B  U  L  L  E  T  I  N

of the American Society for Information Science and Technology           Vol. 30, No. 5               June/July 2004

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Museum Information Professionals as Providers and Users of Online Resources
by Anne Gilliland-Swetland and Layna White

Anne Gilliland-Swetland is director, Center for Information as Evidence, and associate professor, Department of Information Studies, UCLA Graduate School of Education and Information Studies. She can be reached at swetland@ucla.edu.

Layna White is head, Collections Information and Access, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and can be reached at lwhite@sfmoma.org.



Berkeley Art Museum/Pacific Film Archive


California Digital Library


Content Management System


Encoded Archival Description


Institute of Museum and Library Science


Metadata Encoding and Transmission Standards (successor to MOA2)


Digital Library Federations Making of America 2 Standard


Museums and the Online Archive of California


Online Archive of California


Open Archives Initiative


Extensible Markup Language/Standard Generalized Markup Language


Document Type Definition

Museum information professionals are among the most intensive and yet least studied users of descriptions of their own collections. There is a common assumption that museum professionals, as the creators as well as the users of these descriptions, find them to be effective and intuitive to use. However, little is known about how museum professionals actually use these descriptions or whether the descriptions are addressing their information needs. As museums adopt descriptive standards such as the Encoded Archival Description, it is important to assess the extent to which these approaches meet the needs of museum professionals as well as their user constituencies.

Museum curators, collection managers and educators must address many issues prior to disseminating descriptions and digitized materials beyond the museum. These issues include identifying relevant content, tracking ownership of that content, preparing content descriptions and considering how that content should best be presented. Museums and other cultural institutions such as libraries and archives are interested in how audiences (staff and public) use digitized museum materials in their work, education or other activities in order to make sound decisions about online content and design and to justify allocation of resources for such projects. A group of California museums and a library are engaged with researchers in a study of one public access project distributing digitized cultural materials on the Web – the Museums and the Online Archive of California (MOAC). One important component of this evaluation relates to museum information professionals as users of the online content disseminated through MOAC.

MOAC is the museum component of a larger entity – the Online Archive of California (OAC). The OAC is a collaborative cultural information resource managed by the California Digital Library (CDL), making available on the Web several thousand digital contributions from over 90 variously sized and specialized libraries, archives and museums. Contributions include descriptions and, in some cases, digital images of materials such as letters, diaries, photographs, maps, sound recordings, moving images, oral histories, paintings, drawings, sculpture, masks and textiles. 

MOAC is a partnership first conceived at the University of California, Berkeley, in 1997 and led by the Berkeley Art Museum/Pacific Film Archive (BAM/PFA). The partners received an Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) National Leadership–Library and Museum Collaboration grant (1999-2002) to build a testbed of digital content in the form of finding aids, ostensibly for contribution to the OAC. Finding aids are highly structured documentation of the context and contents of collections. Finding aids generally have a hierarchical design, beginning with an overall collection level description, followed by descriptions of series or subsets within the collection, and finally, item level descriptions within each series as appropriate. Examples of finding aids include collection indexes, inventories, registers and guides. Museum partners in MOAC typically contribute collection guides to the OAC. It is important to note, however, especially for the purposes of this evaluation, that archival and museum concepts and practices are not co-extensive. For example, the concepts of collection and context, while they are both integral to archival and museum practice, mean different things to different professions, and the closest approximation of the concept of the finding aid as understood by archivists is, in museums, the collection guide.

Museum Professionals as Producers

The Online Archive of California provides one way for its contributing partners to distribute select digitized materials in a centralized manner – that is, partner materials are aggregated with contributions from other cultural institutions in the OAC. Aggregation is attractive to partners in that users of the OAC might find such access efficient or useful. Aggregation of materials described by museums, archives and libraries is possible, at a general level, because the OAC utilizes Encoded Archival Description (EAD) as a common data structure standard for all contributions. EAD is an Extensible Markup Language/Standard Generalized Markup Language Document Type Definition (XML/SGML DTD) developed by and for the American archival community principally as a means of developing finding aids in a standardized way for distribution and integration over the Web. MOAC is experimental in that its contributing partners are testing the effectiveness of EAD as a standard for museum materials.

