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4. Getting together on-line


Unlocking Essex's Past
Keys to the Past
I dig Sheffield

Increasingly, organisations are recognising the value of making collections and other resources available on-line. In the UK, organisations are taking advantage of the funds available from bodies such as the New Opportunities Fund and the Heritage Lottery Fund to support this work (Miller and Criddle 2001; Smith 2000; Heritage Lottery Fund 2002). As a result, user services are being extended and databases which previously were only available to people who visited an HEIR in person are now being made available 24-hours a day via the Internet (for example, see Unlocking Essex's Past and Keys to the Past). Such funding is also opening up the possibility that rich information resources can be brought together and presented to new audiences in new ways (see for example 'I dig Sheffield').

These initiatives are improving on-line access to HEIRs; however, those who are engaged in regional projects are likely to need to visit several separate web-resources in the course of their research (Kilbride 2002). Another issue for those who are likely to use several of these web-resources is the fact that each will have its own individual character, authentication procedures and search facilities. The onus is placed on users to find each separate resource and then to learn how best to use it. However, it is possible to exploit information communications technology to provide integrated access to distributed databases through an Internet portal, using for example the Z39.50 communications protocol (Miller 1999). Research commissioned by HEIRNET (Baker et al. 2000) highlighted the possibilities of these technical developments and their potential for improving access to the distributed network of HEIRs. Following this research, a partnership between a group of HEIRNET members (the Archaeology Data Service (ADS), the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland (RCAHMS), the Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS) and the Scottish Cultural Resource Access Network (SCRAN)) has led to the development of a prototype portal for the historic environment – HEIRPORT, developed by the ADS with the Computer Laboratory of the University of Kent at Canterbury and Systems Simulations Limited (Austin et al. 2001).

HEIRPORT http://ads.ahds.ac.uk/heirport/ illustrates how users may be offered a single point of enquiry to a number of separate databases. HEIRPORT (see Figure 3) currently allows users to carry out a virtual search of four databases that are independently maintained by the Archaeology Data Service, RCAHMS, Portable Antiquities Scheme and SCRAN.

HEIRPORT - the search interface
Figure 3: HEIRPORT: search interface http://ads.ahds.ac.uk/heirport/

Instead of searching each database separately, users of HEIRPORT can enter a word (or words) into its search form and search four databases simultaneously. For example, a researcher might use HEIRPORT to search for references to the stone circle at Callanish in the Western Isles simply by typing 'Callanish' into the search form. HEIRPORT also allows for more complex searches to be defined, for example a search for references to Roman marching camps in Britain could be executed using the 'what', 'when' and 'where' capabilities of HEIRPORT's complex search.

HEIRPORT simplifies the process of searching multiple databases for users, using the Z39.50 communications protocol and its in-built technology to set up and run the searches of each target database, returning a list of results ready for use. Results are presented to users in a standard format and they provide an index to more detailed information held in the target database. The aim is to give users enough information to check the results and decide which records are of most relevance to their research. Users can then make direct links from records listed by HEIRPORT to the live databases maintained by the originating organisation, where they may discover related collections such as digital images, video, CAD files, paper-based photographs, plans, drawings and maps which cannot be passed across in the results set using the Z39.50 communications protocol. Z39.50 does enable HEIRPORT to search live databases maintained by the ADS, RCAHMS, PAS and SCRAN giving users access to an up-to-date index of their collections.


ADS Catalogue
RCAHMS Canmore database
Portable Antiquities Database SCRAN

HEIRPORT demonstrates that it is possible to use ICT to provide users with a way of searching geographically distributed resources. It is a facility that is particularly valuable when users are uncertain which organisations hold collections that are relevant to their research and which means that they only have to learn how to use one interface to search across domains. The partner organisations involved in the HEIRPORT development also benefit as they are providing another point of access to their resources in addition to their own websites, so providing services to additional users. Thus HEIRPORT demonstrates the possibilities and benefits of developing a portal for the historic environment, but what is involved?

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Last updated: Tue Feb 18 2003