National Library of Australia Staff Papers, 2002

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A Collaborative Digital Project

A paper presented by Danielle Freeman, Manager, PictureAustralia, National Library of Australia at the National Digital Forum, Wellington, New Zealand, 15-16 May 2002, hosted by the National Library of New Zealand

What is PictureAustralia?

The PictureAustralia service is a collaboration between cultural agencies to bring their digital pictorial collections together at the one web site, which is hosted by the National Library of Australia. It was developed through the identification of a need for a national image discovery service, as users do not generally know where images are located. The key to the service is its cross-sectoral nature, including the collections of libraries, museums, archives, galleries, universities, historical societies and other cultural agencies. User testing has revealed that users do not make distinctions about which types of agencies may host images.

The service operates through the use of a central metadata repository to support national discovery and to ensure consistency in searching and locating images. The participating agencies place descriptive metadata for their digital images, in the simple unqualified Dublin Core format, 1 in a directory that can be accessed by the National Library of Australia’s harvesting software. This descriptive information includes the URLs for location of the associated digital images. Every two months this data is gathered into a central Oracle database hosted at the National Library and is indexed for searching. Thumbnail images are hosted on the participant sites and are pulled into the results sets in real time. Users click on the thumbnail images and are directed to the relevant member web site to view the originals. From here they may remain on the member web site to search just that collection or to order a high quality copy of that image, or they may return to the PictureAustralia site to continue with their broader searching.

ImageSearch - a proof-of-concept

Getting started

In 1998, Australian libraries had a strong tradition of cooperation and an infrastructure for national resource sharing. However, environmental changes, particularly Internet developments, were creating new opportunities and the National Library was keen to broaden its collaboration to take full advantage of these developments.

The ImageSearch project, the proof-of-concept for the PictureAustralia service, began as an initiative to test the application of international standards for image presentation, digitisation and metadata in Australia. In mid 1998, Warwick Cathro and Maxine Brodie, the Directors of Information Technology Services at the National Library and the State Library of New South Wales respectively, came up with the idea of coordinating access to the pictorial collections of both institutions with a Web-based service. This idea quickly expanded to include integrated access to the pictorial collections of the state libraries and national cultural institutions.

Maxine Brodie, as Convenor of Information Online & On Disc 99, suggested a proof-of-concept be showcased at this conference in January 1999. 2It was agreed that the fastest and most useful way to proceed would be to implement a digital images metadata repository at the National Library, based on the free MetaWeb software of the Distributed Systems Technology Centre (DSTC), 3which would permit further exploration of the functional issues after the cessation of the conference.

The plan was for a range of participating agencies to provide a set of URLs for a selection of digital images and associated metadata. The metadata would then be gathered into a repository by gathering or harvesting software and indexed for subsequent searching.

The original participants

Work was started in earnest in November 1998 with the downloading of the MetaWeb software to underpin the pilot. It became increasing clear that there would be value in extending beyond the boundary of library-based image search services, to foster closer collaboration with cultural institutions facing the same issues in providing enhanced Web-based access to their pictorial collections. Agencies with a significant quantity of Dublin Core metadata or significant quantities of digitised images were asked to participate. These included the State Libraries of Tasmania and Victoria and the Australian War Memorial, in addition to the National Library and the State Library of New South Wales.

Each institution was required to provide Dublin Core compliant metadata describing selected themes of images, including regional Australian towns, whaling ships, wildflowers, the Antarctic, and Tasmanian culture. These themes reflected the digitised collection strengths at the time. An upper limit of 5,000 images per institution was set to ensure appropriate response times and minimal impact on the National Library’s information server. A metadata conversion program to convert MARC records to Dublin Core was developed for those agencies requiring assistance in conversion.

There was no budget allocated to the ImageSearch Project. Each participating institution provided metadata records, and services in kind, including:

  • State Library of New South Wales - home page screen design, a Web Showcase berth and conference publicity,
  • State Library of Tasmania - back-up technical infrastructure, if required,
  • Australian War Memorial - metadata interpretation and support,
  • State Library of Victoria - feedback survey form and database for results and US MARC mapping to Dublin Core,
  • National Library - Project Coordinator, technical infrastructure to underpin the service, as well as IT staff support.

Information Online & On Disc 99

The participating agencies met a number of times and continued collaboration at a distance, with facilitation from the Project Coordinator. A proof-of-concept was completed in time for demonstration at the Information Online and On Disc 99 Conference and proved to be an extremely successful venture. Around 11,000 images from the five institutions were incorporated into the project and feedback on all aspects of the demonstrator was gathered via a survey of users.

