In any event, the form and structure of databases meant that data was narrow, applying the inappropriate language of data processing to human history and material culture. It excluded the possibility of wider structured narratives and instead reinforced and protected an established Western categorisation perspective. Digital projects maintained fragmentation and prevented the creation of a wider provenance of knowledge either within or across organisations. It became clear that these limitations, along with other factors, prevented knowledge from wider sources and therefore excluded other knowledges.
The shared infrastructure idea, which came from a collaboration within the Foundation, was presented to Museum Directors, by Angelica Rudenstine, Alison Gilchrest and Ken Hamma. It was not about creating homogenised projects but about establishing a rich underlying platform on which different projects could develop their research independently according to their research questions without deterministic technology, but at the same time could share intellectual digital outputs effectively supporting community knowledge building. Rather than storing references it would support the methods of research and everyday knowledge processes by addressing and interconnecting investigation, interpretation and presentation. Within a contextual framework, supporting the full cycle and ongoing nature of knowledge generation, it would tackle the problem of throw away digital project systems.
Sustainability depended on building quality and meaning into data, not on the information reductions and a one size fits all mentality fostered by traditional database systems. The Mellon Foundation recommended the use of Linked Data but to do this effectively it required a project to research and understand how RDF (Resource Description Framework – the language of Linked Data) could be used to support intellectual freedom, contextualisation and provenance, as well as support knowledge integration and collaboration. The resulting project was ResearchSpace.
Linked Data is a flexible structured data format. It is used in cultural heritage (CH) and the humanities but only a small proportion of people understand what it is and how it works despite its presence on the fringes of many organisations for over a decade. While Linked Data holds great promise, CH and humanities Linked Data projects end up producing disappointing results. The lack of expertise and understanding means that these projects are guided by technology companies with no knowledge of CH processes or their knowledge systems. Domain knowledge is crucial to meaningful and effective Linked Data (or rather Semantic Web) implementations because its real benefits lie beyond the traditional database and its pigeon hole mindsets. These benefits relate directly to representing knowledge processes, and the information that they produce, dynamically – the way people actually work and generate information – and not as a static reference product. A Linked Data project, or more accurately a Semantic Data project is, primarily, not a technology project.