Cultural Materials Initiative

This project is now closed. The information on this page is provided for historical purposes only. Links and downloads may no longer work.

Objective: RLG's Cultural Materials Initiative helped to provide greater access to primary sources and cultural materials. The initiative produced policies that protect participants' rights and interests; tools and practices for creating, describing, and using electronic surrogates of cultural materials; and business models that combine appropriate use with financial return.

Overview: One outgrowth of this initiative was the development of RLG Cultural Materials, a rich multimedia collection of digitized manuscripts and images from leading institutions such as the Library of Congress and the Smithsonian Institution. This database gave users a means of searching rare and varied collections that were otherwise unavailable to museum or library visitors.®, a free image locating and licensing site created by RLG, was another outgrowth of this initiative.

The project was spearheaded by the Cultural Materials Alliance.

Descriptive Metadata Guidelines

This set of guidelines was designed to help contributors to RLG Cultural Materials, but benefits a broad audience with its clear overview of the daunting concepts and acronyms in the field of descriptive metadata. The guidelines can be used to created or review local best practice in describing collections of unique cultural objects—regardless of the specific metadata standards you use.

Using Digital Images: Instructional Technology Report

This February 2005 report discusses the use of digital images in the classroom and how faculty make use of image databases like RLG Cultural Materials. It is the final report from work done in 2003-2004 by an RLG Cultural Materials Alliance working group. The group had been formed to investigate how image databases and instructional technology can be made to work together seamlessly to support faculty in the classroom. Participants spanned nine diverse RLG member campuses and brought together visual resource specialists, librarians, and experts from instructional technology units.

Findings are based on surveys of humanities faculty at the University of Southern California, University of California, Berkeley, and Stanford University. Appendices include the interview discussion guide and interview notes.

The concept

RLG's Cultural Materials Initiative was launched with the goal of building an aggregated cultural heritage resource. The viability of the database came from integrating many types of resources across multiple types of institutions and from the savings associated with a centralized approach to handling certain functions, such as user authorization and rights management. RLG's Cultural Materials Initiative produced a resource that was fundamentally different from Web portals. Portals are general-purpose resource discovery tools that allow users to locate Web resources (usually at the collection level). RLG Cultural Materials allowed users to:

  • Focus on information specifically about cultural heritage, at both collection and item level.
  • Easily search across and within multiple collections, revealing contextual links that would not otherwise be discovered.
  • Locate information that is not currently available on the Web, or is available but widely dispersed, difficult to locate, and not delivered in consistent ways.
  • Browse large result sets using multimedia microsurrogates for the cultural materials.
  • License information for use in certain applications.

The initiative built on RLG's long-standing interest in supporting greater access for archives, special collections, art and architecture collections, and other rare or unique research materials.

Conditions of contribution to RLG Cultural Materials

Participants were expected to contribute sufficient high-quality information to give the pooled resource the "critical mass" of content that made it a useful, economically viable, world-class resource. Content had to reside at RLG to enable consistency across collections.

Collections contributed to RLG Cultural Materials could be made freely available in other ways. Some institutions chose to offer a view of their own materials, while at the same time RLG Cultural Materials provided value-added access to an integrated view of all the materials.

One of the defining characteristics of the alliance was that participants reached agreement on a set of common terms and conditions under which content can be distributed. The operating circumstances are designed by and for alliance participants. The database focused on delivering alliance participants' content under these terms and conditions.

Intended audience

Anyone looking for cultural materials. The primary audience was students, faculty, and others at colleges, universities, and other research institutions who could use it as part of their ongoing studies and research. Under development was a service in which, under terms agreed to by the alliance participants, others—such as publishers, writers looking for images to illustrate their books, copywriters needing images for advertising campaigns, and software developers wanting to include cultural materials in educational packages—could all find value in the resource. The policy group aimed determine how to provide a free, public version of the integrated materials, which would offer pay-per-view for higher-quality images and functionality targeted for new types of uses.


RLG funded the operational development. A grant from the Ford Foundation helped to defray some of the initial costs in bringing together alliance participants. In September 2001 and May 2002, RLG received grants from two foundations towards further infrastructure and alliance development. Revenue from academic subscriptions defrayed costs for development and maintenance. The policy advisory group was to determine the appropriate business model for sharing revenue from future markets.

Alliance members already digitizing their resources were expected to continue to fund these activities. In addition, RLG awarded grants to fund participants' prospective conversion and digitization efforts in the history of science and technology, and actively sought further external funding for other coordinated digitization work.

Participation in the alliance was free for RLG members. Contributors, like all other higher-education/research institutions, could subscribe to RLG Cultural Materials for their communities.

Founding goals

Cultural materials include published and unpublished texts, images of many types, artifacts and other objects. Improving access to this range of "documents" is essential to the advancement of research and learning, especially as the definition of "data" expands in many disciplines. Better access is equally important to the sustained health of libraries, archives, museums and other cultural repositories.

  • Although historians, cultural anthropologists, folklorists, historical archaeologists, historic preservationists, and a host of other researchers rely on cultural resources, there is currently no adequate capability for searching across the significant collections that reside in dispersed institutions around the world.
  • Only a small amount of this kind of information is currently available in electronic form and building a sufficiently large resource to support this kind of inquiry is an imperative for many institutions.
  • Teaching increasingly demands access to a large corpus of surrogates for cultural materials.
  • Repositories increasingly seek revenue associated with the off-site use of collection surrogates. 

An alliance of RLG member institutions will address the issues described above collaboratively. RLG and this set of members will:

  • develop a collective digital resource of cultural materials that will provide electronic access to a critical mass of cultural research resources,
  • establish appropriate means to protect institutional rights and interests while sharing their collective resources broadly,
  • develop and implement the infrastructure to enable integrated, international discovery and use of these materials,
  • identify best practices and encourage consistent practice and behavior in making these cultural heritage materials accessible, and
  • determine and collect fees appropriate for the use of this resource and determine a business model that will return revenue from certain uses to alliance members.

This will be a multiyear program and will consolidate recent progress in digital collection development and metadata practices. Participants will leverage institutional capabilities along with the RLG infrastructure and distribution capabilities to provide access to a critical mass of unique and rare materials.

Participants will ensure that the initiative is responsive to the variety of institutional imperatives, market opportunities, and needs of the research community. At the same time, the initiative will provide a collaborative approach to protecting and managing the rights that are the responsibility of custodial institutions.

Achieving integrated, enhanced access to cultural heritage research resources depends on the combined efforts of RLG members and allies. The outcomes that are expected within the Cultural Materials Initiative are consistent with the mission, the history, and the operating capabilities of RLG:

  • practical development of solutions that are common to many institutions and best solved through collaboration,
  • high-quality service and reliable data that meet the expectations of researchers,
  • an operating commitment to long-term maintenance, scalability, and sustainability in service of the research community,
  • product and software development expertise, dedicated effort from experienced personnel, and an effective set of collaborative working group processes.

For more information

Ricky Erway
Program Officer

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