Suggestions that came out of the conference included adding all of the digitised collections from each participating institution and extending the concept to encompass under-utilised or under-exposed collections wherever they might be located in cultural institutions, such as architectural slides of university fine arts streams, university archives, or small photographic collections in public libraries.

The ease with which the proof-of-concept was established and made operational was compared favourably to the ZAVIER (Z39.50 Arts Victoria Implementation) Project 4 and provided encouragement with respect to the further development of the project.

There were some issues identified in the proof-of-concept requiring further investigation including:

  • developing additional partnerships
  • access to a national pictorial thesaurus
  • a uniform ordering capability
  • copyright management
  • need for improved navigation
  • relevance ranking across varying metadata
  • quality, quantity and consistency of metadata
  • HTML quality – double quotes in content could not be harvested
  • participant branding to ensure users could identify whose collection they were accessing
  • collection compared to item level description
  • embedded compared to separate metadata

Moving forward in 1999

Following the Information Online On Disc 99 conference, the participating agencies met to consider how to develop the proof-of-concept. It was clear that the MetaWeb software would not be scalable for metadata describing all of the pictorial collections. The participants agreed to await the outcomes of the National Library’s Digital Services Project, which included a search for a Metadata Repository and Search System (MRSS) that could potentially support the project.

With this limitation in mind, it was further agreed that the National Library should continue the pilot project, with a minimal call on participant resources. More participants were to be approached to help underwrite the cost of the service beyond the pilot phase. In addition the National Library undertook to develop a costing model for discussion by the participants to ensure a clear direction and sustainable funding at the end of the pilot phase.

The business model

The Library set up a Steering Committee to oversee the development of the project into Phase II. The Committee considered the implications of the Digital Services Project as a path forward and also investigated external partners and other funding options. The Committee informally tested a full cost recovery option with the existing participants and found that continued commitment to participating in the project was strong but was likely to be compromised by an inability to meet full cost recovery requirements. The testing also revealed the need to clearly outline the benefits of participation and demonstrate a long-term commitment to support for the development of the service. Given the national perspective of the intended service, there was an expectation that the NLA would subsidise the service to some degree.

The search for a Metadata Repository and Search System had by this stage resulted in the purchase of the MetaStar suite by Blue Angel Technologies (BAT).5 Advice from Information Technology Services indicated that the proposed PictureAustralia service could be supported on this platform. This approach aligned with the strategic directions of the National Library to collaborate with other cultural institutions and to enhance access to national collections, and led to the development of a business case aimed at partial cost recovery. The strategy was to facilitate achievement of the project's service objective across a range of large and small organisations, while at the same time providing some capacity for the development of enhancements in the medium term.

At the second annual participants meeting in January 2000, the participants agreed on a funding model that included an annual participation fee of AUS $5,000 and the requirement to supply data consistent with the Dublin Core standard. The National Library undertook a five-year commitment to provide a level of in-kind subsidy to the service in the areas of project coordination, staff costs, and hardware. The Library was also to provide a marketing strategy for the service including promotion materials for all participants and service maintenance within the bounds of the Blue Angel Technologies platform functionality.

The development of the PictureAustralia service

Following the second annual participant’s meeting in January 2000, the National Library had a scalable software platform, an agreed business model to support the development of the pilot into a fully-fledged service and a timeline to complete the service by the middle of the year. Formal letters were sent to the participating agencies inviting them to move into Phase II of participation and a Service Level Agreement for the service was also developed and sent out.

The participants agreed to supply all of their metadata to extend the coverage of the service. They also decided to supply thumbnail images for inclusion in the search results to increase the visual nature of the service. Harvesting of this data was undertaken in the first quarter of the year and agencies undertook fine-tuning of metadata where required. The site was fully operational from June 2000 but not publicised. This allowed the developers 3 months to test the site, including an evaluation by User Insite6 to ensure usability requirements had been met before the product launch.

During this period, the National Library had been discussing participation in the service with a range of other agencies, some of which it had targeted because of their collection of strengths and some of which had heard about the service and approached the Library. The National Archives of Australia was targeted because of the significance of its collection and was able to conduct a technical trial and join the service in time for the launch. The University of Queensland Fryer Library was also able to join with a small collection of images within that period.

