Conference report – Intelligent Access to Digital Heritage – Tallinn, October 2007

Semantic Web Think Tank core group member (and 24 Hour Museum Editor) Jon Pratty recently travelled to a conference in Tallinn, Estonia, to present insights from SWTT research.

‘Intelligent Access to Digital Heritage’ sounds like just another long conference title, and I guess it is, but for once, this title actually summed up the basics of what people from all over Europe came together to discuss in Tallinn on October 17-18 2007.

The conference, a popular meeting point for heritage and museum professionals, was all about joining digital stuff up in new ways. Funded by the Estonian Ministry of Culture, it was about making connections between databases, collections, websites, vocabularies, taxonomies and the dreaded (or perhaps not) ontologies.

From a UK perspective, this was impressive. There was a small but appropriate selection of representatives from the UK cultural sector – Emma Tonkin from UKOLN, MLA (Kate Fernie talking about Michael) and 24HM, representing the SWTT research group.

Headline news from Tallinn for this writer was that UK cultural work in the field of semantic web, shared and dynamic taxonomies and joining things up cleverly is now lagging behind efforts in Europe, particularly in Finland, the Netherlands and France. The Finnish work deserves to be singled out: what they are doing in Helsinki is not just technologically interesting, but also strategically of value too. More on that in a bit.

Raivo Ruusalepp (one of the conference coordinators) opened proceedings in the National Library with a phrase that rang through all the sessions that followed: “…metadata is the glue that sticks together all this stuff that is being put out there.”

Proceedings kicked off with Toomas Schvak’s presentation From NL through TEL to the EDL: The National Library of Estonia and the European Digital Libraries Initiative.

In her presentation, Emma Tonkin from UKOLN used the phrase ‘Joining the Dots,’ a key couplet for many at the meeting. She was in rhetorical mood as she asked some questions: “What is metadata? Maybe everyone thinks they know what it is – but not necessarily…”

According to Emma, metadata are ubiquitous tags that ask and answer crucial questions about digital objects. What info do we need to share about this object? Lots of it is irrelevant to most of us, but equally, lots relevant. ‘We’re not just saying this is an object, we’re saying this is what this object means.’

What’s at the core? Collections of facts are schema. Some of these schema are well known to us: Book – title, publication date, ISBN. Journal – author, publication date, ISSN. Dublin Core shares a lot with other types of metadata.

What’s it all for? Good metadata practice allows promotion of re-use; it encourages consistent use of terms. How should we aim to get good metadata? There’s some realities to consider too. For many projects, there’s a lot of data to index, and no-one to index it. You’ll run out of expertise, and cataloguers too.

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