Thursday, 24 of May of 2018

Linked data and archival practice: Or, There is more than one way to skin a cat.

Two recent experiences have taught me that — when creating some sort of information service — linked data will reside and be mixed in with data collected from any number of Internet techniques. Linked data interfaces will coexist with REST-ful interfaces, or even things as rudimentary as FTP. To the archivist, this means linked data is not the be-all and end-all of information publishing. There is no such thing. To the application programmer, this means you will need to have experience with a ever-growing number of Internet protocols. To both it means, “There is more than one way to skin a cat.”

Semantic Web in Libraries, 2013

Hamburg, Germany

Hamburg, Germany

In October of 2013 I had the opportunity to attend the Semantic Web In Libraries conference. [1, 2] It was a three-day event attended by approximately three hundred people who could roughly be divided into two equally sized groups: computer scientists and cultural heritage institution employees. The bulk of the presentations fell into two categories: 1) publishing linked data, and 2) creating information services. The publishers talked about ontologies, human-computer interfaces for data creation/maintenance, and systems exposing RDF to the wider world. The people creating information services were invariably collecting, homogenizing, and adding value to data gathered from a diverse set of information services. These information services were not limited to sets of linked data. They also included services accessible via REST-ful computing techniques, OAI-PMH interfaces, and there were probably a few locally developed file transfers or relational database dumps described as well. These people where creating lists of information services, regularly harvesting content from the services, writing cross-walks, locally storing the content, indexing it, providing services against the result, and sometimes republishing any number of “stories” based on the data. For the second group of people, linked data was certainly not the only game in town.

GLAM Hack Philly

Philadelphia, United States

Philadelphia, United States

In February of 2014 I had the opportunity to attend a hackathon called GLAM Hack Philly. [3] A wide variety of data sets were presented for “hacking” against. Some where TEI files describing Icelandic manuscripts. Some was linked data published from the British museum. Some was XML describing digitized journals created by a vendor-based application. Some of it resided in proprietary database applications describing the location of houses in Philadelphia. Some of it had little or no computer-readable structure at all and described plants. Some of it was the wiki mark-up for local municipalities. After the attendees (there were about two dozen of us) learned about each of the data sets we self-selected and hacked away at projects of our own design. The results fell into roughly three categories: geo-referencing objects, creating searchable/browsable interfaces, and data enhancement. With the exception of the resulting hack repurposing journal content to create new art, the results were pretty typical for cultural heritage institutions. But what fascinated me was way us hackers selected our data sets. Namely, the more complete and well-structured the data was the more hackers gravitated towards it. Of all the data sets, the TEI files were the most complete, accurate, and computer-readable. Three or four projects were done against the TEI. (Heck, I even hacked on the TEI files. [4]) The linked data from the British Museum — very well structured but not quite as through at the TEI — attracted a large number of hackers who worked together for a common goal. All the other data sets had only one or two people working on them. What is the moral to the story? There are two of them. First, archivists, if you want people to process your data and do “kewl” things against it, then make sure the data is thorough, complete, and computer-readable. Second, computer programmers, you will need to know a variety of data formats. Linked data is not the only game in town.


In summary, the technologies described in this Guidebook are not the only way to accomplish the goals of archivists wishing to make their content more accessible. [5] Instead, linked data is just one of many protocols in the toolbox. It is open, standards-based, and simpler rather than more complex. On the other hand, other protocols exist which have a different set of strengths and weaknesses. Computer technologists will need to have a larger rather than smaller knowledge of various Internet tools. For archivists, the core of the problem is still the collection and description of content. This — a what of archival practice — continues to remain constant. It is the how of archival practice — the technology — that changes at a much faster pace.


  1. SWIB13 –
  2. SWIB3 travelogue –
  3. hackathon –
  4. my hack –
  5. Guidebook –

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