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MCN 2007: Building Content, Building Community - 40 Years of Museum Information and Technology

Guenter Waibel and Jean Godby report on the Museum Computer Network annual meeting, held 7-10 November, 2007 in Chicago, Illinois.

The Museum Computer Network (MCN) celebrated its 40th anniversary during its annual meeting, this year held at the Holiday Inn Chicago Mart Plaza. In 1967, museum professionals in New York City gathered to discuss the utility of computers in museum settings. This initial meeting provided the seed for what would become the Museum Computer Network [1]. 40 years later, 310 delegates from 14 countries and 32 states in the US gathered to take stock of successes and issues in the networked museum. The conference programme acknowledged the anniversary with a President's Roundtable embedded in a day-long plenary session tackling key issues in the community ranging from professionalisation of the museum field to a conversation between museum directors and their IT staff [2].

This brief report represents the subjective observations on themes which particularly resonated with the authors, and should not be construed as a comprehensive or objective accounting of the entire conference [3]. Full disclosure: Günter Waibel is a second term Board Member of MCN and has attended this conference for 10 years; Jean Godby is a first-time MCN delegate; they both work in OCLC's Programs and Research Division.

Access to Museum Collections

James Cuno (Director, Art Institute of Chicago) set the stage for discussions around access to museum collections during the plenary Directors and IT Professionals: A Conversation about Leadership: "We have a moral obligation to provide people with information about our collections equal to our moral obligation to preserve the physical collections in our care."

During the panels Learning How to Share I: Making CDWA Lite Work for You and Learning How to Share II: Exploring Natural History Collections, it became evident that this moral obligation has propelled both art museums and natural history institutions towards an increased effort to provide more comprehensive access beyond local Web sites. Alan Seal (Victoria & Albert Museum) reported on the V&A's efforts to open up their entire collections information systems (120,000 records) to the public by 2008. Alan sees the combination of Open Archive Initiative Protocol for Metadata Harvesting (OAI-PMH) with the descriptive standard Categories for the Description of Works of Art (CDWA Lite XML) as a "means of bringing people back to our site" and making collections available "without losing control." It also helps the V&A to "keep track of who got what and when" as they share data with different aggregators. Michael Jenkins (Metropolitan Museum of Art) spoke about the role CDWA Lite has played in the Met's effort to provide fee-free image licensing for academic use in the context of the Scholar's License Project. Both the Metropolitan and the Victoria & Albert have growing fee-free initiatives in the area of scholarly publishing. Michael also acknowledged that institutional buy-in around licensing programmes and sharing digital content remains an issue.

While Alan and Michael represented the vanguard of the art museum community, the panel on data sharing in the natural history indicated that the "moral obligation" has had an even more profound and widespread impact in the realm of the natural sciences and biodiversity. During Learning How to Share II: Exploring Natural History Collections, Stan Blum (California Academy of Sciences & Executive Committee Member, Biodiversity Information Standards) presented on the international umbrella organisations Global Biodiversity Information Facility (GBIF) and Biodiversity Information Standards (formerly TDWG). Within five years, GBIF built an infrastructure to provide access to 130 million records from 200 providers, representing 1,000 collections. Biodiversity Information Standards is tasked with creating the standards infrastructure for sharing in the natural history realm, and is working on a sophisticated framework called the Universal Biodiversity Data Bus. According to Stan Blum, data integration is a 'no-brainer' in biodiversity: "Interrogating partial datasets makes no sense at all if you can get much better answers from all collections combined." Since arguably nothing less than the survival of the planet is at stake in biodiversity, the community galvanised around data sharing about ten years ago.