The Society of American Archivists and the Library of Congress's Network Development/MARC Standards Office are chiefly responsible for developing and maintaining EAD, including an EAD Tag Library. At this point, some metadata elements in the Tag Library are not highly defined in order to accommodate a range of professional and institutional practices. Given this flexibility, MOAC partners devised specific instructions for implementing EAD in ways that represent more adequately the descriptive practices and anticipated use of museum objects. (MOAC specifications and reports can be accessed at www.bampfa.berkeley.edu/moac.) While EAD has much to recommend it – as an XML/SGML DTD used by many archives and as a means of aggregating materials in the OAC – museum implementation of EAD requires careful testing by museum professionals and their user constituencies.

What makes museum materials so different that EAD may not be appropriate? While some information about museum objects may be known and not likely to change, other information is conditional. The description workflow in many museums results in multiple staff from different departments contributing to how objects are catalogued, documented and interpreted over time. Moreover, museum collections often lack the specific prescribed or inherited context that is so prominent in archival description. Museum professionals frequently recontextualise objects by moving them in and out of arrangements, collections or exhibitions based on curatorial or educational interests or scholarly reinterpretation.

MOAC partners, needing a companion metadata standard for individual digitized objects, also explored using the Digital Library Federation's Making of America 2 (MOA2) standard and, like the OAC, have since adopted the Metadata Encoding and Transmission Standard (METS) – the logical sequel to MOA2 – also a Digital Library Federation initiative and maintained by the Library of Congress. MOAC partners use METS to represent simple digital objects, such as a single image of a painting, or to present structured records of complex digital objects, such as many images of a single album or artists' book. In early 2003, the OAC launched a content management system (CMS) for searching and displaying METS digital objects independent of finding aids. Prior to this time images of museum objects were accessible in the OAC solely through browsing or searching finding aids (or collection guides). Now, users can search within a single finding aid, across the entire collection of finding aids or within the CDL's repository of METS digital objects. Museums might find the latter mode of presentation most familiar – that is, presentation of individual digitized objects for mixing and matching by users.

MOAC partners export metadata specified for the project from their local information systems. Several museum partners use a digital asset management tool developed by BAM/PFA, in part to automate conversion of data to EAD and METS. While there is a shift in museums toward using information systems to capture context, these systems are for the most part object-centric and lack the narratives and contextual information about collections, objects and makers produced in research, exhibition and programming activities. MOAC partners are encouraged, therefore, to repurpose contextual information published in museum exhibition catalogues, brochures, interpretive essays and educational materials. For the MOAC project this contextual information might be expressed using the hierarchical design of EAD collection guides. Examining how different user constituencies analyze and put digitized cultural materials to use might help content producers, like MOAC partners, determine the desired levels of access and the usefulness of content and context.

MOAC II User Evaluation

With support from a second IMLS grant (2002-2004), researchers at the UCLA Department of Information Studies and MOAC partners are studying issues central to use of resources like MOAC for education and research purposes. Collaborators in the MOAC II User Evaluation project include researchers, museum information and multimedia professionals, educators, curators, librarians and archivists. Museum and library partners have provided considerable feedback about the research questions and instruments developed by the researchers and have assisted in identifying potential participants for the study. In the coming months, partners will review the evaluation results and assess the practicality of integrating what users want into routine content production and provision activities.

In MOAC II we are examining and comparing four potential crossover or complementary user contexts: K-12 teachers, university students, academics in the humanities and social sciences and museum professionals, librarians and archivists. These user groups represent key targeted constituencies of the OAC and MOAC. We are gathering and triangulating quantitative and qualitative data from several different sources. Our goal is to obtain a better overall idea of the complexity of issues associated with providing online access to museum materials in general, as well as to tease apart aspects that relate to MOAC in particular.

