace in the text, just a continuous string of characters. In essence, this is what we have for images today, proably even less so since the right reader can make pretty good guesses about what the words are in a scriptio continua.

For text we moved from presentational markup to descriptive markup to solve some of the problems in encoding meaning in texts. I'm now wondering what would a similar system look like for creating meaning out of the undifferentiated bits in an image. Web services like Flickr are allowing users to crudely "tag" portions of an image with text (I assume using outside textual metadata). I'm not familiar enough with the bits under the hood for common image formats to tell whether it would ever be possible to markup portions of the image the way one does with text. Medical and astronomic imaging might provide some hints, but generally they start with a set of data that gets represented visually.

Within METS one can specify an of a visual image, but I need to look more closely about how the coordinates of the area are represented. Could it be possible to export a vector map from Photoshop into a METS record that would allow me to associate textual metadata with just a portion of an image?

Imaged-based searching also seems like an area to explore, although like simple text indexing that matches character strings, it appears focused on colors and shapes - not the "meaning" of those color and shapes. Some form of image markup (possibly still relying on text) could serve the same purpose that descriptive markup provides for literary texts. Importanly image markup could provide the contexts that make shapes and colors meaningful.

While I haven't seen anything clearly state this, there do seem to be assumptions in practice that suggest that images are metadata in certain contexts. How can we refine and explicitly state this practice?

"Markup Systems and The Future of Scholarly Text Processing." Communications of the Association for Computing Machinery, 30, no. 11 James H. Coombs, Allen Renear, and Steven J. DeRose (1987).


MCN 2006 Proposal Deadline

The proposal deadline for the MCN 2006 Conference is coming up February 16, 2006. Proposal forms are available online at MCN.

I'm currently working on a panel proposal for museums integrating game technologies into their practices. If you or your museum has something interesting to show please feel free to contact me in the next week.

Also while you're there, check out the great new MCN website.