Web Magazine for Information Professionals

Supporting Creativity in Networked Environments: The COINE Project

Geoff Butters, Amanda Hulme and Peter Brophy describe an approach to enabling a wide range of users to create and share their own stories, thus contributing to the development of cultural heritage at the local level.

Cultural heritage has an important role to play in today’s society. Not only does it help us to understand our past but it also has an impact on social development, the economy and education. Developments in Information and Communications Technologies (ICTs) have provided new opportunities for the manipulation of cultural heritage. Digitisation of cultural material has widened access beyond the boundaries of traditional memory institutions and has provided scope for adding value to collections.

The involvement of non-experts in creating recordings of cultural heritage, in whatever medium, so as to capture the experience of ‘ordinary citizens’ in their own terms, could lead to richer and more illuminating collections as new insights and previously hidden information is revealed. This democratises the creation of cultural heritage, removing it from an elitist monopoly, and provides new perspectives on local, regional, national and international events. Advantages of this approach to building collections include greater relevance to the lives of ordinary people, while individuals gain a sense of achievement from seeing their work published.

Technology also opens up new possibilities for both creating and sharing cultural content both locally and globally. Rather than locking up the record of our heritage in institutional collections, it becomes possible for users to identify common interests with other people all over the world. The success of services like YouTube [1] and MySpace [2] testifies to the attractiveness of this concept. What such services lack, however, is authority, provenance and even short-term maintenance or preservation.

The creation and sharing of content by the individual was the central objective of a European Commission-funded project, COINE (Cultural Objects In Networked Environments) which was completed in 2005 and underwent detailed evaluation in 2005-6. The project aimed to empower ordinary citizens by providing them with the opportunity to produce and share their own cultural material. During the project a Web-based system was developed to provide the necessary tools to allow individuals to publish their cultural material online, and subsequently to share it on a local, national and international basis. A key theme of the project was accessibility for all and, as such, the system’s interface and functionality were simplified to allow everyone to use it, regardless of their familiarity with computers. In doing so it provided the opportunity for many new users to become involved with ICTs and cultural heritage in a relatively easy way.

The European Information Society Technologies (IST) Programme: Heritage for All

Though the term ‘cultural heritage’ is becoming familiar, it is one that lacks clear definition. In the DigiCULT Report Technological Landscapes for Tomorrow’s Cultural Economy Mulrenin and Geser [3] define ‘culture’ as a ‘product of our everyday life’, whilst UNESCO, on the World Heritage Web site, defines ‘heritage’ as ‘our legacy from the past, what we live with today, and what we pass on to future generations.’ [4]. Taken together, these perhaps provide an adequate working definition.

Cultural heritage has become an important focus of governments worldwide, largely due to its economic potential, particularly in an information-driven society. This point is illustrated by the fact that in many advanced countries the cultural economy accounts for approximately five per cent of GDP [5]. To consider it in purely economic terms, however, would be short-sighted and indeed the importance of cultural heritage in addressing social issues is also widely acknowledged. In addition it intersects in a variety of ways with learning, both formal and informal, as is highlighted by the DigiCULT Report, where it is suggested that

‘cultural heritage institutions are in a prime position to deliver unique learning resources that are needed at all educational levels.’ [6]

This point of view is reflected in the Archives Task Force Report, Listening to the Past, Speaking to the Future, which notes the potential of using archives to

‘enrich and enhance teaching and learning and contribute to raising standards in education.’ [7]

Accordingly, funding and policy are directed by governments to ensure that their cultural heritage is exploited to its maximum potential. For memory institutions - libraries, museums and archives - recent developments in ICTs have provided the opportunity to digitise the artefacts and documents that represent our cultural heritage, and so have opened up possibilities both for their preservation and increased accessibility.

The COINE Project

One of the most important aspects of digital interactivity is the potential it creates for relating collections to personal experience. Trant [8] considers that consumers are more concerned with how cultural objects link to their own lives rather than with the records that link to those objects.

The creation of content by the user requires a more complex level of interactivity than search, retrieval and use but it is considered an ‘integral part of connecting cultural heritage resources to people’s lives’ [9], and, as noted in the report of the Archives Task Force:

‘The growth of community archives … has in part stemmed from a desire by individuals and groups to record and share culturally diverse experiences and stories. This grassroots movement is an expression of the often strongly felt need to celebrate, record, and rebuild the sense of community in our lives today.’ [10].