Moving Target

The multifaceted study occurs over two years on a live, constantly evolving online resource, not an artificial test database. As might be expected, MOAC partners continue to refresh their collection guides, adding new descriptions and/or images. In planning the study in 2002, partners expressed interest in examining how users fared when searching and navigating the aggregated EAD finding aids in a common user interface. During the first MOAC project, partners opened a point of access directly to their content on the MOAC project website hosted by BAM/PFA. The MOAC website presented partner collection guides in the same interface used by the OAC – simply isolating the "museum component" from the larger offering of content aggregated in the OAC.

As planning for the study was underway, the OAC changed its user interface after acquiring software with greater functionality for searching, navigation and display. As noted above, the OAC next developed a content management system for searching and displaying METS digital objects independent of finding aids, thereby opening another view into the aggregated content, albeit still displayed in a common interface. In late 2003, MOAC was the testbed for an access integration toolkit developed by the CDL to provide customized access to METS digital objects. Working with CDL staff, MOAC partner BAM/PFA used the toolkit to implement a style sheet for MOAC. The style sheet uses specific query syntax to structure a search of the CDL's repository of METS digital objects. The underlying content contributed by partners to the OAC remains the same and is still delivered via the CDL; however, the MOAC website presents MOAC METS digital objects in a MOAC style sheet removed from respective MOAC EAD collection guides. Users must link to the OAC if they wish to view related EAD collection guides or search across the entire collection of OAC finding aids.

Adding to the complexity, MOAC content was then made accessible in a CDL project testing Luna Imaging's Insight software as a service for research and teaching. This project includes several thousand descriptions and digital images from MOAC. The CDL also made MOAC and OAC digital resources available for harvesting by the OAIster project of University of Michigan Digital Library Production Services. MOAC is accessible from multiple points of access on the Web and each point of access has a distinct style or look.

While the OAC and CDL provide an appropriate hub around which to contribute content, partner institutions in MOAC also move the same digitized content into and sometimes out of still other online public access systems. Each partner institution is engaged in non-MOAC projects and programs related to providing access to permanent collections – whether on institutional websites or in other collaborative projects. Since MOAC is a moving target in terms of this evaluation, the study is focusing more on conceptual issues about content and presentation that arise within each user group, than on the usability of one specific version of MOAC.

MOAC II partners expect the different data sources used in the study – transaction logs, pre-existing use data, feedback forms, high-level questionnaires and in-depth interviews – will cull broad issues of concern associated with providing online access to cultural materials as well as detailed information about the relevance of MOAC content, how people want to use descriptions and images in their work and the effectiveness of presentation, namely as EAD collection guides and METS digital objects.

Museum Professionals as Providers and Users

Of the constituencies selected for this study, the fourth group – information professionals working in museums, libraries and archives – have been the least studied to date. Professionals are heavy users of online resources like MOAC in their own work and provide front line mediation between patrons and online systems or resources in activities such as reference and educational programming. In dialogues with museum visitors, for example, museum professionals might suggest to visitors connections between museum objects and other objects, persons and events, using online public access systems as tools.

In addition to using and promoting online systems, information professionals are producers and providers of digitized cultural materials, as evidenced by MOAC partners and their contributions to the OAC. Each activity may inform or influence the other. For instance, information professionals are expected to understand and respond to the needs of audiences (staff and public) when producing online resources. Museum information professionals might be expected to develop and manage resources that help curators, directors, educators and registrars do their jobs and meet the expectations of other audiences, such as the user groups selected for MOAC II. Museums may be challenged to serve the complex administrative/management needs of staff and the public's expectations for access and increased relevance.

The museum information professional as provider and user might have interesting/conflicting opinions about the type and extent of information about objects and collections – as well as other concepts, people and events – that cultural institutions should or could provide access to by means of an online system. In MOAC II, we are examining how users would like or expect to integrate MOAC into their work, learning or other activities. Do museum professionals' expectations of what an online system or resource should be or do differ from those of archivists and librarians?

As information professionals providing digital content, MOAC partners expect their materials and means of packaging and presentation should serve different and changing contexts of use. Partners, for instance, might expect users most familiar with objects and subjects – such as staff and scholars – to want well-structured, authoritative information. For MOAC, partners deliver basic data about objects through item level descriptions in EAD collection guides. Descriptions of museum objects, however, may be written for curators and scholars, and the words preferred by experts might not jibe with words used and understood by others seeking information and images. There may be a disconnect between what information professionals do as content providers and what many other people know or are familiar with.

