Museum collections and the stories we tell about data

This week Frictionless Data will be at Always Already Computational: Library Collections as Data. Sierra Williams looks at the containers for museum and library collections data and why storytelling is important for understanding these collections in the digital age.

One of the great things about working at Open Knowledge International is being surrounded by fascinating projects and a community of committed individuals working at the intersection of innovative tech, social good, and underlying principles of openness in society. Working in communications, my interest and focus is on the stories we are telling about these projects. Data as subject material – whether big, small, open, or closed – does not typically come across as human-focused and if it elicits any emotive response it is usually fear of those unknown algorithms ruling our lives in unseen ways. How do we talk about data that extends beyond the fear?

One of the most powerful stories I’ve come across at the organisation is from our Frictionless Data team. They build standards, tools and best practices designed to make sharing data as easy, or frictionless, as possible. When the team discuss this work, they talk about how their Data Packages act as containers for making it easier to transport data, as shipping containerisation does for the movement of goods. Data Packages identify the metadata necessary for data to be transferred from one researcher to another, making the whole process of getting access to quality data more efficient.

Dan Fowler will be discussing Data Packages for library and museum collections data this week at the Always Already Computational: Library Collections as Data conference, designed to foster a strategic approach to developing, describing, providing access to, and encouraging reuse of museum and library collections that support computationally-driven research and teaching in areas including but not limited to Digital Humanities, Public History, Digital History, data-driven Journalism, Digital Social Science, and Digital Art History.

Librarians get the importance of structured metadata. Digital humanities scholars get that how we share our data will have lasting implications for the future. We are thrilled to see the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania is providing its museum collections data as a downloadable Data Package and we look forward to learning more about how this data will be used.

Over the course of this year, with the continued support of a grant from the Sloan Foundation, the Frictionless Data team will be working with researchers to pilot these Data Packages and the associated tooling further. Through this process, Frictionless Data specifically hope to provide useful tools for researchers in digital humanities.

There is so much we in the open data community can learn from the history and development of museums and libraries. Some of the best storytelling I’ve read on the key role of data management in society is by Abby Smith Rumsey in her recent book When We Are No More: How Digital Memory is Shaping Our Future. She charts the growth of the Library of Alexandria and the influence it had advancing scholarship, culture and civilisation. In fact, the word museum, I learned, comes from the Temple of the Muses, or Mouseion, which housed the great Library. Rumsey also writes on the technical responsibilities and innovation of the Alexandria librarians:

“Good work requires good order. Before scholars could begin their work, the librarians had to have finished theirs. Their task was twofold: to create and maintain an intellectual organization so it would be possible to find things, and to provide physical stewardship, to keep the scrolls secure and usable over time…

Greater efficiencies in the production of scrolls over time meant the proliferation of physical objects that were valuable, fragile and once rolled up, identical in appearance…But a better solution was a technically advanced format — the codex. This is the book form we know today…”

As we look to tell stories about data, we should continue to engage with and be inspired by the work of museums and libraries, especially in how they have articulated the meaning of information processing over the years. Information has been managed for thousands of years – yielding insight from data has been and continues to be a very tangible, human issue.

Our mission at Open Knowledge International is to empower civil society organisations to use open data to improve people’s lives. Our approach to technology is not an end in itself, but rather a gateway to make a difference in the world and collaborate. Drawing inspiration from the librarians of Alexandria, we know that good work requires good order. From Data Packages to Good Tables, Frictionless Data are building tools to help build order in an otherwise chaotic information landscape.

Make sure to follow the work of the Frictionless Data team and our other projects at Open Knowledge International for more insights on how to make sense of data.

For updates from the Always Already Computational conference, follow the hashtag #aacdata on Twitter.

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