During the public CDWA Lite Advisory Committee meeting, Inge Stein (Konrad-Zuse Zentrum für Informationstechnik, Berlin) presented on Museumdat [4], a harmonisation of CDWA (Categories for the Description of Works of Art) Lite with the CIDOC (Committee on Documentation of the International Council of Museums) Conceptual Reference Model). One of the motivations for this effort: with a small amount of changes, CDWA Lite could be used for all objects across the cultural heritage spectrum, whereas currently it is optimised exclusively for fine art. All delegates agreed that the changes proposed by the German museum community should form the basis for the next version of CDWA Lite. Monika Hagedorn-Saupe (Institute for Museums Studies, Germany), Inge Stein and the Advisory Committee agreed that a single international version of the standard would be desirable.

Intellectual Property Rights and Licensing

If the panel Collections, Copyright, and Carl Malamud: Balancing Risk Management with Audience Expectations in the Display of Online Images is an indication, some museums are becoming more comfortable with claiming fair use: David Sturtevant (Harvard University Art Museums) presented on a new policy to provide a thumbnail (256 pixels/longest dimension) for each collection item to the world at large under the provision of fair use, regardless of its copyright status. A possible extension of the policy to 512 pixels is under review. David's last slide displayed the mantra "Have faith. Don't pay," and he encouraged other museums to rally around claiming fair use for thumbnail display.

The Town Hall Meeting on Intellectual Property: Museum Image Licensing – The Next Generation provoked a lively debate, with many points of view represented by both presenters and delegates, and little evidence of an emerging consensus around the business model for sustaining digital image provision: the room seemed divided between those who feel that the museum community can make the most impact in our information economy by providing open access whenever legally possible, and those who favour business models of cost recovery or even revenue generation. Amalyah Keshet (Israel Museum) describes the amount of work rights and reproduction requests make, and why the Israel Museum charges to cover cost. Alan Newman (National Gallery of Art) contends that recovering costs for service seems reasonable, while disseminating existing images requires a different model. Alan also reads a statement by Ken Hamma, which beseeches museums to investigate the "irrational paternal instinct" they feel towards their collections. Tyler Ochoa (Professor of IP Law, Santa Clara University) and Theodore Feder (President, ARS/NY and Art Resource) agree to disagree: Tyler claims that case law supports the position that a photograph of a museum object can not be copyrighted, while Theodor claims it can. Jeff Sedlik (President & CEO, PLUS Coalition) posits that with licensing an image comes the responsibility to clearly ascertain and communicate rights, and plugs the Picture Licensing Universal System (PLUS) as a framework for doing so.

Museums, Libraries, Archives

MCN always attracts a fair number of librarians and archivists, and provides good opportunities for discussing the convergence of these allied communities. During International Spotlight: Taiwan, Chiung-min Tsai (Digital Museums Project at National Taiwan University(NTU)) reported on an effort to integrate access to all museum collections within the NTU campus so they could be queried in a similar way to distributed library holdings across various university libraries. He remarked on the changing roles of university art museums: their identity is transitioning from the confines of the university context to a broader audience; their value is transitioning from academic research to enriching public discourse; and their function is transitioning from 'on-premises access' to broad dissemination.

On the panel Digital Libraries, Virtual Museums: Same Difference?, Chuck Patch (formerly of the Historic New Orleans Collection (HNOC)) gave a talk about library, archive and museum integration at HNOC over a time-frame of ten years. He touched on a variety of different facets of integration which have to be considered to produce a sustainable outcome: while integrated systems can be a catalyst, a number of changes in the organisational structure finally engendered the shift in mindsets required for success. After many fits and starts, HNOC integrated cataloguing for all collections under a single "Processing Department."

