THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Sound and vision blog

2 posts from October 2007

17 October 2007

Sharing content

At the bottom of every item page on the ASR site is a clickable box containing the words View Full Metadata. It’s possible that even experienced users of the site haven’t noticed this, and still more possible that they’ve noticed it, clicked the link, and been baffled by the result: a very long document full of XML tags, embedded Excel spreadsheets, and machine code.

This is, as advertised, the Full Metadata for the item.  But that statement itself begs some questions.  What is metadata?  How is it different from other sorts of data? Why have we made it available on the site? And who wants to look at it anyway?

First things first. Metadata is the complete descriptive information about an item in a digital repository, such as a website.  An item’s metadata thus contains all of the information you expect from a standard library catalogue record (title, author, year of publication, etc.), but fits this information into a dynamic, hierarchical structure that takes into account the different ways a user can interact with it. To give a practical example, a user streaming a recording on ASR will be listening to a Windows Media file, whereas a user downloading it will listen to an mp3; the metadata record documents and controls both possibilities.

The really exciting thing about metadata is that its functions extend beyond its use on an individual website. To this end, every item page of the ASR site has been assembled using a hierarchical structuring standard known as METS. Without going into too much detail, METS gives each record a uniform structure, in which each aspect of the digital item can be identified, interrogated for further information, and potentially reused in another context. For instance, an artist interviewed on ASR may want to host the interview on their own site, and our complete METS record could be repurposed to fit his or her needs.

This idea of repurposing material, and making our records uniform and interoperable, is one of the reasons we’ve published the records in full. Another (related) reason is that we’re working towards making the ASR service Open Archives Initiative-compliant, but we’ll save that discussion for another time.

When the ASR service went live last year, we held a launch event at the British Library’s Conference Centre. Among the invitees were groups from other JISC-funded digitisation projects. When the presentations were over, and people had a chance to use the site on their own, the ASR team was intitially surprised at how many of our JISC partners made straight for the View Full Metadata links, barely pausing at the user interface. But perhaps this is as it should be.  Imagine if all future digitisation projects worked from an interoperable platform: instead of having many dozen discrete learning resources, you would essentially be building a single massive resource – perhaps the foundation of the truly global library.

And lest you think I’m getting ahead of myself, take a look at PictureAustralia, which harvests image data from Australian libraries, universities, museums and galleries, and then provides a single search point to access all the images.  This is the future, and it’s already here.

Niall Anderson, ASR Metadata Editor

09 October 2007

Out of Africa

Listening to the recordings in the African Writers Club section of the ASR site, one is struck by the fact that they come from a distinctly different era. Most of the recordings were made in the 60s and early 70s, but it almost feels as if they could have been made a century ago.  It is not the quality of the recordings – contemporary technology was perfectly adequate to make high-end broadcast material – but the use of language and style that marks them as being from an earlier time.  For example, take Len Dixon’s recitation of a poem by the Mozambique poet Malangatana, which he performs as if he were reciting to Queen Victoria.  There is little in the performance to suggest anything of the poem’s African origin.  As if to compensate, the programme is studded with recordings of recognisably African musical instruments, but these are poorly integrated into the reading, and the programme appears to me to lack any real atmosphere of the place it was created.  I think it’s unlikely that such a recording would be produced in this way today.

With that said, the recordings in the African Writers Club section do convey a great deal about the rich and diverse cultural life of Africa at the time.  They are often very acute about Africa’s relationship to the western world, and the west’s view of Africa.  This was particularly brought home to me by a programme about English Literature teaching in African universities, where both the texts and the critical methods employed could have come direct from the European university syllabus, while African English-language literary resources were almost entirely ignored.  Beyond the purely academic issue (and the students’ understandable desire to read about places and social events they knew from their own lives), the programme gives the listener a clear sense of the larger debate about what it might mean to both create and curate a self-conscious “African Literature”.  It would be interesting to hear what the contributors to the programme might say on the subject in 2007.

These programmes and others in the section left me with a lot of questions. What do these recordings tell us about the time in which they where created?  What do they tell us about Africa, and ideas of African identity?