Thursday, 7 August 2014

An unparalleled view of Australia

For a time my work was synonymous with a service called PictureAustralia. Hosted by the National Library, it became an overnight success in 2001 after almost two years of development. I was asked to write about the service for an international journal called First Monday, and when submitted, a further request for more details on why it was so successful was received. I found that difficult to do, because to me it seemed that the premise behind the service was simple. If asked to write the article again, here, in short form, is what I would add:

1. the name. Such a perfect double entendre describing in two words what the service allowed the general public to do. Coalescing the words together, a naming convention for new services which became more common as the web expanded and imaginative URLs forced previously unseen combinations, always generated a talking point.

A sign of the success of the concept was the rippling out of its name to local services such as Picture Coffs Harbour, Picture South Perth, Picture Queensland, and PictureNT.

2. the colours. Quintessential orange, dusty ochre, and burnt black ensured the service's interface stand out from many other websites. The iconic logo, approved by Lady Mary Nolan, also echoed the colours of the nation. 

3. the design. The original lightbox format of the interface meant that a very large number of images could be expediently traversed by the human eye.

4. the metadata. The Library retrieved metadata records from all contributors regularly. Only two pieces of metadata were mandatory - a caption and a web link to the original digital image. While providing more information would generate a greater chance of a particular image being discovered, as is the case with any metadata, resource-strapped memory institutions could choose to reuse existing minimalist descriptive information or augment it. 

The Canberra Times, 5 September 2000

5. the participants. By the time of service closure, two million metadata records describing 100 image collections were pooled by 70 agencies in a significant collaboration. Many of those were memory institutions, but some academic agencies followed the lead of original participant the University of Queensland Library to share their gems in an increasingly well-known destination website. There was a simple payback - increasing referrals to the participants' websites.

6. the architecture. This was key for two reasons. Firstly the image files, created by digitising artworks, photographs and artifacts, were often subject to the same quite stringent copyright restrictions as their original form. As explained on several occasions, it was unnecessary for PictureAustralia to take or keep copies of these - the image files were fetched in real time using the web link provided. And secondly, the early web problem of internet bandwidth capacity not keeping up with anticipated usage was avoided by choosing to display thumbnail-sized images. A very simple architecture.

7. the postcards. Used for marketing the service, free postcards distributed inter/nationally were another serendipitously timed development which ensured people in Australia and New Zealand who may have not used a library service online could make a tentative foray into the riches of the collections of memory institutions. The choice of images for the postcards was a serious, considered activity for each participant. The selection had to convey a strong representation of Australiana, here are the originals:

State Library of NSW postcard

State Library of Tasmania postcard

University of Queensland Library postcard

National Archives of Australia postcard
State Library of Victoria

National Library of Australia postcard
Australian War Memorial postcard

In 2006, a second marketing channel took off. A partnership with the upcoming image-sharing service, Flickr, was brokered. In the early days of PictureAustralia, there was a lot of comment about the comparative lack of contemporary images. The Flickr partnership allowed individual amateur and professional photographers to contribute both contemporary and historical images to the service. This partnership continues with Trove.

8. the utility. When services run smoothly, memory institution managers and their funders can sometimes be unaware of their continued exemplary utility. PictureAustralia was fortunate in that Catherine Martin, world-renowned costume designer for films such as "Australia", found it to be a perfect tool for her design research. Catherine spoke about the impact of the service for her.

9. the governance model. A small Board, consisting of four members who were all passionate about the original vision for PictureAustralia, shared advice and invited expertise in when needed. Each participant had a say in development directions at an annual meeting hosted by the Library, and proposals such as streamlining orders for copies of photographs generally accorded with the Library's capacity to deliver.  

10. the staff. As the first Library service displaying digital content in real time, PictureAustralia had no trouble attracting staff to manage it. Minimalist in operation, it  required one person to ensure the smooth operation of the service while responding to enquiries from the general public and participants, and less than 50% of the time of a programmer to ensure that the metadata records continued to be routinely harvested. For the original manager of the service, it inspired a much greater passion for art and led to more visual content being incorporated into routine compliance reports.

A happy confluence of decisions implemented in PictureAustralia cemented the Library's reputation for online service delivery with sister institutions and the general public not resident in its hometown, Canberra.  

PictureAustralia was absorbed into the Pictures, photos, objects zone of Trove in 2012. It was a wrench - after all, who would shut down a successful ground-breaking service?  However the straitened financial circumstances of most memory institutions had exacted a toll once again. Nevertheless the National Library made sure that the collaboration invested in by the participants and contributors over more than 12 years was not lost. Trove emulates and extends the PictureAustralia service model.

I am extremely grateful to The Wayback Machine for allowing me to wallow in the beautiful design of the PictureAustralia website once again.

1 comment:

  1. Your nostalgia makes me feel sad.

    "I am extremely grateful to The Wayback Machine for allowing me to wallow in the beautiful design of the PictureAustralia website once again."