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OU Digital Archive home pageThe digital archive site that we’ve been working away on for a while now is finally public.  It is being given a very low-key soft launch to give time for more testing and checking to make sure that the features work OK for users, but as it has now been tweeted about, is linked from our main library website and findable on Google, then I can finally write a short piece about it.

The site has gone live with a mix of images, some videos about the university and a small collection of video clips from the first science module in the 1970s.  Accompanying the images and videos are a couple of sub-sites we’ve called Exhbitions. To start with there are two, one covering the teaching of Shakespeare and the other giving a potted history of the university.  The exhibitions are designed to give a bit more context around some of the material in the collection.

The small collection of 160 historical images from the history of the university include people involved in the development of the university or significant events such as the first graduation ceremony, as well as a selection of images about the construction of the campus.   The latter is slightly odd maybe for a distance learning institution, with a campus that most students may never see, but maybe that makes the changes to the physical enviroment of interest to students and the general viewer nonetheless.

The selection of videos include a collection of thirty programmes about the university mostly from the 1970s and 1980s and mainly from a magazine-style series called Open Forum, giving students a bit of an insight into the life of the university.  It includes sections from various University officials, but also student experiences, Summer schools and the like.  Some of the videos cover events such as royal visits and material about the history of the university.

Less obvious to the casual browser is the inclusion of a large collection of metadata about university courses.  This metadata profile forms a skeleton or scaffolding that is used to hang the bits of digitised course materials together and relate them to their parent course/module.  So it gives a way of displaying the Module presentation datesdifferent types of material included in a module together as well as giving information about the module, its subjects and when it ran.  At the moment there are only a few digitised samples hanging on the underlying bare bones.

To find the metadata go to the View All tab, make sure the ‘Available online’  button isn’t selected and choose ‘Module overview’ from Content Type, and it’s possible to browse through some details of the university’s old modules, seeing some information about the module, when they were run.  You can also follow through to the linked data repository at e.g. Underpinning this aspect of the site is a semantic web RDF triplestore.

Public and staff sites
One of the challenges for the digital archive is that it is essentially two different sites under the skin.  A staff version of the site has been available internally for over a year and lets staff login to see a broader range of material, particularly from old university course materials.  So staff can access some sound recordings as well as a small number of digitised books, and access a larger collection of videos, although at this stage it’s still a fairly small proportion of the overall archive.  But more will be added over time as well as hopefully some of the several hundred module websites that have been archived over the past three years.

Intellectual Property
Unlike many digital archives all of the content is relatively recent, i.e. less than fifty years old.  And that gives a different set of challenges as there is a lot of content that would need to have Intellectual Property rights cleared before it could be made openly available.  So there are a small number of clips but at the moment limited amounts of course materials that have been able to be made open.  So one of the challenges will be to find ways to fund making more material open, both in terms of the effort needed to digitise and check material and the cost of payments to any rights holders.

The digital archive can be found at

I’ve been to a couple of presentations in the last month about the Lucero linked data project, this is a JISC-funded project run by the OU’s Knowledge Media Institute, that has been working to publish a fairly wide range of university material as linked data.   One presentation by the Project Director Mathieu d’Aquin covering the wider project aspects to a university-wide audience, the other by the Project Manager, Owen Stephens, to a library audience. 

It’s a project I’ve been fortunate enough to have some involvement with and it has some impressive achievements for a short project.   Establishing as the first University-wide linked data repository, being able to release a range of different datasets from institutional repositories to course data, and not least, going some way to getting the concepts of linked data out from the laboratory and into an area where they can start to be discussed as a practical technology.

Linked data
For anyone who isn’t familiar with Linked Data it’ described by its proposer Tim Berners-Lee on his website thus:

‘The Semantic Web isn’t just about putting data on the web. It is about making links, so that a person or machine can explore the web of data.  With linked data, when you have some of it, you can find other, related, data’ 

[If you are interested in finding out more about Linked Data then is a reasonable starting place to explore].

I always find it interesting with new technologies how people describe them to other people.  Mathieu described it as essentially publishing a raw database of data onto the web as RDF with the data being addressable using a URI and talked of creating ‘a very big distributed dataspace’  That’s certainly something that is well-illustrated by the ‘traditional’ linked data cloud image (without which no linked data presentation is complete).  From more of a library perspective Owen used the example of Charlotte Bronte as the creator of Jane Eyre as an illustration of the subject, object and predicate ‘triple’.

Libraries and Linked Data
What has been particularly interesting from a library point of view is the way that linked data allows systems to extract data in new ways.  So for example, publishing course materials in RDF format has allowed queries to be created that make it possible to list all courses available in a particular country, something you can’t easily do from current websites.  And you start to see all kinds of possibilities for libraries and search systems.  You are potentially less constrained in having to decide in advance what type of queries users can make of your data.  I was interested in a comment made by Mathieu that the art of expoiting linked data was to build many small applications rather than a few big applications. 

Also last month there was the news that Archives Hub through the LOCAH project have released some of their content as linked data as a proof of concept.   So it seems to me that we are at an early stage for libraries in thinking about how Linked Data can be of use.  Certainly for us one of the things we have to think about is does it mean that we need to start to change our cataloguing practice.  It’s clear that the way we catalogue isn’t ideal if we want to convert our catalogue data to Linked Data. 

The process to decide on how you are going to express your data as Linked Data is quite a time-consuming one and a process that is very much an on-the-fly activity. Which I think is where libraries may start to feel a bit uncomfortable, without the safety net of some clear frameworks. 

I think we’ve a way to go before this type of activity starts to be commonplace, and maybe we need some tools that help us to present our resources in Linked Data more easily.  I think the analogy is obviously the early days of the web when the first website swe built were with raw html.  But it wasn’t long until tools came along such as Frontpage and Dreamweaver that meant you could build sites without knowing too much html. 

But I still think that there is massive potential within  the Linked Data world and libraries need to engage with it and start to build prototypes that can show the benefits.  Certainly I’m hopeful that we’ll have the chance to do some further work in this area with our Digital Library.

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July 2020

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