Thanks to digitization and the Web, institutions like the National Library of Australia, the Australian War Memorial and the National Archives have changed their view of service delivery and are rapidly transforming themselves from providers of collections to providers of access.
For much of this vast country's history the tyranny of distance has meant rural Australians have been pretty much denied access to our largely Canberra-based cultural institutions, and research has traditionally suffered most.
Now, thanks to digitization and a Web presence, institutions like the National Library of Australia, the Australian War Memorial and the National Archives of Australia have found their mission transformed. With a new-found ability to deliver a service beyond their doors, their focus has drastically changed, from being mere providers of collections to providers of access.
"Cultural institutions such as the National Library have dramatically reformed their view of service delivery and access with the online environment," says Roxanne Missingham, assistant director, resource sharing, with the National Library of Australia (NLA). "What it really means is that we can deliver a service that extends beyond our walls and is truly national in reach.
"We are also undertaking extensive digitization of material in our collection, so that all Australians can access our resources and services through the Internet wherever they are, as are the Australian War Memorial and National Archives of Australia. This involves considerable involvement in the development of international standards.
"In addition to using the Internet as a channel, cultural institutions have completely reformed their service models and technological solutions."
It is through collaboration that much of the advances have been achieved. By working with each other, plus their state and overseas counterparts, many of our cultural institutions are making vast strides in ensuring the preservation and future accessibility of the records that document the key government decisions that impact so many spheres of Australian life and culture.
"As for what can be gained by working collaboratively? More and more people know about their national collections and they understand that they can see them and gain knowledge from them," says Anne Lyons, assistant director-general, access and communication, National Archives of Australia (NAA).
For instance, up to a million visitors a year trek to the Australian War Memorial (AWM), many looking for a chance to feel closer to the experience of a family member or close family friend who served in conflict. Each year since it was opened to the public eight years ago some 34,000 of those visitors have spent time in the reading room. Now some two million intrepid visitors are trekking to the memorial annually online.
"The really big story that technology has allowed us to do, which wasn't there 20 years ago, is that we've now got two million visitors that are staying 15 minutes at our Web site who are accessing the stuff that we can provide, and that's what technology has allowed us. So it really was a case that if you build it they will come," says Mal Booth, head of the AWM's Research Centre.
"Not that they won't keep coming through the front door - they certainly do that - but they have now found a new resource there."
Where service agencies struggle to collaborate in the face of stovepipes and competing agendas and missions, Australia's cultural institutions have been leading the charge on collaboration.
"Australia has a long tradition of cooperation between libraries," says Missingham. "The national network of libraries has been strongly supported by the National Library of Australia for many decades."
In such a large country, with a network of public, state, university, research and special libraries spread across 7.7 million square kilometres, libraries in Australia have always worked together, their cooperative ethos built on the recognition that the national collection would inevitably be distributed in libraries across the nation.
Our libraries hold rich and diverse collections. In fact the 4850-odd libraries in Australia (excluding primary and secondary school libraries), have built significant collections over the past two hundred years and together have a stock of some 75 million volumes, borrowed at a rate of 193 million volumes a year.
Like other cultural institutions, the NLA must meet long-term objectives like building its collection, while continuing to evolve to meet the ever more sophisticated demands of its customers. Above all that means providing fast and convenient access to library collections and services, and whenever possible letting those users discover and obtain information not only from its own collection, but that of its partners.
Digital technologies and the Internet continue to provide major opportunities to reach new audiences, to streamline and broaden its services to innovate. One response has been PANDORA (Preserving and Accessing Networked Documentary Resources of Australia), an ever-growing collection of copies of Australian online publications, established initially by the NLA in 1996. As it became clear the volume of material being published and the complexity of the task of collecting it would make it impossible for the NLA to build alone an archive of sufficient depth and breadth, other libraries got on board, starting in 1998 with the State Library of Victoria. Now a total of 10 partners identify, select, seek permission from publishers, archive and catalogue publications and Web sites for the archive.
The NLA stores the archive centrally on its server. It takes responsibility for maintaining PANDORA on behalf of partners, backing it up according to standard IT management practices, and taking preservation action over time as required. With the rapid disappearance of many Web sites, the PANDORA archive now holds the only copy of many significant resources, such as the Sydney Olympic Games, state and federal elections, and Centenary of Federation Web sites.
The NLA also provides online access to the Australian National Bibliographic Database. Kinetica is an Internet-based service giving Australian libraries and their users access to the national database of material held in Australian libraries, known as the Australian National Bibliographic Database (ANBD). Kinetica lets users search for any item and locate which library in Australia holds it and also provides gateways to other major library databases.
Some of the Kinetica aids include: cooperative cataloguing, so that Australian libraries can reduce the costs of their cataloguing by using records created by others; interlending, allowing libraries to share resources by borrowing (or receiving copies) of library materials; cooperative collection development, to allow libraries to reduce the amount of duplication in their collections; and access to the collections of Australian libraries for individual researchers, enabling identification of relevant material in Australian libraries and online.