Several models for sharing data among stakeholder institutions emerged from the presentations, discussions, and vendor exhibits. IDEA Information Systems [5] offers a turnkey system for building and and accessing a database of heterogeneous resources that may be described by MARC, EAD, or Dublin Core. Once populated with descriptions of a given community's library and museum resources, a user could issue a single search and retrieve links to published works about an artist as well as descriptions of related museum objects. OCLC's WorldCat Identities [6] offers another model. As described by Jean Godby in a CDWALite panel discussion, data obtained from MARC records in OCLC's WorldCat database is assembled to create a page of links about an artist or any other personal name represented in the published record. Users can click on these links for a focused but rich browsing experience that brings together works by and about the artist (or related names and subjects) in WorldCat and a growing list of community-created resources such as Wikipedia. Audience members suggested that the browsing experience could be improved by integrating authority files from the art museum community. For example, Getty's ULAN [7] could provide labelled relationships among artists, which would notify users that an associated name is a colleague, teacher, or student of the artist being investigated.

These examples of integrated library and museum resources are promising developments, but much work remains to be done. Library materials are not represented very well in museum resources and vice versa. And when they can be accessed through a single resource, the user still has to do too much work to integrate them. To improve this experience, the library and museum communities will have to make progress in defining interoperable standards and deploying collection-level descriptions. But the fact that all parties are excited about the prospects of sharing data and expertise is a harbinger of future results.

Open Source

MCN released MuseTech Central: MCN Project Registry [8] during a coffee break. The Project Registry is a platform for sharing information about technology projects in museums. The open source code for the registry was largely developed under the auspices of the Open Software Foundation [9], which also packed a table during one of the popular Case Study Showcases. The Open Software hopes to become the de facto platform for collaboratively developed code in the museum community, and currently hosts a distributed project management package to foster collaboration.

Museums can now share their data by using OAICatMuseumBeta [10], an OAI-PMH data provider (based on the open source OAICat) made available by OCLC Programs and Research.

Further interest in the potential of open source development was spurred by OpenCollection [11], an open source collections management system funded by Institute of Museum and Library Services and the New York State Council on the Arts. Carl Goodman (Museum of the Moving Image) and Chris Mackie (Andrew W. Mellon Foundation) created a buzz with the news of likely Mellon funding for a community design process to take OpenCollection to the next level.


Obviously, the MCN 2007 Conference offered many more sessions and events than the authors were able to attend or report on. From the selective summary above it should have become clear that the museum community finds itself at cross-roads. During MCN, museums were negotiating their way between their educational mission and financial sustainability; open access to digital resources and licensing; local concerns and the wider library, archive, museum community; open source tools and vendor-supplied software. No doubt these discussions will continue during MCN 2008 in Washington DC.


  1. For more information on the formation of MCN (Museum Computer Network), Richard Urban (Doctoral Student, Graduate School of Library and Information and a current member of the MCN Board of Directors) provides a history of the formative days of MCN at http://musematic.net/?p=215.
    A full account of the history of MCN, written by Richard Urban and immediate past President of MCN Marla Misunas, can be found at http://www.mcn.edu/about/index.asp?subkey=1942.
  2. An mp3 recording of this conversation will be available at http://www.mcn.edu/ shortly.
    The slides used by moderator Nik Honeysett are available at http://musematic.net/?p=279.
  3. Other complimentary accounts may be found at
    http://conference.archimuse.com/tags/mcn, http://musematic.net/?p=313 and
  4. Documentation on Museumdat as well as an XML Schema is available from
  5. IDEA Information Systems http://www.IDEA-ALM.com/
  6. OCLC's WorldCat Identities http://orlabs.oclc.org/Identities/
  7. Getty's ULAN http://www.getty.edu/research/conducting_research/vocabularies/ulan/
  8. MuseTech Central: MCN Project Registry http://www.musetechcentral.org/
  9. Open Software Foundation http://www.museumsoftwarefoundation.org/
  10. OAICatMuseumBeta http://www.oclc.org/research/software/oai/oaicatmuseum.htm
  11. OpenCollection http://www.opencollection.org/

Author Details

Günter Waibel
Program Officer
OCLC Programs and Research

Email: waibelg@oclc.org
Blog: http://www.hangingtogether.org/

Jean Godby
Research Scientist
OCLC Programs and Research

Email: godby@oclc.org

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