The IMLS Digital Cultural Heritage Community Project
First Monday

The IMLS Digital Cultural Heritage Community Project: A case study of tools for effective project management and collaboration by Nuala Bennett and Beth Sandore

Designed to create a model environment for collaboration on digitization projects, the Digital Cultural Heritage Community Project (DCHC) focused on the digitization of materials from central Illinois museums, archives, and libraries for integration into elementary grades’ social science curricula. Support from the Institute of Museum and Library Services’ National Leadership Grants, Model Program of Cooperation enabled a group of central Illinois libraries, museums, and elementary schools to develop the underpinnings of a new community. Together the participants in this community built a framework for digitizing primary source materials on common teaching themes, according to the Illinois Board of Education Learning Standards, and providing free access to those materials, organized through a simple search interface.


A digital community working together
Time line
Threaded e–mail discussion tools
Use of the DCHC site and database




The Digital Cultural Heritage Community Project (DCHC), was one of the first grants awarded by the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) under its Model Programs of Cooperation program. The primary goal of the DCHC project was to develop a model framework for collaboration on digitization projects between museums, libraries, and K–12 schools. The DCHC project was set among a group of central Illinois museums, libraries, and elementary schools.

Collaborative governance, technological training and infrastructure, and decision–making have been effectively managed through a combination of face–to–face and asynchronous communications during the course of this eighteen–month project from its inception in mid–1999 to its close in December 2000. In fact, one of the central aims of the project was to build a practical foundation for integrating consortial digitization into the mainstream of digital library development in cultural heritage institutions. This paper reviews several approaches and the tools that were used in the project to facilitate collaboration, enable group decision–making, keep participants informed and actively contributing to the project, and to monitor the progress of the group toward its goals. These tools include a Web–based time line, threaded e–mail discussion software, and software that enabled the analysis of the use of the Web site and the database that we created throughout the project. The areas that required significant collaboration included:

  • Content selection and accessibility of materials;
  • Digital capture — the development of best practices, archiving, and delivery;
  • Metadata schemes, formats, and their adaptation;
  • Database and search interface design;
  • Intellectual property agreements; and,
  • Project administration.



A digital community working together

The DCHC was built on the concept of a digital community — institutions that would contribute content to a database or group of databases that contain images, text, descriptive information, and other multimedia objects addressing common themes. The project aimed to make it easy for teachers to utilize these resources so that they could incorporate them into their classroom activities in a meaningful way for their students. This framework would provide the participating museums, libraries, and archives with a basis for identifying common ground among their collections, for experimenting with formats, for developing standards, and for determining new ways in which they would provide digital access to these materials.

Using teachers’ social science curriculum units and the Illinois State Board of Education Learning Standards [1] for Social Sciences as a framework, curators, librarians, and archivists identified primary source materials from their collections for inclusion in a Web–based database to be used in third, fourth and fifth grade classrooms. The project had eight partners, three of which were elementary schools, while the others were museums, libraries, and archives. Through the involvement of diverse institutions, this project sought to develop, document, and disseminate both the processes and products of a Model Program of Cooperation between museums, libraries, and archives, demonstrating innovative technological access to enhance educational programs.

Creating and sustaining a digital community made up of diverse partners is becoming more the norm than the exception in the library and museum professions. In a recent article describing the collaboration between the libraries and the Department of Electrical Engineering at the University of Washington to develop an image database, Bunker and Zick indicate that it is becoming increasingly necessary for libraries to combine expertise from a variety of domains outside librarianship [2]. Further, as Nancy Allen notes, consortial digitization projects involving libraries, museums, and other cultural heritage organizations are being formed to respond to the expectation that users ought to be able to find historical information on regional and local topics regardless of its physical location [3]. As these projects involve personnel from different organizational and professional backgrounds, developing and sustaining effective interaction and communication among participants is critical to the success of the project. At the outset of the DCHC project, we found that it was necessary to quickly establish an administrative as well as a collaborative communication structure that suited the needs of the diverse partners. In the following sections we describe the structure of the project organization.


The overall direction for the project was provided by the Principal Investigator, Beth Sandore, Head of the Digital Imaging and Media Technology Initiative at the University of Illinois Library, and the co–Principal Investigators, Patricia Miller, Executive Director of the Illinois Heritage Association, and Barbara Jones, Head, Rare Book and Special Collections Library, University of Illinois. Project Coordinator Nuala Bennett was responsible for the overall coordination and daily communication of the project as well as initiating and monitoring threaded e–mail discussions, organizing meetings, analyzing needs, and working with the partners to ensure that content needs and selection were appropriately matched.


