Mellon Foundation supports CIRSS research on linked open data, digitized special collections

Tim Cole
Tim Cole, Affiliate Professor
Jacob Jett
Jacob Jett, Postdoctoral Research Associate

The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign has been awarded a new research grant by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to explore the benefits for users of linked open data (LOD) for digitized library special collections. Timothy Cole (MS '89), mathematics librarian in the University Library and coordinator for library applications within the Center for Informatics Research in Science and Scholarship (CIRSS) at the Graduate School of Library and Information Science (GSLIS), will serve as principal investigator. Myung-Ja “MJ” Han (MS '06), metadata librarian, and Caroline Szylowicz, Kolb-Proust librarian and curator of rare books and manuscripts, will serve as co-principal investigators. Jacob Jett, GSLIS doctoral student and CIRSS research assistant, will add expertise acquired through participation in prior CIRSS projects involving LOD.

While digitizing any library special collection can help make unique resources available to a wider audience, Cole believes more can be done to weave such resources into the fabric of the Web. According to Cole, "the linked open data paradigm is enabling a transition from a Web of largely static documents, to a semantically enriched Web of data and recombinant, composable information resources having the potential to better support humanities research and scholarly inquiry. We seek to understand and demonstrate concretely some of the benefits of linked open data for scholars who rely on special collections to do their research."

The project will use as its test bed three digitized special collections curated by the University Library's Rare Book & Manuscript Library—the Motley Collection of Costume and Theatre Design, the Portraits of Actors, 1720-1920 Collection, and the Kolb-Proust Archive for Research. These collections are representative of the image-based and text-based special collections being digitized by many academic libraries. As Szylowicz notes, “these three collections, although focused on seemingly different topics, belong to the same cultural universe. It will be very interesting to make these cultural connections more visible, and more easily navigable for users and researchers.”

A core challenge of the research will be to transform the rich, traditional library resource descriptions that have been created for these collections over time into LOD. According to Han, “the metadata for special collections are created using practices different from traditional library metadata practices, and this will provide an exciting opportunity to experiment and establish ways to transform non-traditional library metadata to linked open data.” By transforming library descriptions into linked open data and re-envisioning user-facing services, the team hopes to integrate these collections more broadly with library general collections and with other relevant resources on the Web. In doing so, this project will engage and work directly with scholars to assess how they currently utilize the above collections, and how LOD can enhance the usefulness of these collections.

The project is expected to continue through June of 2017 with additional students and staff at CIRSS becoming involved over the course of the project. Cole and his colleagues expect to work closely with other library-focused linked data projects, including the Mellon Foundation-funded Linked Data for Libraries (LD4L) project. More information can be found at the project website:

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