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Linked Open Data for Cultural Heritage and Digital Humanities

September 28, 2016 4 mins. read Vladimir Alexiev

Make sense of all the information

The Internet, global digitization efforts, Europe’s Digital Agenda, continuing investments in Europeana, the Digital Public Library of America and many other initiatives, have made millions upon millions of digitized cultural artifacts available on the net.

We need to make sense of all this information: aggregate it, integrate it, provide cross-collection search, find links between entities and artifacts, build narratives, analyze data, support the scientific discourse, engage users…

The Maze of Standards

From ancient maps to bibliographic records, to paintings, to coins and hoards, to paleographic analysis, to prosopography factoids… everything is becoming more and more connected. A host of ontologies and metadata standards exist in the Cultural Heritage (CH) domain: CIDOC CRM, TEI5, LIDO, SPECTRUM, VRA Core, MPEG7, DC, ESE and EDM, OAI ORE and PMH, IIIIF, ResourceSync… the list goes on and on.

How many of the standards listed in Seeing Standards: A Visualization of the Metadata Universe (by Jenn Riley, Associate Dean for Digital Initiatives at McGill University Library) apply to your work?

Revisiting Humanities

A number of established thesauri and gazetteers exist and some of them are interconnected: DBpedia; Wikidata, VIAF, FAST, ULAN; GeoNames, Pleiades, TGN; LCSH, AAT, IconClass, Joconde, SVCN, Wordnet and so on. The diagram below (by Michiel Hildebrand) shows a small part of this upcoming universe of CH data.

Beyond Borders: The Humanities in the Digital Age

But how to use them in every-day collection management, cataloging, documentation and research? How to expose your institution’s collections and other data to allow interlinking?

Digital Humanities (DH) has emerged as a new and promising scientific discipline, with universities like Kings College London establishing new departments devoted to it. As Jeffrey Schnapp writes in the Digital Humanities manifesto 2.0:

Digital Humanities embraces and harnesses the expanded, global nature of today’s research communities as one of the great inter-disciplinary/post-disciplinary opportunities of our time. It dreams of models of knowledge production and reproduction that leverage the increasingly distributed nature of expertise and knowledge and transform this reality into occasions for scholarly innovation, disciplinary cross-fertilization, and the democratization of knowledge.

In his keynote address at MCN 2014 Beyond Borders: The Humanities in the Digital Age, James Cuno (President and CEO of the J. Paul Getty Trust) emphasizes the role of modernizing Humanities and the value of Linked Data in cultural heritage informatics.

The question also is how to preserve the role of libraries, museums and other Cultural Heritage institutions as centers of wisdom and culture into the new millennium? Aren’t Google, Wikipedia, Facebook, Twitter and smart-phone apps becoming the new centers of research and culture (or at least popular culture)?

Linked Pathways to Modernization

We believe the answers to many of these questions lie with Semantic Technology and Linked Data. They enable large-scale Digital Humanities research, collaboration and aggregation as well as the technological renewal of CH institutions.

The Rosetta Stone was key to the deciphering of Egyptian hieroglyphs, by providing parallel text in three scripts: Ancient Egyptian, Demotic and Ancient Greek. Today, Semantic Technology plays a similar role, allowing the Digital Humanist to make connections between (and make sense of) the multitude of digitized cultural artifacts available on the net.

The multitude of digitized cultural artifacts available on the net

An upsurge of interest in Semantic Technology has swept the CH and DH communities. Meetups and summits, conferences and un-conferences, residences and hackathons are taking place every week. CH institutions are collaborating actively.

An active Linked Open Data for Libraries, Archives and Museums (LODLAM) community has emerged, and the #LODLAM twitter hashtag sees active communication. Established institutions create branches that sound like web startups or Wikipedia offsprings (e.g., British Library Labs; Smithsonian Web-strategy and Smithsonian Commons; UK National Archives department of Web Continuity, etc.).

The Galleries, Libraries, Archives and Museums (GLAM) sector deals with complex and varied data. Integrating that data, especially across institutions, has always been a challenge. On the other hand, the value of Linked Data is especially high in this sector, since culture by its very nature is cross-border and interlinked.


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