Project participants were selected from two groups of institutions — content providers and schools. The content providers included a selected group of accredited museums, libraries, and archives, committed to working on various aspects of the project. We selected teachers from central Illinois third, fourth, and fifth grade classrooms who expressed an interest in partnering with museums and libraries to deliver primary source materials to the classroom. Some of the people who actively participated in the project during the course of the past two years include:

As well as those who signed on to participate in the project, other area library, museum, and school personnel were invited to participate in many of the project discussions and several of the professional development activities during the course of the project.

Advisory group

Several experts from the museum, library, and educational communities were invited to form an advisory council for the DCHC. We invited these colleagues to monitor the threaded online discussions and other activities of the project and to review the materials that would be created for the Web site. The following people were members of our advisory group:

  • Professor Ann Bishop, University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign Graduate School of Library and Information Science;
  • Professor Frederick Drake, History Department, Illinois State University;
  • Professor E. Duane Elbert, History Department, Eastern Illinois University;
  • Professor Paula Kaufman, University Librarian, University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign;
  • Dr. Melanie Loots, Senior Associate Director at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications;
  • Professor Lawrence McBride, History Department Illinois State University;
  • Professor Vanna Pianfetti, College of Education, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign; and,
  • Jan Waas, Curator, Illinois State Museum

We met with members of the advisory group on several occasions. Several of them are working on other projects, which overlap with the DCHC in various ways. For example, Professor Lawrence McBride works with history students and graduates who organize summer seminars for teachers [4]. Professor Vanna Pianfetti works with elementary school teachers who participate in the Moveable Feast, a one–week summer institute held at various sites throughout Illinois and which is tailored to meet the needs of teaching with technology. Another of the advisors, Professor Ann Bishop works primarily with the social aspects of technology and information use. Members of the advisory council provided advice and expertise on specific aspects of the project, and were particularly helpful in the final review of the outcomes of the DCHC project.

As the DCHC digital community took shape, it became clear that we would need to establish effective and easy means of communicating across the various participating institutions. In the sections below we discuss the tools that we developed in order to support the collaborative process.



Time line

In order to fulfill the major goals of the project, the Digital Cultural Heritage Community (DCHC) was designed with a clear progression of tasks that would need to be completed in order to fulfill all of the project goals. Each of these tasks was listed as part of the project time line and monitored to ensure that it was fulfilled appropriately.

When the DCHC proposal was first initiated, a time line of activities was also set up. This time line was to be used to direct project activities and goals and ensure that they were all met in a timely manner. The time line was included on the project Web site (see Figure 1) and could be monitored by all participants as the grant progressed. The time line was updated on a regular basis to keep everybody informed of the status of the project. The time line on the DCHC Web site was color–coded for quickly recognizable indicators of the status of activities — “completed,” “ongoing,” or “future.”


time line
Figure 1: Time line, Digital Cultural Heritage Community Project.


Some parts of the initial time line were adhered to strongly, while others were moved as more or less time was needed to fulfill each item. After the first group meeting, partners started reviewing the teaching goals for Social Science in the Illinois Learning Standards, focusing on the early and late elementary grades. The areas covered by these learning standards are political systems, economics, history, geography, and social systems. Teachers shared their curriculum units among the partners. They identified examples of the types of primary source materials to which they would like to have access. Curators, librarians, and archivists also identified materials (text, images, video) that had already been digitized or would need to be digitized for inclusion in a digital repository.

One of the biggest and most important items which was moved during the course of the time line was the initial plan to work on curriculum units for the first three Illinois Learning Goals for Social Sciences, work on database development for those goals, and then to continue working with the remaining social sciences learning goals. We found that the teachers’ curriculum units were such that most of them included more than one of the learning goals. It therefore made more sense to combine all the learning goals together and work on the entire project in one go, rather than breaking it down according to learning goals. Consequently, some items in the time line were grouped together and the time line changed accordingly.

Another item on the time line, which was pushed forward somewhat, was the development of the online database. This was delayed due to a change in staffing for the project. The technical coordinator, who was working on the database half–time, took a full–time position with another university group, and we spent some time interviewing candidates to take over the database development. We were fortunate to have close ties with the University of Illinois Department of Computer Science and be able to find some computer science students who ably and efficiently assumed responsibility for the database development.