This was very much the vision of the COINE Project: to develop tools for ordinary people to create their own cultural heritage materials. This concept is not in itself new: its popularity is demonstrated by the proliferation of local history societies, and in family history research. In the past material produced by these groups has remained relatively isolated and inaccessible to anyone who might share an interest. Kelly, one of the project staff, noted that:

‘None of these things [personal and local collections and societies] provide a simple systematic and efficient way of recording, searching and sharing heritage research and local “stories”’ [11]

The COINE Project aimed to address this through the development of a Web-based service that allows the ordinary citizen, someone without expertise in cultural heritage or ICTs, to create, share and use cultural material. Through COINE, people could have the opportunity to write and publish their own stories electronically, thus exploiting the potential of personal experience and history. Images and other objects could be inserted anywhere in the text. Because it was essential that the COINE system was usable by everyone, even by those who had little or no previous computer skills. The system was developed with a very simple interface, hiding much of the functionality.

The COINE system was also designed to allow the cultural material being created to be shared among communities. Kelly had highlighted a lack of consistency and difficulties in interoperability between cultural heritage projects. In many cases such systems ‘lack coherence, structure and interoperability’ [12]. A lack of standards compliance lies behind these problems, but failure to use common terminologies also plays a big part. COINE attempted to overcome the latter problem by using a common set of high-level subject descriptors, also called topic areas, and a shared metadata schema. The latter enabled each user group to develop it own thesaurus, or use one available to it. This approach was seen to be particularly appropriate for a multi-lingual partnership, since the topic areas could be translated into any language very easily while the thesauri were domain-specific - essential when so much material related to local areas and events.

As a hosted service, the COINE system was designed to be attractive to small institutions without ready access to technical expertise. However, such institutions often have high levels of professional and sometimes domain expertise (especially in areas such as local history) and utilising this gives them a significant benefit over ‘free for all’ systems (as MySpace and YouTube have become), because the authority of the institution gives credence to the objects created while mediation enables the worst excesses, such as blatant breach of copyright, to be avoided. Interestingly, it became apparent during the project that an unmediated system would have been totally unacceptable to many groups, including teachers working with children.

A further advantage of basing services on libraries and other cultural institutions is that they are there for the long term, so that objects created should not simply disappear when the next innovation comes along. Of course to achieve this the institution needs to be able to make arrangements for the maintenance of its own copy of the stories created by its users, not relying entirely on the hosted service provider. Ultimately COINE intended to address limitations on access to collections and the involvement of individuals in cultural heritage and, as such, to initiate a shift in the role of memory institutions. The system was not, however, seen as a replacement for such collections and recognised the valuable potential of having them ‘available side by side with the personal collections and histories of individuals and communities.’ [13]

The COINE System

COINE was based on the concept that each library or other cultural institution would be responsible for one or more ‘domains’. A domain was in essence a virtual database, access to which was restricted to people authorised by the domain administrator through a login name and password. An institution could choose to operate more than one domain, each with its own user group, thesaurus and access regime.

The COINE system comprised primarily a database server and a Web server. The database server hosted the stories, the embedded objects, associated metadata, the thesaurus, etc. for each domain, and information about its members. The Web server hosted the Web site for each domain, passing data to and from the database server. The two servers could have been anywhere: they could be on the same physical machine, on separate machines in the same office, or indeed anywhere in the world, connected via the Internet. In practice, one technical partner, based in Limerick, Ireland, housed and managed the Web server, and the other technical partner, based in Sheffield, England, housed and managed the database server. This was largely for convenience during development but also demonstrated the feasibility of running the system with multiple servers at different locations.

All of the project partners (apart from the technical developers) used a number of test sites (typically small museums or libraries or schools), each having their own ‘domain’ in the COINE system. The administrator could operate each as a closed service allowing only authorised members to read stories, or could authorise limited access to anyone to search and read published stories. However, contributors of stories (i.e. those with write access) had to be registered and authorised as members by the administrator. COINE aimed to have a simple, easy-to-use and intuitive interface which balanced clean, uncomplicated appearance, with a good level of instruction and guidance, designed to disguise sophisticated functionality.