The service is used by some 1100 libraries. With more than 38 million holdings, approximately 14 million bibliographic records including over 574,000 electronic resources, it forms an essential tool for Australian libraries in all sectors - public, special, academic, technical and further education, health, corporate, law, state and national. More than 6.5 million searches were undertaken on the service in 2003-04.
Kinetica also supports cooperation and resource sharing within the Australian library community through the delivery of MARC records and the provision of a document delivery service. In addition, there is an incentive scheme, which offers a search rebate for libraries that contribute records and/or holdings to the ANBD.
The value of the service to Australians was recognized by the Senate Environment, Communications, Information Technology and the Arts Reference Committee's report on "Libraries in the Online Environment", which recommended providing the NLA with additional funding to provide improved access to Kinetica for all Australian libraries and their users.
In response, the NLA is redeveloping Kinetica to provide a more modern, standards-based service, and to find ways to increase access by Australians to the nation's collections. After all, Australia is one of a handful of countries with a national database of this kind, and it is too valuable a resource to be kept a secret from the public.
"We are half-way through a major redevelopment of the Kinetica service where we are taking the significant step of integrating access not only to collections in libraries, but also to put in place interactive links, using APIs (application program interfaces) with Australian and overseas booksellers so that users can truly get material," Missingham says.
The new service, known as Libraries Australia, is set to revolutionize the way Australians can find and get information resources for their research, study, work or leisure. It has the potential to change the way libraries deliver information to all Australians. Libraries Australia gives users access to resources whether they are available online, through libraries or through booksellers or document supply services.
The boundaries between libraries and other cultural institutions are becoming increasing fluid. One result is PictureAustralia, an Internet-based service that allows users to search many significant online pictorial collections at the same time, and which proponents cite as a model for further collaborative work.
PictureAustralia provides access to images that cover all aspects of Australiana, from artworks to photographs and objects like sculpture. It contains approximately 1.12 million images in total, with about 10,000 new images added every month
Users doing a search in PictureAustralia can transparently search images from 40 museums, galleries, libraries and universities, including those digitized by Scottish and New Zealand institutions. It averages more than 330,000 page views a month, or more than 72,000 searches, with usage growing by a staggering 64 percent last financial year alone. Using this service, a user might search on "St Kilda"to retrieve images from all the agencies that hold relevant material, including the Nolan Gallery, the National Library of New Zealand, the National Archives of Australia, the State Library of Victoria, and so on.
The search results in sets of "thumbnail" or preview images. Clicking on one of those takes the user to the Web site of the relevant agency to view the full-size version and where they can, if desired, order a high-resolution copy. Users move between PictureAustralia and the participating agencies' Web sites using the Back button in their Web browser.
The NLA also launched a companion service, Music Australia, in March 2005. Music Australia provides access to the resources of many different organizations including the National Film and Sound Archive, the Australian Music Centre, Australian Music Online, state libraries and university libraries. With about 140,000 resources, of which over 10,000 are available freely online, the service enables easy access to scores, sound recordings, Web sites, books and theses, archives, pictures, moving images, multimedia and other resources.
Meanwhile the National Archives of Australia has made more than five million items available online and aims to have 10 million by the end of 2005, placing it among the top five professional online repositories in the world.
"It's not so much the 'new' online services the Archives is providing, but rather the extension of the current service that is making our clients happy," reports the NAA's Lyons.
"More and more publications are now available online and together with our cost recovery e-commerce system this means we are able to provide a better service to our clients."
For example, in March some 1121 people downloaded John Curtin, Guide to Archives of Australia's Prime Ministers. "When you stop to think that the guide retails for $19.95 you can see that providing clients with a PDF can save them a considerable amount of money," she says.
The NAA is keen to open up its collection and is integrating its old photos with new technology, continually digitizing images for access online. More than 125,000 images are already on PhotoSearch, accessed via the NAA's Web site at www.naa.gov.au, and each month several thousand more are added.
"Recent thank you letters we've received include a client who said that being able to look at a digital copy of the history of her great uncle brought him alive again for her daughters. Another said that having a picture of the grandfather she never knew helped her understand why her sister had ginger hair! And only last year a client became overwhelmed in our orientation room upon reading for the first time about her father who had passed away before she was born. It's these types of instances that tell me that our online services really do touch people in a personal way," Lyons says.
The NAA has also recently launched the test version of Vrroom. Short for "virtual reading room", Vrroom is a new Web interface for teachers and students to access and interpret the collection of Australian government records. There is a test site at www.vrroom.naa.gov.au.
Vrroom supplies teachers with a growing range of records, ideas for using them and help on using primary sources. For students, Vrroom provides an online research experience. They can choose a question, explore the topic, and then find, annotate and export records. The content in Vrroom is relevant to SOSE (Studies of Society and Environment), Australian history, political science, Australian studies, English, geography, ICT and many more areas of the curriculum.
