Web Magazine for Information Professionals

Cornucopia: An Open Collection Description Service

Chris Turner describes the latest phase of Cornucopia development and the opportunities this is opening up for the future.

A Little History

Cornucopia is a searchable database of collections held by cultural heritage institutions throughout the UK. It is developed and managed by the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council (MLA) and was initially established in response to the Government’s Treasures in Trust report which called for a way to be found of recognising the richness and diversity of our collections.

The original Cornucopia was set up in 1998. MLA, (then the Museums & Galleries Commission (MGC)), contracted Cognitive Applications to develop the site featuring data from the 62 museums in England holding collections which are ‘Designated’ as being of outstanding importance. The original Cornucopia site was searchable by a variety of criteria including subject area and geographical location and was based on static HTML pages with little or no database functionality. The pages relating to each collection could be ‘grouped’ according to search criteria, (subject type, for example), but none of the results were assembled on the fly.

This version went online in October 1998 as part of an evaluation process, and was generally well received. At the end of 1999 a full evaluation [1] was carried out on this pilot on behalf of MGC by Soloman Business Partners.

In the light of the evaluation, over the next two years, a second version of the database was designed with the aim of extending the model to include information from all Registered museums in the UK. Stuart Holm was brought in as a consultant to create the data structure for the new Cornucopia, using the model of the original data with amendments derived from the evaluation report. This data structure referred to a very early report from UKOLN [2] on schema, metadata and interoperable information - a precursor to the Research Libraries Support Programme (RSLP) Collection Description schema.

The structure was designed to accommodate information from several sources. To save time and effort, it was decided to populate Cornucopia with data from the MGC’s Digest of Museum Statistics (DOMUS) database. This provided top-level institutional information for all Registered museums in the UK. The structure also had to be sufficiently flexible to accommodate information from a variety of other sources, in particular, data from the West Midlands and South West Area Museum Councils mapping projects. Between them, these projects cover almost 500 museums, providing detailed information about collections, access arrangements, documentation and a range of other areas.

Key to the design of the original schema was the representation of the relationship between collections and the institutions that hold them. The database reflected this structure by preserving the concept of three ‘levels’ of information:

This structure was then handed over to database designers System Simulation (SSL), a company with extensive experience of working on museum projects.

Two consultants were contracted to complete records for each of the museums in the South West and West Midlands regions on the basis of this preloaded information, drawing together information from a wide range of sources including:

In order to manage the process of information-gathering, a system was established whereby the consultants were issued with ‘satellite’ versions of the data-entry client. These satellite copies held all of the information, edits and updates to the data which were then exported on a regular basis to a ‘master’ version of the database held at MLA (Museums, Libraries and Archives Council). This approach was adopted to allow the consultants sufficient freedom of movement to gather the information, but also to provide a stable version at MLA in case of machine failure.

In the event, progress with data collection was hampered slightly by technical difficulties with the ‘satellites’ of the data entry client which it was not always possible to replicate on the master copy.

Perhaps the greatest challenge of constructing the data for the two regions was in ensuring consistency in the application of terminology, standards and protocols. The structure of satellite copies of the data feeding into a master copy enabled Nick Poole at MLA to edit the incoming information to ensure that information from the two regions would be broadly comparable and consistent. This process was aided greatly by the inclusion of an ‘Editor’s notes’ field in the database, in which the consultants would add any comments or highlight discrepancies in the available information for a given collection. Much of the editing of the data involved resolving these issues raised by the consultants.

Having established a core dataset of approximately 1250 basic records and approximately 500 detailed entries, plans were drawn up for extending the scope of Cornucopia to provide detailed information across the remaining regions. Phase 3 had begun …

Where We Are Now

MLA’s long-term plan for Cornucopia is focussed on its ability to act as a comprehensive information resource on UK collections. This meant that the Phase 3 development has concentrated on the following key areas:

In addressing these areas an early decision was made to adopt the Collections Level Description schema [3] from the RSLP. It was and is felt that the use of an internationally recognised metadata standard was an essential prerequisite to achieving the objective of widening access and use of the data held within Cornucopia.

This decision necessitated a mapping exercise to map the then existing Cornucopia data structure on to the RSLP Schema; this in turn led to a review of the database structure.

By a happy coincidence the Crossroads Project [4] in the West Midlands was using the RSLP Schema and thus offered the chance to make use of a ready-made database structure. Furthermore the Crossroads system was built using open source tools and was making use of direct data entry for remote input of data.

A decision was therefore made to migrate from the version 2 database and to contract the developers of the Crossroads system, Orangeleaf Systems [5] , to develop Cornucopia Phase 3.

The new Cornucopia system [6] allows the recording and maintenance of collection descriptions and details of their associated repositories, and makes these available for search and retrieval over the Internet. The database can be remotely updated by more than one person, using only a common Web browser such as Netscape or Internet Explorer; there is no extra software to install. In addition there is an Open Archives Initiative - Protocol for Metadata Harvesting (OAI-PMH) [7] interface to the database, so that data may be harvested from Cornucopia for use in other systems. The latest addition to the system is Web Service access. A Web Services Description Language (WSDL) [8] file is available which will enable third party application developers to incorporate searches of the Cornucopia database within their own applications.

The system offers faster, more efficient searching and the ability to ‘collect’ CLDs (collection-level descriptions), print them, save them or email them to a friend or colleague. Users both professional and public will be encouraged to use the descriptions for research, to plan a visit, or simply to find out more about our cultural heritage.

All the data from version 2 has been imported into the system and a team of consultants was employed to input data from the remaining regions which had not been included in previous versions.