The input of users in the design of the interface was crucial in the development, and its terminology and appearance changed considerably during the project in response to issues raised by demonstration sites. For example, user instructions to ‘create a narrative’ and ‘choose a thesaurus term’, were changed to ‘create a story’ and ‘choose a subject term’; ‘Saved Searches’ became ‘My Ways of Finding Stories’; and ‘Personalise’ became ‘Change My Look’.

Users entered the COINE system at a registration and login page which also gave brief information about the project. After login came a ‘My COINE’ page with a range of options including ‘Search’, ‘Change My Look’, ‘My Ways of Finding Stories’, and ‘Stories’. The last of these enabled users to see their own previously written stories or to create a new story.

A content creation wizard aided the process of creating a story (see Figure 1). Authors were firstly asked for a title - ‘What are you going to call your story?’ - then asked for a general subject area - ‘What’s it about?’ - to be chosen from the 20 topic areas (see Figure 2). Next keywords could be added, then story text in a simple box (see Figure 3). Crucially, anywhere within the story text, objects could be added by clicking a button. Objects could be anything that existed in a digital file: picture, video, speech, music, document, anything at all. The process of adding objects gave the opportunity to include a description and other information about the object, including usage rights (Figure 4). Objects would then appear as clickable thumbnails in the text of the story. It was quite possible for the story to be incidental and the objects the main focus. For example a story could consist of a video with a text caption.

Another button allowed the addition of hyperlinks in the story without the writer having to understand how to format them, and shielding them from unintentional editing. (It is perhaps worth noting that this proved quite challenging, since most applications display urls in a form where the unwary can easily alter them unintentionally.) Finally administrative metadata could be added and then the full story, complete with embedded objects, saved for publication on the system. Publication was mediated by the domain administrator who could authorise the story, or reject it with a message of explanation being sent to the author.

screenshot 22(KB) : Figure 1: Create a story

Figure 1: Create a story

screenshot 33(KB) : Figure 2: What's it about?

Figure 2: What’s it about?

screenshot24(KB) :Figure 3: What's your story?

Figure 3: What’s your story?

screenshot 33(KB) : Figure 4: Add an object

Figure 4: Add an object

Other screens allowed authors to modify their stories, to publish them (either ‘globally’ throughout all COINE domains, or ‘locally’ on only the domain being used) or to un-publish them if needed. Simple or advanced searching was available to registered users or non-registered casual users. An administration interface was provided to domain administrators to monitor user registrations, mediate the publishing of stories and take care of other maintenance details.


A study of the user experience of COINE was carried out after the end of the project using interviews and email questionnaires with project participants, analysis of the independent user testing carried out during the project (by people who were drawn into using COINE but who were not members of the consortium), and an evaluation of the usability of the system. The last of these analyses used heuristics testing, ‘an expert evaluation method that uses a set of principles to assess if an interface is user friendly.’ [14]. To achieve this a checklist was compiled using questions based on an adaptation of the Centre for Human Computer Interface (HCI) Design’s ‘Checklist of Heuristics Evaluations’ [15]. The findings of these studies are described briefly below. Further detail will be found in the COINE evaluation study [16] from which comments reported below are taken.

At the outset, there was a lot of enthusiasm about the COINE concept ‘both professionally and in the local community’. Schools were keen to be involved and a local oral history society was ‘very excited about being able to digitise their resources and sharing their work’. The independent user testers were found to be very enthusiastic, and much interest in the COINE concept was shown by delegates at a museum sector conference. Some observers felt, however, that certain aspects of COINE would be more valuable than others, with the opportunity to create content being particularly important.

‘a lot of people would very much like to be able to take part in creating things online who haven’t got the expertise to do that because it was just too complicated and the idea of COINE was to take out that level of complex technology and provide something more simple.’

Several respondents felt that the sharing of stories, community resources and personal interests was the ‘most valuable and influential aspect’ of COINE. This was considered important as it allowed previously unknown memories, collections and stories to be revealed to a wider community and provided better access than unstructured Web pages would allow.

Other respondents considered valuable aspects of the project to be the ability to capture and store local cultural heritage and preserve it for the long term. Yet others felt that the challenge came from creating metadata that was descriptive of resources from all over the world but at the same time was not off-putting for the ‘non-expert’. This emphasis on non-expert users recurred in these comments, where key advantages were:

‘To enable individuals [to] express their cultural heritage “in their own words”. To be able to share their experiences and material in a more relaxed way than followed by a central museum or cultural centre’.