"IT has enabled us to transform our services from a focus on collections to a focus on access," Lyons says. "In all I think we represent an example of taking technology as a tool to transform our services, thinking always of what the end user wants and how we can liberate access to the nation's resources."
The NAA is also collaborating with state archives and their New Zealand counterparts in an alliance, the Digital Records Initiative (DRI). Lyons says all participants see this collaboration as imperative to ensure the preservation and future accessibility of the records that document the key government decisions that impact so many spheres of Australian life and culture.
In addition, the NAA works collaboratively with many other cultural institutions on exhibitions. For instance it provided much of the archival material for Old Parliament House's The Petrov Affair exhibition, events (for example the National Capital Authority for the opening of the Old Parliament House Rose Gardens), and marketing campaigns like the Australian Capital Tourism's "Summer of Silver" display, and has an ongoing association with the Australian War Memorial with regard to the management of Commonwealth war records. It has also contributed to PictureAustralia.
The AWM offers a range of services on its Web site for family historians and other researchers, including a Research & Family History service providing links to its ReQuest online reference service, its Encyclopaedia and its XML finding aids (written using Encoded Archival Description). There are also biographical databases containing personal data like nominal rolls, records of honours and awards, and what the AWM's Booth describes as "some really touching files" of those wounded and missing in the First World War (contained in Red Cross files), avidly used by family historians.
The AWM also offers three online collections for its general museum collection (including all objects, photos, film, sound, art, military technology, private records), books and official records, and another for its growing collection of digitized documents from official war diaries - currently mostly from the Second World War and Korea, but it is now working on Vietnam and the First World War, and will soon have about two million pages online in these databases.
And there are also First World War Official Histories placed online using OCR (optical character recognition) scanning in image-over-text format and which have been tremendously successful. The AWM says it is nearly finished scanning the Second World War set and they will go up online shortly.
"We're using a couple of technologies that big organizations like Google are just now getting into, and American organizations are just getting into," Booth says. This includes using a combination of OCR and Adobe image-over-text files to put documents online that allows users to see the document but also provides for searchability and text capture.
"I think we've really embraced digital technologies to help us provide wider public access to our collections, now in full colour," Booth says. "This has been done here by combining scanning for preservation purposes (to create an archival copy) with the production of a lower resolution file for online access - thus 'killing two birds' with the one process.
"We have scoped up some significant/iconic private records (letters) collections for scanning over the next year or so and will now attack that as best we can in the current, rather complex, copyright environment.
"With all this content online our next technological challenge is to provide simpler pathways into it for all users and more context and meaning around it. Currently, there are vast resources online, but the users have to go through too many gates, so federated search is a priority for us. And as we are now creating vast volumes of digital assets, we need a system to help us with our workflows, management and storage of these assets," he says.
In the services they have provided, and the collaboration they have achieved, Booth says Australian cultural institutions are streets ahead of much of the rest of the world. In both the extent and quality of its offerings and solutions, as well as in the effectiveness of its collaborative efforts between cultural agencies, Australia is way ahead of fellow cultural institutions overseas.
"Google has just made a big thing about going into the major libraries and scanning the great volumes and such," Booth says. "Now there are not a lot of people who put text up online, and we're one of them. New Zealand has done its Second World War histories recently and Prime Minister Helen Clark has been heavily behind it, but they have done it in a very resource-hungry way using the best technologies: I think you can download their versions in HTML and XML, but that sort of markup is very, very time consuming and resource-hungry.
"We've found that certainly we didn't have those resources so we did it in a much cheaper fashion."
The NLA's Missingham points out that like many of Australia's other cultural institutions, the NLA will often hold the only copy in the world of an item like a painting, a letter from a prime minister or an original map, many of them extremely fragile. By digitizing such items, the cultural institutions can provide all Australians with access to their precious heritage.
"The Library is currently working with state and university library sectors to secure funding for a major digitization project to put historic Australian newspapers online. Newspapers are a great untapped research resource and if we create a full digitized database of out of copyright Australian newspapers all Australians will be able to connect with their history," she says.
"And I think we are probably leading on collaboration, and it's probably because we've got a strong history of collaboration because we've always known no library industry could buy everything they needed right from the very early days."
The secret of that collaboration? It has been underpinned, Missingham says, by developments like the Open Archives Initiative and the protocol for meta data harvesting developed by the NLA. But its main basis has been the subtle recognition that the cultural institution's major clients are many individuals who now have access to the Internet - authors, journalists, historians and academics, and also family historians as well as those with personal and recreational interests. If the AWM, the NAA and the NLA can work together to provide these clients with desired services, they can much better fulfil their mission.
"There's always been a bit of a culture amongst librarians and archivists that they're fairly cooperative people and they're now starting to realize the benefits of cross agency collaboration," Missingham says.
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