The most difficult and time consuming aspect of the project has been the editing and normalising of data from divergent sources. Indeed, this being the result of human effort, there will still be errors in the data, and I would greatly appreciate these being brought to my attention by anyone discovering them.

The development is based on simple tools: Linux, Apache Web server, MySQL database and PHP scripting language. This toolset has become known as LAMP [9] and is freely available to download and use. Whilst other technologies such as Java could equally be used, PHP has the lowest technical barriers to installation and use: it is also available on Windows in a ‘standalone’ development environment. Where possible, the language implementation of the application has been hidden, by using Apache’s mod_rewrite. This feature allows core parts of the Web site to be presented without showing .php (or .asp, .exe etc) extensions so that URLs should remain consistent even if areas of underlying technology need to be changed in the future.

The design of the Cornucopia database separates entities in the RSLP model such as collection descriptions, related people, times and places into a normalised relational database. So, for example, place data is entered once and can be related to many CLDs. Some tables have been expanded to offer a richer set of data, e.g. agent contains name (agentName) as well as suffix, prefix, birth and death dates etc. Having normalised data helps maintain integrity of the records and goes some way in preventing duplication.

Creating a normalised database also allows the presentation of a browse interface to the Web site visitors. A range of places can be shown which lead to collection descriptions, which in turn have links to related people or times.

However the downside of normalising data into many separate tables is that the speed of global searches may be reduced. The Crossroads dataset only covers the West Midlands and so searching across a few thousand records in multiple tables is reasonably quick. When the system was tested with the possible many tens of thousands of Cornucopia records it became obvious that a global search across many tables, (by performing multiple joins in the SQL statements), was going to operate more slowly. The solution to this problem was to create a single index of data contained in all the tables. This is updated for the whole dataset regularly, and for each CLD when it is modified. The indexing script builds each collection description and scans through all the terms and descriptive text, building a dictionary of words (and their metaphone codes) as it goes. A further table contains the map between words and CLDs, and it is this that is globally searched. The results are dramatic: a search of ten thousand records was taking 5-10 seconds to return results; the system has now been tested to return results on 1.2 million records in under a second after running the indexing script. No special tuning of the environment, PHP or MySQL was needed to achieve this.

Cornucopia also possesses a basic content management system that allows a system manager to edit the ancillary pages for ‘help’ and ‘about’ information. This content is stored within the database, and a simple browser based What-You-See-Is-What-You-Get editor is provided to make the update tasks easier.

Support for consultants entering collection description data is vital; especially as data entry is through the various available browsers. The final addition to the original Crossroads design has been an interactive support forum built into the Cornucopia application. Messages added to it are sent to Orangeleaf for tracking and action but are also available to read and reply to by all the other consultants with a view to fostering a ‘community’. Such messages have helped us improve both the data entry and public facing areas of the Web site.

The Future

The Phase 3 development has left us with 2 aspects to Cornucopia:

These will have distinct although inevitably interconnected futures.

The Cornucopia database of museum collection descriptions clearly has a close relationship with the 24 Hour Museum [10] database of museum collections and the details of how that will operate are now being worked out. Web service capability will be added to the system, as it was always intended that this database would act as a source of collections descriptions to be incorporated in other services rather than a stand alone Web site.

The Cornucopia system is already used by another project - Cecilia [11] - a database of over 1,800 collection descriptions of music materials held in some 600 museums, libraries and archives in the UK and Ireland. Cecilia offers an overview of the national music resource enabling all kinds of users to identify, locate and assess materials. The work to create the database has been funded through the British Library Co-operation and Partnership Programme, and, for preservation purposes, a copy of the data has been placed with the AHDS (Arts and Humanities Data Service) performing Arts.

Because the system interface can be tailored to reflect the unique identity of any project while storing the data and making it available in formats which conform to international standards - RSLP Schema, OAI-PMH, Web Services, - a number of other collection description projects, covering Libraries and Archives as well as Museums are also proposing to use Cornucopia.

Providing the support infrastructure in terms of system support, consultancy, training and system development represents the next challenge for MLA in the evolution of Cornucopia.


  1. The full text of the evaluation can be downloaded at: http://www.cornucopia.org.uk/html/assets/pilot_eval.html
  2. Collection Level Description - a review of existing practice, an eLib supporting study - Andy Powell, UKOLN, August 1999. http://www.ukoln.ac.uk/metadata/cld/study/
  3. For more information on the RSLP Schema see: http://www.ukoln.ac.uk/cd-focus/
  4. Crossroads: Discovering West Midlands Collections. http://www.crossroads-wm.org.uk/
  5. Orangeleaf Systems Ltd. http://www.orangeleaf.com/
  6. Cornucopia: Discovering UK Collections. http://www.cornucopia.org.uk/
  7. The Open Archives Initiative http://www.openarchives.org/
  8. Information on WSDL can be found at http://www.w3.org/TR/wsdl and the Cornucopia WSDL file can be accessed from the Cornucopia Web site site http://www.cornucopia.org.uk
  9. LAMP the Open Source Web Platform http://www.onlamp.com
  10. 24 Hour Museum: The National Virtual Museum http://www.24hourmuseum.org.uk/
  11. Cecilia: Music Collections of the UK and Ireland http://cecilia.orangeleaf.com/

Author Details

Chris Turner
ICT Advisor
Museums, Libraries and Archives Council (MLA)
16 Queen Anne’s Gate

Email: chris.turner@mla.gov.uk
Web site: http://www.mla.gov.uk

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