In addition, museum, library and archive professionals may use different terminology to describe objects and these differences become apparent when content is aggregated such as in the OAC. These differences exist even though MOAC partners first found common ground for exchange by identifying core data elements in the EAD Tag Library, that is, data elements likely to recur across simple descriptions of paintings, photographs, masks, diaries and other object types in partner collections. It is not the data elements per se, rather, differences in how data values and content are expressed in the data elements.

As information professionals providing digital content, MOAC partners might expect an audience less familiar with objects and subjects to prefer richly illustrated explanations of objects and their relationships to other objects, or people and events, and styles and periods. As noted, museum partners are encouraged to repurpose contextual information published in exhibition catalogues and educational materials when contributing content to the OAC. Partners have an opportunity to present contextual information with item level descriptions using the hierarchical design supported by EAD. Collection guides and finding aids, however, are typically written for information professionals and scholars, not for a K-12 or general audience. In MOAC II, we are investigating if and how the existing design, representation and presentation of MOAC privileges certain users, needs and search strategies over others.

We are interested in learning from information professionals what about MOAC works and what does not for their own work and that of their audiences (staff and public). To that end, we are asking selected professionals about their practices and opinions with regard to MOAC, as well as the level and nature of its use by others. As intermediaries, though, museum information professionals may be less accustomed than colleagues in libraries and archives to assessing and documenting the usefulness of online public access systems for audiences. For example, MOAC II museum partners did not have ready statistical and qualitative data about the use of their online systems or resources. Such data might help museums learn what, if any, impact the availability of the online resources in which they are investing (like MOAC) is having upon physical collections and services. One expectation is that the MOAC II study will make recommendations for best practices regarding how museum information professionals might evaluate the use, usage and usability of digitized cultural materials and public access systems over time.


Museum professionals have been studied the least, not only as users (which is a concern of MOAC II) but also as producers and providers of digitized cultural materials in their own right, often for other users. Why have museum professionals been studied the least? Professionals are expected to understand the needs of staff and the public when producing online resources, and museum professionals certainly are producing, editing and otherwise changing digitized materials. Do they understand how to meet user needs, including the needs of their colleagues? Or, is access to and use of museum content and context familiar territory for museum professionals? From studies like MOAC II, they and we might make interesting discoveries about what needs to happen before digitized content and its presentation is useful, usable and used by a wide audience, including museum professionals.

The authors gratefully acknowledge funding from the Institute of Museum and Library Services that has supported work discussed in this article. The authors would also like to thank the MOAC II partners and graduate research assistants, Carina MacLeod and Kathleen Svetlik, for their input and assistance.

For Further Reading

  • Gilliland-Swetland, A. J.  (1998). Evaluation design for large-scale, collaborative online archives: Interim report of the Online Archive of California Evaluation Project," Archives & Museum Informatics, 12(3-4), 177-203.
  • Gilliland-Swetland, A., MacLeod, C.M., Svetlik, M.K.,  & White, L. (In press.) Evaluating EAD as an appropriate metadata structure for describing and delivering museum content: MOAC II Evaluation Study. Proceedings of the International Conference on Digital Libraries, 2004.
  • Gilliland-Swetland, A., Chandler, R.L.,  & White. L. (2001). We're building it, Will they use it?  The MOAC II Evaluation Project.  Proceedings of the Museums and the Web Conference, 2004. Retrieved on April 4, 2004, from www.archimuse.com/mw2004/papers/g-swetland/g -swetland.html.
  • Rinehart, R. (2001). Museums and the Online Archive of California: Museum consortia, digital library projects, standards for complex multimedia objects, and more fun than a barrel of monkeys, SPECTRA, 28(1). 20-27.
  • Waibel, G. (2000). Produce, publish and preserve: A holistic approach to digital assets management, SPECTRA, 26(7), 38-44.
  • White, L. (2002). Museum implementation of Encoded Archival Description. Art Documentation, 21(1), 15-20.

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