As the DCHC progressed, we strove to adhere to the original time line, which was set up before the project commenced, ensuring that the project remained true to its initial goals. The time was also edited as we needed to revise it to include professional development and training for partners working with new technologies. The time line, accessible on the project Web site, was updated and expanded continually as the project progressed with new activities and achievements.



Threaded e–mail discussion tools

One of the first big challenges of the DCHC was to create a working digital community. The group of people participating in the DCHC was spread out over east central Illinois and most of these people would not ordinarily spend time together during their working week. Further, teachers’ availability during the workday was quite limited. This made asynchronous communication a vital tool for enabling the discussions and the decision–making of the project. We needed to set up some sort of medium to enable this community of people work well together. The majority of communication and collaboration between the participants was initially undertaken by phone and electronic mail. A dedicated listserv was soon set up solely for the project participants, where they could discuss every aspect of the project and post messages to each other. However, observation and analysis of the listserv discussions suggested that most participants were often more willing to respond to specific directed questions rather than general discussions. It was subsequently felt that some sort of threaded e–mail package would be more suitable to the project. We believed that the threaded e–mail, by its very nature, would help in the direction of discussions and lead to more specific discussions, thereby generating more feedback from all participants. After a few months, a threaded electronic mail system known as Webboard™ was installed to improve upon the format of discussions among participants.

Using Webboard™ ( allowed us to follow specific lines of discussion much more closely and enabled us to much better understand our shared goals for the project. Webboard™ facilitated many more levels of communication among participants than could a listserv, phone conversations, or post. Formal and informal messages could be kept apart to allow for better understanding of project–related discussions. Similarly, those who were not interested in a particular discussion knew that they need not follow it as closely as they might another, and the Webboard™ allowed them to distinguish easily among the various discussions. It also ensured that decisions about the project need not necessarily be made by consensus among every single project participant, but by those who were following a particular discussion more closely. Figure 2 is a screenshot of the Webboard™, where the discussion topics are visible on the left frame, and the details of one discussion are visible in the right frame. Finally, Webboard™ also allowed us to admit a number of outside advisors to particular discussions while also restricting their access to other topics. This enabled us to get feedback and advice at critical junctures from observers that provided additional insights into the direction of the project. Figure 2 shows an example of an e–mail exchange between elementary school teachers and a library special collections curator regarding the digitization of information related to sister cities.


threaded e-mail
Figure 2: Example of threaded e–mail conversations between museum and library curators and teachers regarding content selection.


Webboard™ helped to facilitate a number of additional critical discussions throughout the project, including the manner in which the group agreed to qualify the Dublin Core metadata scheme that was used, the details of the group’s collaborative agreement to make digital materials accessible through a shared database, the conditions of use for these materials, practical advice about installing and configuring equipment and software, news items, reports from conferences, meetings, and reports to our funding agency, and links to related useful information. Figure 3 below shows some of the exchange surrounding the Dublin Core metadata scheme.


Figure 3: Webboard™ conversations about the qualifiers in the Dublin Core metadata scheme employed by the project.




Use of the DCHC site and database

As curators and librarians added metadata and digital objects to the database, teachers began to search and use the information in their curriculum units. We were interested in ensuring that the search interface met at least their basic searching needs, and in observing what types of information they retrieved. We also felt that the database would be of use to other groups, and wanted to use the broadest–reaching approach possible to publicize the availability of these materials.

The DCHC Web site is indexed by a number of well–known search engines — Google, Hotbot, Lycos, AltaVista, Yahoo, Looksmart, MSN Search, and Northern Light, to name a few. This indexing ensures that Web users will find the DCHC Web site when they are searching for related Web sites and consequently, it increases the numbers of users accessing the DCHC Web site.

We purchased “Webtrends Log Analyzer” from the Webtrends Corporation to help us analyze usage of the DCHC Web site. This software provided us with detailed information about the numbers of users accessing the Web site and particular pages. It also provided some information about what they are actually doing on the Web site, for example, if they are following a certain path through specific Web pages.

Webtrends™ software allows us to analyze where most of our users are coming from. Many of the users accessed the DCHC site from other Digital Imaging & Media Technology (DIMTI) Web sites, which had links to the DCHC pages. In February 2000, we had 79 unique users accessing the DCHC Web site. Most of the users appeared to be random users, but some were, of course, project participants who were actively using the site to add data to the database, access the time line, or the project Webboard™. The following month, March 2000, the number of users rose dramatically up to 136 and we noted that 75 users from that number were only accessing the DCHC Web site, not coming from other DIMTI Web pages. The number of users rose steadily each month thereafter, rising to 222 unique users in August 2000. These unique users actually looked at the Web site on 382 different occasions, so we were pleased to see that so many of them were repeat users and returning to the site more than once as random users might do.