The aspect of sharing stories with others was also emphasised. One respondent suggested that it ‘would be a really fun way to understand other people’s cultures and other people’s lives.’

The system had generally been found to be easy to use, especially by people with a reasonable level of computer literacy. One of the primary school sites reported that children seemed to cope quite well in testing the system.

Some specific points to emerge were:

Overall the evaluation concluded that COINE had been successful in proving ‘the viability and attractiveness of the concept of offering ordinary citizens the tools and opportunities to tell their own stories in a digital environment’ [18].


As Reid [19] has pointed out, local communities have a great deal of knowledge and expertise to offer. Individuals have a perspective on culture and on society which may be very different from that of professionals and experts, yet is equally valid. ICTs offer the opportunity to surface and expose such stories in ways never before possible. COINE successfully addressed this issue and provided an infrastructure which was broadly welcomed.

Recently there has been a vast increase in services which encourage publication of individuals’ stories. However, the unfettered publication of everything and anything simply obscures the valuable among a tidal wave of the trivial. Local cultural institutions, by providing training, monitoring content (but not censoring it) and providing a stable base have a great deal to offer their communities. While global systems, with their enormous resources and huge size, may attract those seeking their ‘15 minutes of fame’ the long tail of localised services may yet prove to be of greater lasting value. It is to be hoped that more experiments like COINE will enable local institutions to define a new role for themselves, focused on the creativity of ordinary people, in the networked environment.

Appendix 1: Related Projects

As part of the COINE Project a number of initiatives were identified which appeared to be, or had the potential to become, ‘competitors’ to a COINE system. Some of those from the USA, Australia and the UK were :-

Moving Here [20] - a service from the National Archives and many other partners in England, which explored migration to England over the last 200 years and gave people the opportunity to publish their own experience of migration.

BBC’s WW2 People’s War [21] - which allowed memories and stories about World War 2 to be published online and shared as part of a commemorative archive.

The Statue of Liberty Ellis Island Foundation [22] - allows users to search for immigrants who entered the USA through Ellis Island and to create Family Scrapbooks, illustrated family history stories with photographs and audio recordings.

Capture Wales Digital Storytelling [23] - ‘Mini-movies’ are created by the people of Wales to tell their personal stories and to show the richness of life in Wales: they can then be accessed through the Web site.

MyFamily.com [24] - allows users to create their own family album by uploading photos and entering details about them to share with friends and family.

Forever LifeStories [25] - users can create their Life Story and a family tree, and add photos, home video clips or text messages, building their Forever LifeStory over time.

StoryLink [26] - an online community for digital stories allowing members to store, search for, and save digital stories.

The City Stories Project [27] - a city-based storytelling project with a network of city-based personal storytelling sites.

The Migration Heritage Centre [28] - aims to recognise the value of cultural diversity, and provides opportunities for people to tell of their achievements, their struggles for belonging, of cultural change, traditions and adaptation.

The Montana Heritage Project [29] - young people tell the story of their community - its place in national and world events and its cultural heritage as expressed in traditions and celebrations, literatures and arts.

Appendix 2: The COINE Project Partners

The main consortium consisted of the following organisations:

1. Co-ordinator:

The Centre for Research in Library & Information Management (CERLIM) at Manchester Metropolitan University, Manchester, UK.

2. Technical partners:

Fretwell-Downing Informatics Ltd (FDI), Sheffield, UK.
The National Microelectronics Applications Centre Ltd (MAC), Limerick, Ireland.

3. Demonstration Partners

The Armitt Museum, Ambleside, Cumbria, UK. They worked with:
Ambleside Oral History Group;
Ambleside Primary School;
Cumbria Amenity trust;
Mining History Society;
Ambleside Art Society;
Individual volunteers.

eircom Ennis Information Age Town, ENNIS, Ireland. Their COINE users were:

Gaelscoil Mhicil Chisiog (Irish Speaking Primary School);
East Clare Heritage Centre (Local History Organisation);
Clare County Museum;
Ennis Online Gallery (Online Photo Gallery of Ennis Through The Years).

Universitat Oberta de Catalunya (UoC), Barcelona, Spain. They had test sites at:

Biblioteca Pública de Tarragona;
Biblioteca Antoni Pladevall i Font de Taradell;
Museu d’Història de la Immigració de Catalunya.

