Each month Hindsight will feature an interview with one of the memory institutions making our cultural heritage more accessible. In January we’re turning our attention to the National Library of New Zealand, starting with Digital New Zealand. Many thanks to Thomasin Sleigh for her time and thoughtful responses.
Let’s begin with a matryoshka of a question: Can you tell me a bit about Digital New Zealand’s role within the National Library of New Zealand, and your role within DigitalNZ?
DigitalNZ is a project coordinated by the National Library of New Zealand (which is, in turn, part of the Department of Internal Affairs). A submission was made to Cabinet in 2007 called the ‘Digital Content Strategy’ and DigitalNZ was established in 2008 to contribute to the aims of this submission. DigitalNZ makes New Zealand digital content easier to find, share and use — whether it be about New Zealand or by New Zealanders, we want to get it discovered more easily.
My role is as Community Manager. I work with the online and offline communities of people who use DigitalNZ, and also try to reach other groups of people who may not know about what we are doing.
You have partnered with a range of memory institutions and other organizations. Tell me a little about their collections, and how you do justice to such a large, diverse group of artworks and artifacts. How do you make it easier for the people interested in these objects to connect with them?
We work with nearly 150 different content partners from around New Zealand, and this list is always growing. The types of collections we aggregate are very different from each other, but one thing they have in common is that they are all digital: TV shows, heritage photographs, maps and plans, artworks, research papers, and newspapers. In terms of how we do them justice, DigitalNZ aims to make these collections easily searchable and more accessible to everyone. Each item is clearly described using an augmented Dublin Core metadata schema, is easily searchable and scrollable via our website, and is connected to clear usage terms so people know what they can and can’t do with it.
How has usage of your website changed and grown over the past five years?
Like most projects, we have been through various iterations. We started out with a strong focus on providing others with innovative tools, such as customisable search widgets, to encourage New Zealanders to discover, share and use digital content. We were one of the first content aggregators in the Galleries, Archives, Libraries and Museums sector to release a metadata API (Application Programming Interface, the magic software that holds all the metadata from our content partners) so developers could make new discovery experiences. We also provided best practice guidance and on how to digitise their collections. Those guides we developed are still regularly used, and remain an excellent resource for the community. However, we have moved a little bit away from this and now focus on our search service, and helping other people use our powerful API to build other search services. Recent examples of this include the new Jewish Online Museum.
In 2012 you implemented a sets feature that allows people to collect and share images from partner collections around the country. What expectations did you have for sets at the outset? How have they changed? What has surprised you about your audience and their creations? Please share some highlights!
The sets functionality was built so that people could click and collect items from DigitalNZ and keep them in one useful place. We now aggregate over 26 million pieces of digital content! This can be quite overwhelming. Sets allow people to build collections of items for geneaology, research, for creative purposes, or just for fun!
Now about a year and a half old, the sets have a dedicated following and are regularly being made by new people. There are lots of great set examples. Some recent highlights include this set about humidity in Auckland. This is a good example of sets being used for family history, and this is a nice example of clever patterning and creative use. Of course, your sets are always an absolute delight! This is a particular favourite.
The team at DigitalNZ is also responsible for the Mix & Mash competitions that have taken place over the past few years. Earlier incarnations seemed to focus more on exploring and visualizing datasets, while many of the award winners this year are students. Does this reflect a conscious shift on your part to advocate engagement with culture and history from a young age?
Mix & Mash shifted direction in 2013 to a more creative, narrative-driven focus with its theme, the ‘New Storytelling’. As you point out, prior to that, Mix & Mash was focussed on data mashups and visualisations. In both incarnations, the competition has always been about encouraging New Zealand to re-use openly licensed content.
The storytelling angle was a deliberate choice in order to encourage people to use content directly from DigitalNZ and to re-use it to tell a compelling story. We were delighted also to receive lots of entries of students! We work closely with the National Library’s Services to Schools team, who have digital literacy as one of their key objectives, and are able to use Mix & Mash as a useful tool.
What is your relationship with Creative Commons? What challenges have you faced in encouraging new creations incorporating or inspired by the old?
Creative Commons Aotearoa New Zealand are our organising partner for Mix & Mash, and we also regularly rely on their expertise for questions about copyright and licensing. Our organisations have similar aims when it comes to re-use and open cultural content.
There are often tricky issues (of course!) around licensing and we have to be very detailed when checking Mix & Mash references. A lot of people don’t think twice about reusing images from the Internet, so one of the main challenges is spreading the word about responsible re-use and open content, which is a new idea for many people.
What other steps have you taken to get people involved with New Zealand’s heritage? What is in the pipeline for DigitalNZ?
DigitalNZ is always growing with more amazing content from organisations around New Zealand, so 2014 will mean the growth of the API. We are also looking forward to running some interesting public programmes around the Mix & Mash exhibition, which is showing on the ground floor of the National Library. In 2014 we will also be working closely with the National Library of Singapore to share our API technology, code-named ‘Supplejack’.
Check back later this month for more on New Zealand’s National Library. In the meantime, why not try your hand at some set-making?