Following on from the well-publicised launch on 4 September 2000,7 the service won a coveted Australian Financial Review Internet award in the Arts category. The judges commented “it is an excellent portal for Australian cultural material of a pictorial nature, seamlessly integrates multiple multimedia databases into an elegant visual experience for the customer, and the use of metadata is excellent.” This award and consistent usage - around 30,000 visits per month from users all over Australia and overseas, indicated the success of the service in meeting the needs of a wide group of users.

Continuing the collaboration

The serendipitous approach to increasing the content coverage and participation in the service continued after the launch of PictureAustralia, with a large number of agencies, representing the cultural sector at the national, state and local level, contacting the Library for information about joining. Some agencies were in a position to join directly, and in 2001 the Australian Heritage Commission, Nolan Gallery, Lake Macquarie City Library, Museum Victoria, National Library of New Zealand and Campbelltown City Library (in collaboration with the Campbelltown and Airds Historical Society) all joined the service.

The National Library of New Zealand was the first overseas agency to join, with content relating to Australia, and this development revealed the mutual value of the collaboration, with a new user group targeted for the National Library of New Zealand’s collections and Australian users having access to content that they may not have even been aware of.

Other collaborative developments included discussions with the National Library of Canada regarding the possibility of establishing a similar model for Canadian cultural agencies. This culminated in the launch of Images Canada8 in May 2001, a pictorial discovery service based closely on the PictureAustralia model and including the collections of six Canadian agencies.

In addition, the Scottish Cultural Resources Access Network (SCRAN)9 began a Z39.50 technical trial with PictureAustralia in late 2001 to test the inclusion of results from PictureAustralia in the general SCRAN search results for Scottish users. The trial is continuing and SCRAN is also assessing its collections for content that may be contributed to PictureAustralia in return.

A large number of agencies approached PictureAustralia for advice on digitisation of images and creation of metadata. This lead to the development of a booklet, A Guide to the PictureAustralia Service, 10 which provided information on the standards underpinning the service for agencies wishing to develop in a compatible manner.

The number of smaller agencies approaching PictureAustralia with the intention of joining in the medium term, lead to a reassessment of the business case at the third annual participant’s meeting in January 2001. The new model, supported by all the participants, included a sliding scale arrangement based on agency size and responsibility, where agencies with a state or national role pay AUS $5,000 per year and agencies that have a more regional focus pay AUS $2,000. The new business case also made allowances for consortia proposals.

The National Gallery of Australia, the ACT Heritage Library and the Northern Territory Library and Information Service all joined PictureAustralia in 2002, bringing the total number of images accessible through the service to over 580,000.

The way forward

PictureAustralia is always developing as a service. A full evaluation was undertaken in June 2001 by User Insite, through statistical analysis, usability testing via scenarios with users and a user satisfaction survey. Areas for enhancement were identified and these have been addressed over the past months. A new interface has just been released giving users access to the search function from every page and incorporating simpler searching. Users can also increase the number of results displayed per page by using the advanced search option. A new ordering images page has been included to provide a quick reference point for the ordering requirements of all the member agencies. The picture trails section which brings together highlights from the collections on specific topics, has been updated to allow for continued expansion of this value-adding feature. Further enhancements prioritised by the participants will be added over time.

The Library continues to target potential new collections that will strengthen the service and is always alert for strategic opportunities. Discussions and technical trials continue with a range of agencies.

The success of PictureAustralia thus far may be attributable to a number of factors. It is based on an infrastructure that is simple and not overly demanding in participation requirements. The Library took the time to explore options and was prepared to move into unchartered territory, which was inspiring for those involved. The Library and the participants saw Internet developments removing the boundaries between the different cultural sectors and the cross-sectoral approach to this initiative and others has been fully supported by users. The commitment and collaborative attitude of the participating agencies cannot be overestimated. In addition, these agencies choose their own digitisation priorities, and so the ability to re-purpose digitised images has also become a key success factor in the development of the service.

The success of the process model in the development of PictureAustralia has seen it become the basis for the National Library’s next collaborative digital pilot, MusicAustralia. This challenging new project is at present a collaboration between the National Library and ScreenSound Australia to bring the National Library’s digital sheet music together with ScreenSound’s digital sound. What is next? The sky is the limit!


1 Dublin Core Metadata Element Set, Version 1.1 -

2 Information Online & On Disc 99 -

3 Distributed Systems Technology Centre -

4 See paper on ZAVIER at -

5 Blue Angel Technologies -

6 User Insite, now a division of Courage Partners –

7 NLA News, November 2000 -

8 Images Canada -


10 A Guide to the PictureAustralia Service -