University of Macedonia Economic and Social Sciences (UM), Thessaloniki, Greece. COINE demonstration users were:

Theatrical Organization of ‘Aktis Aeliou’;
Theatrical Organization of ‘Nees Morfes’;
Theatrical Organization of ‘Piramatiki Skini’;
Thessaloniki Design Museum;
Photography Museum of Thessaloniki (Photo Archive);
Artistic House of Florina;
Nikos Koronaios (Graphic Artist);
Dimitris Penidis (Student);
Anna Theofilaktou;
Marina Polyhronidou;
Athena Kesidou;
The History Center of Thessaloniki;
The 16th Gymnasium of Thessaloniki.

The Jagiellonian University (UJAG) Institute of Librarianship and Information Science, Krakow, Poland. UJAG used the COINE demonstrator with:-

The National Museum in Krakow;
National Archive in Krakow;
Szkola Podstawowa Nr 114 in Krakow.


  1. YouTube http://www.youtube.com
  2. MySpace http://www.myspace.com
  3. Mulrenin, A. and Geser, G. (2002). Technological landscapes for tomorrow’s cultural economy: unlocking the value of cultural heritage. The DigiCULT report. Luxembourg: Office for Official Publications of the European Communities
  4. UNESCO http://whc.unesco.org/en/about/
  5. Throsby cited in Mulrenin and Geser (2002) p. 69. (See reference 3.)
  6. Mulrenin and Geser (2002) p. 8 (See reference 3.)
  7. Archives Task Force (2004) Listening to the past, speaking to the future. London: Museums, Libraries and Archives Council
  8. Trant cited in Mulrenin and Geser (2002). (See reference 3.)
  9. Mulrenin and Geser (2002) p. 204. (See reference 3.)
  10. Archives Task Force (2004), p. 43 (See reference 7.)
  11. Kelly, M. (2003). The COINE Project: sharing collections and personal histories. Proceedings of the MDA conference, 2003.
  12. Brophy, P.(2002). Cultural Objects In Networked Environments - COINE. Cultivate Interactive.
  13. Kelly (2003). (See reference 11.)
  14. Centre for HCI Design, City University (2004). Usability studies: JISC services and information environments. London: JISC. p. 61.
  15. Centre for HCI Design, City University (2004), p. 135.
  16. Hulme, A. L. (2006) The COINE Project in Use: a dissertation submitted in part-fulfilment of the requirements for the degree of Master of Arts in Library and Information Management. Manchester: Manchester Metropolitan University.
  17. Nielsen, J. Ten usability heuristics http://www.useit.com/papers/heuristic/heuristic_list.html
  18. Butters, G. (2005). COINE final report. Manchester: CERLIM
  19. Reid, G., (2000). The digitisation of heritage material: arguing for an interpretative approach based on the experience of the Powys Digital History Project. Program. 34 (2), 143 - 158.
  20. Moving Here http://www.movinghere.org.uk/
  21. BBC’s WW2 People’s War http://www.bbc.co.uk/ww2peopleswar/
  22. The Statue of Liberty Ellis Island Foundation http://www.ellisisland.org
  23. Capture Wales Digital Storytelling - http://www.bbc.co.uk/wales/capturewales/
  24. MyFamily.com http://www.myfamily.com/
  25. Forever LifeStories http://www.forevernetwork.com/lifestories/
  26. StoryLink http://www.storylink.com/
  27. The City Stories Project http://www.citystories.com
  28. The Migration Heritage Centre http://www.migrationheritage.nsw.gov.au/
  29. The Montana Heritage Project: What We Once Were, and What We Could Be. Ashley Ball, May 2003. http://www.edutopia.org/php/article.php?id=Art_1048

Author Details

Geoff Butters
Research Associate
Centre for Research in Library & Information Management (CERLIM)
Manchester Metropolitan University

Email: g.butters@mmu.ac.uk
Web site: http://www.hlss.mmu.ac.uk/infocomms/staff-contact-details/profile.php?id=311

Amanda Hulme
Former postgraduate student
Department of Information and Communications
Manchester Metropolitan University

Email: amanda_hulme@yahoo.co.uk

Peter Brophy
Centre for Research in Library & Information Management (CERLIM)
Manchester Metropolitan University

Email: p.brophy@mmu.ac.uk
Web site: http://www.hlss.mmu.ac.uk/infocomms/staff-contact-details/profile.php?id=190

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