As our project partners continued to add data and records to the database, the number of users accessing the database alone increased rapidly. In August 2000, the database was accessed 1,977 times. This is likely to have been due to the start of the academic year in the elementary schools and teachers accessing the database regularly to check out images for their curricula. During this time period, we also noted an increase in the number of users who were accessing the teachers’ actual curriculum units, particularly with the fourth and fifth grade units (132 users and 145 users respectively).

During the fall semester, we also noticed an increasing trend for users to access the database directly, particularly the Browse page. This page allows users to get a glimpse of the records in the database by Title and a short Description. Over 150 users per month were regularly accessing this Web page directly, rather than finding it through a link on another Web page. We can assume that these users likely had that page bookmarked on their Web browsers for regular use.

Finally, the number of searches on the DCHC database rose dramatically as the number of records in the database increased. For example, in May 2000, 59 successful searches of the database were undertaken. By September, that number had risen to 348 and it has continued to rise steadily each month.




Through the use of a variety of tools and approaches, the DCHC project has managed to organize itself in a fairly flat consortium structure. Participants in the project have indicated that it has been critical for them to be involved in discussion and decision–making on a daily basis. Interactions are documented and less fleeting, which makes it easy for the Project Coordinator and the Principal Investigators to review discussion, summarize, and offer objective choices for final decision–making. Further, these tools have helped to cultivate a strong sense of individual involvement among the partners. Through this experience, we feel that the DCHC project can offer a collaborative framework that can be scaled to meet the needs of larger and diverse groups, while preserving each institution's sense of individuality and recognizing their contributions.

The use of electronic tools such as the Webboard™, project Web site, and time line have enabled far–flung institutions to communicate on a daily basis and contribute to collective decision–making that has propelled this project forward to successful completion. These tools have made it possible to also address a new challenge — the development of innovative approaches to delivering primary source materials for curators, librarians, and K–12 teachers [5]. End of article


About the authors

Nuala Bennett is Visiting Special Projects Librarian for the IMLS “Teaching with Digital Content” program, located in the Digital Imaging and Media Technology Initiative of the University of Illinois Library. She holds a B.A. in Computer Science, Linguistics and German from the University of Dublin, Trinity College (Ireland) and a M.S. in Library and Information Science from the University of Illinois. She has held appointments as Project Coordinator, “Digital Cultural Heritage Community” project, Research Information Specialist with the National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA) and Research Programmer and Project Coordinator for medical informatics projects at the University of Illinois Graduate School of Library and Information Science.
E–mail: nabennet [at] uiuc [dot] edu

Beth Sandore is Head, Digital Imaging and Media Technology Initiative ( and Professor of Library Administration at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign Library. Her professional experience and research focus on technology development and evaluation in libraries, including experimental work with image and multimedia databases. Her recent publications include a user evaluation study of the Museum Educational Site Licensing image database, a book on technology and management in libraries co–authored with F.W. Lancaster, and a recent issue of Library Trends devoted to digital image access and retrieval. Her research has been supported by the Institute of Museum and Library Services, J. Paul Getty Trust, National Science Foundation, and Intel Corporation. She has served in an advisory capacity for a number of groups on imaging and technology evaluation projects, including the U.S. Department of Education, J. Paul Getty Trust, Andrew Mellon Foundation, and Oregon Historical Society.
E–mail: sandore[at] uiuc [dot] edu



1. Illinois State Board of Education, “Illinois Learning Standards,”

2. G. Bunker and G. Zick, 1999. “Collaboration as a key to digital library development,” D–Lib Magazine, volume 5, issue 3, at

3. N. Allen, 2000. “Collaboration through the Colorado Digitization Project,” First Monday, volume 5, number 6 (June), at


5. “Teaching with digital content: Describing, finding, and using digital cultural heritage materials,” supported by the Institute of Museum and Library Services (January 2001–December 2002), at


Editorial history

Paper received 3 May 2001; accepted 1 July 2001.

Copyright © 2001, First Monday.

Copyright © 2001, Nuala Bennett and Beth Sandore.

The IMLS Digital Cultural Heritage Community Project: A case study of tools for effective project management and collaboration
by Nuala Bennett and Beth Sandore
First Monday, Volume 6, Number 7 - 2 July 2001

A Great Cities Initiative of the University of Illinois at Chicago University Library.

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