Report on e-Hive Workshop

Report on e-Hive Workshop
For the Professional Historians Association (Queensland)
Dr Neville Buch, e-Bulletin Editor
25 July 2012


On Monday 24 July I attended the e-Hive Workshop organised by Vernon Systems Ltd, held at the Queensland Museum by Zoe Hill. Vernon Systems Ltd is a company that produces collections management software for museums, galleries, and other cultural heritage institutions. Established in 1985 and based in Auckland, New Zealand, it manages the collection system for the Queensland Museum.  eHive is a web-based software as a service application, which means it  provides an online collections management system to the public,  allowing free use initially for low levels of use, and then graded charges depending on usage.

e-Hive is a part of the cloud computing innovation that some members have been talking informally about, but it is aimed at museum and gallery collections. Like Google Plus Documents and Photo, or Flickr, with the basic free account you can store images on a remote server system and edit associated information on a webpage. What makes this tool different is that it provides a professional collection management database with all appropriate fields.  Among the e-Hive clients are the Australian Stockman’s Hall of Fame and Outback Heritage Centre, the Queensland Police Museum, and a number of Australian institutions, such as the Maritime Museum of Tasmania, and the Koori Heritage Trust.

The reason why I went along as a PHAQ representative was to answer the question of whether this tool had something to offer professional historians. Could e-Hive serve our members as, a) an important source for gathering images of historical objects or obtaining information on those objects; b) a way to create on-line collections for their client groups; and/or c) a site to share a collaborate project? There are a few examples of this possibility. In the duration of a school history project, various artefacts are often found, school pins, award shields and cups, plaques, and old textbooks. Could the digital images of these artefacts form an online collection? Another example could be a project that involves a collection of a certain type of object. I am thinking specifically here of a historical mapping project. The project itself aims to create new digital maps but the project will collect images of existing maps along the way. Could those historical map images form an online collection?  Yet another example – several local history groups in Queensland are at the stage of beginning to scan hardcopy documents in their primary source collection, and then proceeding to put those digital images into an off-line PC-based archival database, e.g. MS Access custom designed database. I have provided several client groups this type of database management service. The question then is could there be a third stage of putting a sample of the local history digital collection online?

What e-hive offers?

There are many advantages of using e-Hive as oppose to just putting a collection into an online depositary, not designed as software for cultural heritage institutions. There are advantages in the record creation process. First of all, the records are all part of a collection that has the capacity to provide a profile for the institution as the owner of the history, the local history society, or the project group. The profile page in e-Hive in this circumstance would rest well with the common e-Hive client group, museums and galleries. I have been told that there is a NSW group of local history groups looking at the possibility of forming an e-hive community.

“Community” in e-hive terminology refers to a number of account-holders who group their collection as a geographical or thematic entry.  An example of thematic e-hive community is Rugby Moments, a site for sharing rugby memorabilia (see ). An example of geographical e-hive community is NZ Museums.  This community features New Zealand museums and their collections (see ). The example of the “Rugby Moments Community” shows the capacity to create separate custom-design website within the e-hive through Word Press, a popular website building tool which uses a single dashboard.

The important advantage for record creating in e-hive is the Private-Public choice. Records can be published or they can be kept private within the account. Tagging is a useful feature, which provides a better filtering and search capacity. It has a very practical outcome for an unknown object where you can allow the public offer information through tags. In cases where it is a disadvantage to allow public tagging, the tag feature can be kept private.

Where there is already a pre-existing digital collection, the e-hive service can offer bulk importing of the data with images for a price. This allows a new account-holder to create their records in one go with a large collection (>100), and for the time and effort it is worth the cost of a few hundred dollars.

There are also advantages in the way e-hive can allow a collection or a collection sub-set to be transferred or communicated in different in forms. Summary reports can be produced in PDF form on the collection for one or all records. There are options to export records in Excel and XML forms.

Third party access has an opt-out option so that particular e-hive collection can made so that it is not available to search engines or aggregation. Records can be accessed to 3rd party sites using API (application programming interface), such as a wordpress-based museum website, mobile phone app., website based on regional/themed eHive community, or a national aggregators (Culture Grid, Picture Australia, DigitalNZ). E-hive records can also be linked to existing cloud based services, e.g. UTube, Flicker.

The e-Hive service has a number of safeguards and security protocols. E-Hive employs several international product & service standards including Spectum, the UK Museum Data Standard. The service uses multiple city back-ups of the system content. E-hive is also a participant to the ECOWS agreement which agrees that in case of a company folding the data goes back to owner. Copyright issues have been thought about in the e-hive. Each item can be changed from the default (“All rights reserved”), and the onus is on the collection owner to research the copyright of each item and ensure the copyright field in the record set correctly with the choice of the right label.

An e-hive account is free up to a 50Mb limit for the total uploaded collection. This is said to be approximately equivalent to a collection of 200 images. The pricing is tiered in the following way:

Level Limit = Approx. Images One Year Licence Price Five Year Licence Price
Free 50 MB 200 Free Free
Level 1 500 MB 2000 US$99 US$450
Level 2 1 GB 4000 US$200 US$900
Level 3 5 GB 20,000 US$400 US$1,800
Level 4 25 GB 100,000 US$800 US$3,500

On this pricing range, for a small project the e-hive service would be free, and a local history society would probably find it just affordable at level two, with 4000 images or 1 GB comfortably fitting over the standard size of a local history collection.

