With the rise of the Internet as one of the dominant
means of information gathering in the late '90s, Libraries, Museums
and other cultural institutions need to develop networked services
aimed at the End-user if they are to retain their relevance in
the new millennium.
The replacement of the online intermediary by the
end-user is part of a trend that has produced supermarket shopping,
hole-in-the-wall banking, and student-centred learning; the intention
of each is a felicitous combination of increased throughput, consumer
empowerment and lower unit costs.
The design of any end-user information service has
to take into account what the end-user wants from their information:
they want it easy, they want it one-stop and they
want it now.
A supermarket that needed a User Manual would soon go out of business. The availability of information service functions must be obvious, and their use must be intuitive, otherwise they will not be used at all.
Similarly, the end-user is not particularly concerned at the accidents of fate that led to the information they seek residing in public library 'a' rather than university library 'b' or perhaps museum 'c ' or archive 'd'. Ideally, information services must be able to support searching between institutions and access domains.
Finally, our end-user is generally seeking information per se, not a physical location where such information may reside. The market is increasingly for services providing on-demand access to digitised images and machine-readable text.
One such service is the Scottish Cultural Resources
Access Network. SCRAN is building an end-user multimedia resource
base of library, archive and museum material, for the teaching
and celebration of human history and material culture in Scotland.
Although founded by major Scottish cultural institutions, their
representation on the SCRAN Board is balanced by an equal number
of representatives from the education and training sectors, in
an effort to ensure that the development of SCRAN is user-needs-driven,
and not provider-led.
SCRAN has funding until
2001 of some 15 million pounds sterling, half of it from the UK
Millennium Commission and half from Contributors, largely in the
form of intellectual property rights. In essence, SCRAN is in
a position to fund the digitisation and captioning of images and
other multimedia assets, in exchange for a non-exclusive licence
to make them available for educational use. In this way, SCRAN
expects to build a resource base of 1.5 million text records and
100,000 multimedia resources.
SCRAN is providing access
to the resources of libraries, archives, museums, art galleries,
archaeological corpora etc, each with their own vocabularies and
cataloguing conventions. It would be fatuous to try to change
these domain standards, but in order to support end user cross-domain
access, we have adopted the Dublin Core set of metadata
elements, to provide a unified interface to all the different
sorts of objects SCRAN is concerned with. SCRAN is therefore
acting as a metadata repository, holding pointers to its own digitised
resources of built heritage and museum objects in the material
world, to detailed, domain-specific records in other databases,
to appropriate web pages, and to other subject gateways.
This metadata is held in
what are known as SCRAN Basic Records. SCRAN Full Datasets consist
of a SCRAN Basic Record (perhaps enriched with further indexing),
plus a multimedia resource (flat or 3D image, movie or sound clip,
animation, PDF, Virtual Reality object or whatever), plus up to
3 paragraphs of Caption material. Captions give a brief introduction
to a topic, a description of the object represented in the multimedia,
and some background information if necessary; all written to be
understood by the intelligent, non-specialist, reader.
All SCRAN material is held
in a searchable database format, and the results are converted
into HTML on-the-fly, so that every SCRAN resource is in essence
available on the World Wide Web. It is recognised that unrestricted
WWW access effectively releases material into the Public Domain,
but this is acceptable because supporting unstructured private
study is considered part of SCRAN's educational remit. The IPR
of the original rights holders is protected since only thumbnail
versions of multimedia material are made available in this way.
End-users in Educational
institutions in membership of SCRAN have, in addition, the capability
of downloading larger, higher definition images suitable for use
in the current generation of multimedia systems. In fact, SCRAN
insist that all scanning must be done at a much higher definition
still (equivalent to 16 times the size of a current generation
screen). This protects SCRAN's investment, since it will be possible
to upgrade the specification of educational images in future,
without the need to re-scan. It also creates for the original
rights-holder a high-quality resource which can be exploited commercially
As already discussed, SCRAN
has a strong educational mission. We are targeting end-users
in Primary, Secondary, Further and Higher Education, as well as
Lifelong Learners, and so our delivery points include not only
educational institutions, but also Libraries, Museums, Community
Centres, Tourist Information Centres and the home.
Since its launch in July
1996, the SCRAN Website has registered 100,000 hits from all over
the world, and there is a tremendous interest in things Scottish
from the Scottish Diaspora: there are up to 60 million people
world wide who claim some form of link with Scotland. SCRAN can
be seen to have a role in promoting a world-wide awareness of
Scottish landscapes and heritage. There must be a point at which
educational end-usage would be better described as virtual tourism:
but from a SCRAN point of view this does not matter.
Libraries and Museums in the Information Society
As natural delivery points for end-user services
such as SCRAN, Libraries and Museums may in future come to be
regarded less as storehouses of particular collections of recorded
knowledge and material culture, than as gateways to networks of
such resources world-wide.
The end-user is being given the capability to assemble
for themselves collections of such resources, tailored for their
current need into a Virtual Library, a Virtual Museum.
The question to be asked is, if the Information Society
is going to be built on virtual collections, will there be a future
role for the real information professional? And of course, the
answer is that none of this will be possible without the acquisition,
conservation, description, organisation and presentation skills
of the information professional. It may be true that End-Users
will be the Main Players in the Information Society. But it will
be information professionals that direct the play, fabricate the
scenery - and lift the curtain!