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What is Linked Open Data and Why Do You Care?

Since early 2012, Crystal Bridges has been active in a national initiative to create a shared and searchable American art network between museums and archives across the country. The Museum is part of a group, called the American Art Collaborative, that includes 14 museums that are working together to develop and implement a process of translating their collection databases into a common language that will allow all of them to be accessible and searchable as if they were one ginormous online catalog. The system is known as Linked Open Data or LOD.

LOD is not an aggregator of data. It’s a smart system that identifies and links related resources on a topic—across concepts such as people, places, events, and objects—without the Internet “noise” common in search engine results.

What’s so Great About Linked Open Data

Asher B. Durand (1796-1886) Kindred Spirits 1849 Oil on canvas

Asher B. Durand (1796-1886)
Kindred Spirits
Oil on canvas

Consider this:  when you go to Google and search for an American artist:  Asher Brown Durand, for example, what you get is a list of links:  some of these links are good solid information created by museums or other reputable institutions. But some of it is ads for poster prints, records of past exhibitions, hobby sites, and blog posts. Some of it is based in a museum collection, but much of it is prepared copy to be presented on the Web. As a searcher, you are obliged to click through the links to determine what is trash and what is treasure, and these searches don’t provide direct access to data in museum collections.

A Linked Open Data search would yield information directly from the collections of the participating museums, allowing you to see not only which museums hold Durand paintings, but could also include links to curatorial research, archival holdings, or publications related to your search. This means in one search you could find a list of Durand paintings in museum collections, letters written to or by Durand in several institutional archives, a conservator’s analysis of the types of paint used by the artist, and links to articles and books about Durand or referencing Durand. Thanks to intuitive software, an LOD search yields not just a series of links to pages featuring “Asher Brown Durand,” but a whole web of interconnected information— something more like this: Connection Web Bryant-PictAmericaNow you can learn not only that Durand painted Kindred Spirits in Crystal Bridges’ collection, but also that the painting features William Cullen Bryant, poet and editor of the New York Evening Post, and the artist Thomas Cole. You learn that Cole painted The Good Shepherd, which is also in Crystal Bridges collection, and that Bryant edited Picturesque America, a book of prints of scenic sites across the country, and that Cole was one of the artists who contributed images to the book. You could also learn that Durand was associated with the Hudson River School of painting, which included Cole and artist Thomas Moran, whose painting Green River, Wyoming, is in Crystal Bridges collection, and who also contributed to Picturesque America.

I’ll give you a moment to get your bearings —

Yes, it’s a lot of information, and the connections are myriad. Imagine if you could also follow similar threads to holdings in other museums, letters in the Smithsonian Archives of American Art between Cole and Bryant, to libraries with copies of Picturesque America in their collections, (such as the Crystal Bridges Library).  It’s down the rabbit hole, indeed—there are worlds to discover!

WOW!  How Do We Make this Amazing Thing Happen?? It will be, of course, a monumental undertaking for museums to make the transition. While most museums have digital catalogs of their collections, the information language used in these catalogs is not consistent across the board, and they can’t talk to one another. The transition to Linked Open Data requires first establishing a common language and a common set of rules (an “ontology”), then transitioning the existing data into that format and checking it for accuracy before it goes live.

This is what the American Art Collaborative has been engaged in for more than a year. The group has met with leaders in the technology and information fields to learn as much as they could about the various models available. Fortunately, LOD has been used in other sectors for some time, so the AAC is not blazing completely new trails. The Library of Congress uses LOD, as well as the New York Times, and a version is already in use across museums and libraries in Europe.  Here in the states, the Smithsonian Museum of American Art has already converted 44,000 records.

How Long Do We Have to Wait?? A grant from the Andrew Mellon Foundation last July allowed the Collaborative to undergo an in-depth planning process that defines best practices for converting and maintaining the data, and what content on American art to focus on for this early phase. The planning process also included a survey of LOD models, conversion practices, and tools used among a variety of projects. Now the group is ready to start moving into Phase 1, which will be the actual conversion of data.  The goal is to reach a “critical mass” of some 110,000 records by the fall of 2016, which will be enough to begin Phase 2:  the development of practical apps that will utilize the data for real-world use by scholars, educators, museums, and students.

Once the AAC has been through the process and is able to demonstrate in real terms the value of converting to Linked Open Data, the participating institutions can serve as ambassadors and mentors in helping other museums to take the leap. One of the purposes of the AAC is to determine best practices and establish tools for making the conversion so that it will be an easier path to follow for the next generation of conversions.

Crystal Bridges is thrilled to be a part of this ground-breaking initiative that will, in a sense, open the doors of museum collections and archives to anyone who seeks information about American art. We are looking forward to realizing the amazing potential Linked Open Data has for expanding museum reach, increasing awareness about American art, and utilizing the resources of museums in a whole host of new and exciting ways.  Stay tuned! There’s much more to come!

Linda DeBerry
Senior Copy Editor / Publications Manager

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