Wednesday, 20 of June of 2018

RDF ontologies for archival descriptions

If you were to select a set of RDF ontologies intended to be used in the linked data of archival descriptions, then what ontologies would you select?

For simplicity’s sake, RDF ontologies are akin to the fields in MARC records or the entities in EAD/XML files. Articulated more accurately, they are the things denoting relationships between subjects and objects in RDF triples. In this light, they are akin to the verbs in all but the most simplistic of sentences. But if they are akin to verbs, then they bring with them all of the nuance and subtlety of human written language. And human written language, in order to be an effective human communications device, comes with two equally important prerequisites: 1) a writer who can speak to an intended audience, and 2) a reader with a certain level of intelligence. A writer who does not use the language of the intended audience speaks to few, and a reader who does not “bring something to the party” goes away with litte understanding. Because the effectiveness of every writer is not perfect, and because not every reader comes to the party with a certain level of understanding, written language is imperfect. Similarly, the ontologies of linked data are imperfect. There are no perfect ontologies nor absolutely correct uses of them. There are only best practices and common usages.

This being the case, ontologies still need to be selected in order for linked data to be manifested. What ontologies would you suggest be used when creating linked data for archival descriptions? Here are a few possibilities, listed in no priority order:

  • Dublin Core Terms – This ontology is rather bibliographic in nature, and provides a decent framework for describing much of the content of archival descriptions.
  • FOAF – Archival collections often originate from individual people. Such is the scope of FOAF, and FOAF is used by a number of other sets of linked data.
  • MODS – Because many archival descriptions are rooted in MARC records, and MODS is easily mapped from MARC.
  • – This is an up-and-coming ontology heralded by the 600-pound gorillas in the room — Google, Microsoft, Yahoo, etc. While the ontology has not been put into practice for very long, it is growing and wide ranging.
  • RDF – This ontology is necessary because linked data is manifested as… RDF
  • RDFS – This ontology may be necessary because the archival community may be creating some of its own ontologies.
  • OWL and SKOS – Both of these ontologies seem to be used to denote relationships between terms in other ontologies. In this way they are used to create classification schemes and thesauri. For example, they allow the implementor to that “creator” in one ontology is the same as “author” in another ontology. Or they allow “country” in one ontology to be denoted as a parent geographic term for “city” in another ontology.

While some or all of these ontologies may be useful for linked data of archival descriptions, what might some other ontologies include? (Remember, it is often “better” to select existing ontologies rather than inventing, unless there is something distinctly unique about a particular domain.) For example, how about an ontology denoting times? Or how about one for places? FOAF is good for people, but what about organizations or institutions?

Inquiring minds would like to know.

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