Linked Conservation Data and Terminology

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Logo of Linked Conservation Data project. Image courtesy of Athanasios Velios

By Athanasios Velios and Kristen St.John

On the 6th and 7th of June 2019, the project Linked Conservation Data funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council will hold an open workshop at Stanford University to discuss terminology in conservation. In this article we explain why terminology is important in the development of the profession and we ask for your contribution to our questionnaire: https://docs.google.com/forms/d/e/1FAIpQLSdyabmNeRS0WvorUtlyPOA5fNtPo9oc...

In August 2018, following an announcement on the ConsDistList about integrating conservation data from the collections of the University of Oxford (see OXLOD), the two of us got in touch and brainstormed on the use of Linked Data for disseminating conservation documentation. With some encouraging pilot projects in mind—from a range of people and institutions—accompanied by our own experience with Linked Data (including our work at the Ligatus Research Centre, University of the Arts London and the libraries at Stanford University) we decided to set up a network of partners to investigate the potential of this technology within the conservation profession. This led to the Linked Conservation Data project (LCD), a consortium of partners established as part of the AHRC call on Digital Scholarship in Cultural Institutions.

PROJECT OBJECTIVE

The objective of Linked Conservation Data is to improve dissemination of observations and knowledge in conservation. While conservators regularly make observations and record these in documents, rarely are these shared in ways that allow others to re-use them even within their own departments. For example, conservation reports often feature textual descriptions of condition states or treatment proposals which are difficult to encode in a machine-friendly format to combine with other reports. In condition surveys such information is often recorded in a database (as opposed to a text document) which makes it easier to summarise and query. While this is a huge benefit over text records, this data is often siloed and difficult to combine with other similar data. LCD considers conservation data stored in databases or as metadata and investigates ways that will allow the sharing of data in the profession. An introductory webinar for the project will take place on the 3rd of May 2019 in advance of the first workshop.

CONSORTIUM MEMBERS

-Bodleian Library (UK)
-British Museum (UK)
-Fitzwilliam Museum (UK)
-Foundation of Research and Technology Hellas (Greece)
-Gallery Systems (US)
-Getty Trust (US)
-Institute of Conservation (UK)
-International Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works (UK)
-Kent State University (US)
-Library of Congress (US)
-National Gallery (UK)
-Oxford University - EAMENA (UK)
-Stanford University (US)
-University of Cergy-Pontoise (France)
-University of the Arts London (UK)

THE IMPORTANCE OF TERMINOLOGY

During the first workshop of LCD (Stanford, 6th and 7th of June 2019) we will discuss conservation terminology. It is often implied—but useful to clarify here—that terminology is important, because terms are used as data entered into databases or are used in metadata. This means that they are also used for the retrieval of records. For example, searching for leather in a book catalogue requires that the person querying and the person inputting the records have a common understanding of what leather means. Although strictly speaking the term leather describes tanned skins, it has also been used to document tawed skins. Depending on the searcher’s point of view, results returned from a query may be too broad or inaccurate.

While traditions in different languages and different professional groups within each language are important, there is little value in arguing whether one term is better than another. Such arguments often do not lead to agreement, and the individual parties carry on with their preferred uses of the term. A simple solution to this problem is to focus on “concepts” described by the terms as opposed to the terms themselves. Agreeing to a concept is possible as this can be based on material evidence. Identifying the concept with a number or code and then linking the code to individual terms gets around the problem of agreeing on terms. This basic distinction between “concept” (idea) and “label” (term) is fundamental when discussing terminology. For example the text “Animal skin that has been treated with tanning agents...” (see LoB thesaurus) encapsulates this concept. The subject in question can be called tanned skin in English, garvet skinn in Norwegian, etc. The labels we choose to refer to the subject are separate from the subject itself.

Another interesting problem is that of aligning concepts from different traditions. An example that has been used in the past is brochure binding which in French refers to a binding with so-called drawn-on covers without any assumptions about the thickness of the book. A frequent translation of this term in English is pamphlet which may or may not have drawn-on covers, but it refers to bindings for small ephemeral publications. Capturing the conceptual differences of overlapping concepts is a particularly interesting discussion.

Many different vocabularies are in use in conservation, and harmonising the competing concepts and terms is not easy. Methodologically, this is achieved by establishing hierarchical relationships between broader and narrower concepts and attaching these to an overarching thesaurus. If this is achieved then conservators will be able to continue using the terms of choice for their records but will also be able to retrieve results from datasets using other aligned terms.

THE WORKSHOP

The Terminology Workshop will focus on the requirements, the usage and the availability of conservation vocabularies needed for successful Linked Data implementation for documentation. We’ll look at how a vocabulary can be expressed and shared as Linked Data and the ways lists of terms should be organized. We’ll consider current and long-established vocabularies and do some preliminary evaluation of terminology gaps. For example, many vocabularies that have been developed by peer groups (cataloguers, art historians, metadata experts, etc.) are rich in descriptive terms, but have limited coverage of condition issues, conservation techniques or materials used in conservation. By surveying the technical requirements for terminology used in Linked Data and the areas in which advancement is needed, we hope to plan future areas of action.

HOW YOU CAN HELP

Please fill in our questionnaire. https://docs.google.com/forms/d/e/1FAIpQLSdyabmNeRS0WvorUtlyPOA5fNtPo9oc...

As part of the Linked Conservation Data project, we will produce a report describing the landscape of conservation thesauri. We aim to establish a plan of work to allow the integration and alignment of conservation vocabularies for which we want to assess the amount of work required so that we can identify necessary resources. By filling in this questionnaire you will bring resources you use to our attention and we can then schedule to consider these at the open workshop in Stanford.

REGISTRATION

Register for the introductory webinar here (3rd of May 2019). https://stanford.zoom.us/webinar/register/WN_rHxRD9vgQF6GxePmhjHvMw

Register for the terminology workshop here (6th and 7th of June 2019, Stanford). https://docs.google.com/forms/d/e/1FAIpQLSfDlkoaJ2BTiW0VEin2JJdRNfu4YyYg...

AUTHOR BYLINES

Dr Athanasios Velios is Reader in Documentation at the University of the Arts London as part of Ligatus, working on the documentation of conservation practice and modelling data for heritage conservation. He was trained as a conservator and has a PhD in computer applications to conservation. He was the webmaster of the International Institute for Conservation from 2009 until 2017.

Kristen St.John is Head of Conservation Services for the Stanford Libraries. She was previously Collections Conservator at UCLA and Special Collections Conservator for Rutgers. She has an MLIS and an Advanced Certificate in Conservation from the University of Texas at Austin. Her interests include preservation education, the preservation and dissemination of conservation documentation, and historic bookbinding materials.

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On the 6th and 7th of June 2019, the project Linked Conservation Data funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council will hold an open workshop at Stanford University to discuss terminology in conservation. In this article we explain why terminology is important in the development of the profession.
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