Planning and the Historic Environment 2002

An Agenda for the 21st century – 17 May 2002

Information flows in the digital age

Nigel Clubb


National Monuments Record, English Heritage

The desire to identify, record, understand, explain and enjoy the heritage of our historic

sites, monuments and landscapes is characteristic of a society which values its history and

culture. The capture of information about the historic environment, through archaeological

and architectural survey and investigation, and the dissemination of information and

interpretation, is central to this desire. Information about the historic environment should

be available to all, both specialists and the public. The potential in the digital age is for

survey data and information to flow electronically from its creation to the archive and to

the end-user through Internet access. There is also the potential to encourage new groups

within the community to engage with the historic environment, based on participation and

social inclusion, as well as curriculum needs. While current developments in England are

encouraging, the general picture looks patchy. The capture, storage and dissemination of

historic environment information is fragmented and under-resourced. Only a strategic

framework which includes all the key players and voluntary and commercial sectors will

make integrated and virtual access a reality.


The knowledge base

Our understanding of the historic environment rests on the knowledge base, (see Fig 1).

This base is enhanced through investigation and analysis which themselves create new

archives and enhanced material for dissemination and set new agendas for further work in a

on-going cycle. There are a large number of players including government, English

Heritage, the Heritage Lottery Fund, resource, local government, archaeological units,

museums, archives, libraries and universities. Other sectors, the educational and

environmental also have a part to play, as do voluntary and commercial interests. There is

also a hierarchy of levels, from the local, through the regional, national, UK and European

to the international. The material is varied, including text, images, spatial and

scientific/technical data. Much of it is now captured electronically, for example, as wordprocessed

files, digital imagery, or through electronic distance measuring and global

positioning techniques.


Fig 1 – The knowledge Base


The data model for the historic environment is necessary complex, (see Fig 2). There is a

requirement to model change from the past through to the present and future, based on

primary archives and the people associated with the historic environment. There are

demands for the casework and advisory services associated with the historic environment to

be automated and delivered electronically on grounds of efficiency, as well as to meet

government targets for the delivery of modern services.


Fig 2 – Simplified data model


Some current dissemination initiatives

Although this paper focuses on England, there are good models to be found in Scotland and

Wales. CANMORE provides on-line access to the database of the National Monuments

Record of Scotland, (for details of the websites mentioned in the text see the appendix to

this paper). Also in Scotland, SCRAN provides access to resources from a number of

Scottish cultural institutions. In Wales, CARN provides access to the resources of the

National Monuments Record together with other archaeological institutions across Wales.

In England, a handful of local authority Sites and Monuments Records (SMRs) or Historic

Environment Records (HERs), are on-line, or planning to be on-line, often encouraged by

lottery funding. The Northumberland SMR is an example of this.


At a global level, details of World Heritage Sites are available on the web. There is also the

EUROPEAN HERTAGE.NET project, which provides access to the cultural heritage

policies of the countries associated with the Council of Europe. At UK level, HEIRNET

provides a register of digital resources, while its sister project HEIRPORT, shows how a

portal may be developed to provide access to the resources of several institutions. The

ARCHAEOLOGY DATA SERVICE has made a major contribution to providing access to

digital resources, such as the Excavation Index of the English Heritage National

Monuments Record, and to the promotion of standards for interoperability and digital



English Heritage has a number of on-going and forthcoming projects, including IMAGES

OF ENGAND, (which has incidentally generated perceptions of security risks from

providing details of property on the web, in this case, photographs of listed buildings,

including private dwellings). LBS ONLINE will make available the statutory record of

listed buildings to local authorities and the statutory amenity societies later this year and to

the public next year. Also later this year, PASTSCAPE will provide access to the main

National Monuments Record database, using a prototype interface designed with intelligent

12-year olds as the target audience. English Heritage has also been active in providing web

access to data standards and thesauri for monument inventories, (see the appendix to this

paper). PHOTOLONDON is a partnership between public institutions with London

photographic resources. The English Heritage National Monuments Record has also

provided selected resources for dissemination by commercial networks with expertise in

particular markets, for example the LIVING LIBRARY for education and the HERITAGE

IMAGE PARTNERSHIP for picture researchers.


There are a number of other types of access initiatives; the DEFENCE OF BRITAIN is an

example of a large number of thematic databases being developed in the voluntary sector,

while the PORTABLE ANTIQUITIES recording scheme represents the interface between

the historic environment and museum sectors. The ACCESS TO ARCHIVES (A2A) project

provides access to archives catalogues and the National Monuments Record plans to join

the project later this year. There are also important developments in related sectors, such as

the PLANNING PORTAL, providing both the knowledge base for planning as well as

advisory and casework services and MAGIC, which will enable the sharing of rural and

countryside spatial information via a web-enabled geographical information system.



The historic environment sector in England is relatively fragmented for its size, for

example, there are around 100 local SMRs or HERs. Traditionally, there have been

compiled and maintained by archaeologists and many are not fully integrated into the

historic buildings conservation framework. Indeed, there is some way to go before the

knowledge base represents the holistic historic environment. It is suggested that the sector

should look at the further development of portals to provide more integrated access to its

information resources, portals which should be closely linked to related developments, such

as the Planning Portal and Culture Online, if that project is funded by government. Perhaps

there should be two complementary initiatives:


- for specialists, a portal and network which provides seamless access to information

and archives resources, mapping across to annual state of the historic environment

audits and OS digital products, as well as online advisory and casework services

- for public, access to information and archives resources, supported by interpretation

and virtual experiences of the past. This will encourage new groups within the

community to become engaged with the historic environment based on participation

and social inclusion as well as curriculum needs.

While the provision of seamless access to the knowledge base is critical and is probably the

easiest issue to resource, there are host of related issues which the sector needs to address

together. These include:

- Understanding the user / customer base

- Developing business cases and justifications for funding

- Roles and responsibilities of partners

- Analysing the work processes which are supported by the knowledge base or create it

- Standards

- Backlogs in data capture and cataloguing

- How best to present the story of the historic environment from prehistory to present

and future

- How best to apply the interactive technology being developed elsewhere

- How to acquire and harness commercial and marketing skills


Standards present a whole range of issues: technical, systems, data structure/models and

terminology as well as how to apply and integrate specialist data categories such as images

and spatial data. Standards for interoperability need to be decided and applied by the whole

sector, such as:


- the Z39.50 international standard maintained by the Library of Congress, which

specifies a client-based protocol for security and retrieving information from remote

databases without imposing universal data standards

- the Dublin core standard for interoperable online metadata standards.



It is clear that increasingly the capture, storage, management and dissemination of historic

environment information will be digital. It is also clear that a relatively fragmented sector

must work together to ensure the efficient use of scarce resources and to avoid duplication

and overlap. There needs to be a quantum shift in England towards exploiting the internet

as the single most powerful tool for access to archives and the dissemination of knowledge.

Web-enablement has the potential to deliver tailored and integrated information from many

sources, including text, maps and overlays, air photographs and historic images. The

gateway to knowledge should be through a seamless network of electronic services,

including national and local resources.


When the expected broadband revolution finally arrives, there will be a demand for

interactive content and services delivered over multiple distribution channels. The next

three years will be critical if the historic environment is not to fall far behind other sectors

in making integrated and virtual access a reality. Failure here may mean failure to provide a

usable knowledge base for specialists as well as to attract younger and future generations;

that would be the route to marginalisation for everything that we care most about.