The Challenges

However, there are a few serious challenges in the idea that the e-hive would meet the requirements of professional historians and their client groups.   These challenges may not be insurmountable, and may mean that the particular use of the e-hive has to be carefully considered. One of the challenges is managing the image size and quality. E-hive offers a degree of flexibility but this involves a complex approach in having to think about the type of image that needs to be uploaded.  The best explanation is to quote the e-hive wiki guide:

Storing Original Images

When you upload images to eHive, the images are automatically resized in several different sizes.  Different sizes are used in different places in eHive.  For example, thumbnails of the images are used in the Label View, while larger images are displayed in the Detail view.
You can decide if you want eHive to store the original images that you upload to your account.  Choosing to store your original images on eHive means that you may fill your allocated storage space faster.  Alternatively, it allows you to manage your images all in one place.
The default setting is to store your original images on eHive.
Changing Your Original Images Setting

To change the setting, go to the Preferences page in your Profile.  Uncheck the check box and click on the Save button.

The challenge in this approach is that the re-sized e-hive version of the image squares it, and in most cases for the professional historian this will not work. Maps, pages of correspondences or reports, and landscape photographs do not appear very well squared. On the other hand, using the original rectangle image will increase load. However, it appears that this might be a misunderstanding of the procedure. Zoe Hill of Vernon Systems Ltd has made this comment to correct my understanding of how uploading of images works:

eHive does not modify your image when you upload it, only the smallest possible version of it.  So, when it is displayed on eHive in its full detailed view it hasn’t been cropped.  When the image is in its smallest display, for example for display on pages such as Explore, we create a tiny square cropped image, however the original aspect ratio of the image is retained.  It is this smallest version that you can modify as you upload it.

I am afraid I still find this confusing for the purpose of showing Foolscap or an A4 document, even if it is just for “exploring” for images. Images of physical objects other than paperwork and historical photographs work well as squared images, and these would be a large part of a museum collection.

Another challenge also emphasises that the e-hive was designed for museums and galleries, and the approach for a local history society is very different.  The challenge is that the first step in record creation is choosing an object catalogue type under seven headings:   Art, Archives, Archaeology, History, Library, Photography and Multimedia, Natural Science.  Perhaps the problem is the professional historian is trying to play the role of an archivist, but it is difficult to see how these headings can match the use or type of records that history or client groups want catalogued. The term “history” is a misnomer for our purpose when the whole approach to all objects is history. The e-hive wiki guide fails to explain in detail the difference between these catalogue headings, and quite possibly this might have to do with the basic training of curators and archivists which is unknown to the mere professional historian.

An easier challenge to meet is the terms that the record creator sets for each field. E-hive has the flexibility for the account-holder to use their unique system of terms for the collection. However, this requires considerable research and planning. There are no templates available at the e-hive site.

There is a number of online Museum Thesauruses as an indexing tool available (see list at ). Again, there is this thought about how far does the professional historian go in playing the curator.

The evaluation

My preliminary recommendations are as follows:

  1. I don’t think that option c, that e-hive be used as a site to share a collaborate project, would work. E-hive is constructed as a collection site where a definitive series of objects are displayed. E-hive could be used in conjunction with a history project if a significant project outcome was to display artefacts used in the project. The challenge, though, is to sort out copyright issues (more said in what follows);
  2. There may be scope for option b, a way to create on-line collections for their client groups. In this case I would recommend that the e-hive not be used as the primary archival or image collection, which would be best to remain off-line. There is a significant policy issue here. Local history groups need to maintain control of their historical material. The danger for public use of the material without acknowledgement or re-investing back into the local history group is real.  Local history is a community asset built through labour which is equivalent to economic costs, often involving the management of professional historians. The capacity of the public access to historical material without the knowledge and agreement of the local history group is open to commercial abuse. A solution would be in using e-hive as an online sample version of the society’s archive or image collection.  The e-hive account becomes a showcase of the local history collection rather than the group’s actual digital collection.
  3. There could be circumstances where e-hive would work for option a, an important source for gathering images of historical objects or obtaining information on those objects. The e-hive is suited to some types of objects rather than others. If you look at the e-hive website and view the various collections, what is apparent are aesthetically-pleasing images, particularly non-paperwork objects, such as porcelain items, domestic appliances, and memorabilia. It is questionable whether primary source documents can be used in this way. The importance of primary source documents is the historical data in the form of written or typed text. It is very difficult to see how the documents could be viewed for this purpose through e-hive. The professional historian is interested in a history collection, not a museum collection. Historical maps are an interesting question for the e-hive. They have high aesthetic value as well as providing important historical data. There are already over 350 maps (based on a search for “map” as the ‘object’ search field) in e-hive, many from the Australian Stockman’s Hall of Fame and Outback Heritage Centre. The problem is that e-hive doesn’t have the feature to zoom into the details of the maps with any clarity. Although it is possible to save the online map image onto your own computer and open the image with a decent picture management tool, the original image often is not designed for the clarity of detail map-reading. Historical photographs are more common in e-hive and I see no particular problems in creating a historical photography collection.

With all options there are copyright issues that need to be approached a little differently than the common e-hive clients. Museums and gallery tend to have sorted out the copyright issues in their acquisition process. Many of the document images that professional historians collect are public domain items from various archives, but in other cases there are items owned by client groups or are the copyright possessions of a third party. It is important to obtain the copyright-owner’s permission where required. In all cases, as professional historians, we know that full and detailed acknowledgement need to be made in the publication of various items in any collection.

Concluding Remarks

Finally, there remains the question of whether the professional historian should be playing the role of a curator or archivist. Economic pressures make it imperative for our members to diversify their consultancy businesses. There is, however, an uncomfortable division of labour and it’s a problem when professional historians find curators or archivists playing the role of the historian for a professional fee.  Perhaps some open dialogue between museum & archives industry and the history industry needs to take place on this problem. Competition policy is important but it cannot come at the cost of different professions doing each other out of business.

Dr Neville Buch, MPHA.
E-Bulletin Editor
Professional Historian Assocation (Queensland)