Book Review: Cultural Heritage Information: Access and Management

Cultural Heritage Information: Access and Management. Eds., Ian Ruthven and G.G. Chowdhury. Croydon, UK: Facet, 2015. 253 p. $99.08 softcover (ISBN: 978-1-85604-930-6).

As stated in the preface by Chowdhury and Ruthvan, “this book provides a snapshot of current research and development as well as outlining the various challenges and trends of research in relation to the creation, access and management of digital cultural heritage information systems and services” (xvi). In the first chapter, the editors define cultural heritage as falling into two main categories: tangible (such as paintings antiquities, artefacts, buildings, or monuments) or intangible (such as dance, plays, music, stories, etc.). When either of these two types are digitized, they become digital cultural heritage (1). With such a broad scope, those wishing to begin their scholarly inquiry into digital cultural heritage information management or those wishing for a snapshot of various issues facing digital curation professionals will find this book very useful. Additionally, this book will also appeal to those hoping to learn ideas and strategies implemented outside of the United States. All of the authors except two hail from outside of the United States, providing a different perspective for American curators.

The book begins with overview chapters on policies and infrastructures, and then moves “to considerations of interaction, access to objects, [and] concrete system implementations” (7). In reality, the eleven chapters discuss: an introduction to managing cultural heritage; the history of digital humanities; policy considerations in providing access to cultural heritage information (such as intellectual property concerns); best practices in digitization standards and technologies; metadata issues in information systems; design considerations in information systems architecture; usability studies on digital information systems, user needs for digital information systems, knowledge organizational systems; projects that support multiple access paths for users of digital cultural heritage systems; and the sustainability of digital cultural heritage information systems.

The chapter formats include think pieces, analysis of past literature, and case studies. With only one or two chapters dedicated to one concept, the book feels a bit disjointed for those hoping for an in-depth analysis of a particular aspect of managing cultural heritage information systems (for instance, digitization standards, metadata issues, or usability studies). The chapters are very focused on one aspect of cultural heritage information and the book lacks a comprehensive conclusion integrating the various concepts together, leaving the reader feeling a bit shell-shocked at the end. Additionally, none of the chapters layers on or connects with each other. However, for those looking for a broad overview of concerns and issues, this book provides a great first step in considering various aspects of managing cultural heritage information.

The focus on international systems is very useful for documenting a global perspective on preserving digital cultural heritage resources. Most of the chapters focus on European institutions, but South Africa, Japan, and Canada are also represented. Many authors in this book refer to Europeana (www.europeana.eu/portal) in their analysis and case studies of digital cultural information systems. Similar to the Digital Public Library of America (http://dp.la), Europeana is a hub that brings together digital cultural heritage items from across multiple institutions together to one web portal. The analysis of the same project from multiple perspectives and with a focus on very different aspects of cultural heritage management is very interesting and helpful in synthesizing the concepts. Additionally, it is very worthwhile to learn about projects not heavily used or advertised in the United States. Such studies not only broaden perspectives, but can also assist managers of cultural heritage better understand user needs and perspectives on an international scale.

Some of the chapters are much stronger than others. The chapter focusing on managing information architecture, starts as a thought piece, and then concludes with a brief case study of two institutions. The authors might have been better served to integrate the case study into the rest of the chapter, so that the case study doesn’t feel like an afterthought. The digital humanities chapter feels a little out of place in a book focusing on access and management of cultural heritage information, but is very well written and interesting. The author argues for a broader approach to thinking of the history of digital humanities scholarship, and chronicles the merging of different fields and scholarship angles to form our current understanding of digital humanities. The chapter on sustainability of information systems provides some concepts and ideas not usually discussed relating to not only the energy use of digital information systems, but also the accessibility of such systems to those international populations with limited access to the Internet. If we are truly digitizing information to provide information to everyone, we need to address issues of disparity in our populations.

Although not addressed in the book, one problematic issue with “cultural heritage” is that it means different things to different groups. This book strives to define cultural heritage in the first chapter, but authors of specific chapters define it differently. For instance, some refer to LAM (Libraries, Archives, and Museums), while a different articles use the acronym GLAM (for Galleries, Libraries, Archives, and Museums). Perhaps in and of itself, it is an admonition to our community that the definition changes from chapter to chapter; but nevertheless, it makes determining the intended audience difficult. In the introductory chapter on “cultural heritage,” the editors strive to establish a definition, but individual chapter authors conceptualized it in varying ways, rarely using synonyms when discussing “cultural heritage,” which would’ve helped further clarify their own definition. As a community, we need to assess what we mean by cultural heritage and be more consistent in our own literature so those outside our discipline can better follow our ideas and projects.

Overall, this book provides a global overview of issues related to cultural heritage information access and management. The eighteen authors span six countries and the diversity provides a welcome change in perspective from most texts that focus on American institutions. With the broad scope of “cultural heritage information access and management,” the book feels unconnected, but also brings up many important and critical issues as we continue to develop and implement digital cultural information systems.—Nicole Garrett Smeltekop (nicole@msu.edu), Michigan State University Libraries, East Lansing, Michigan

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