DIG540: Digital Collections & Exhibitions

Syllabus v1.3, 3 credits


Course Information

*      URL: to come

*      Instructor: John Bell, other co-teaching faculty as available

*      Synchronous Hours: to come

Course Description

This course covers the technical means and social consequences of assembling and sharing cultural data and artifacts. Topics include the fundamentals of relational databases; a survey of collection management packages, both proprietary and open-source; and an introduction to the special concerns and programming concepts necessary to customize off-the-shelf database solutions for domain and content appropriateness.


Course Goals

Upon completing the course, students will have:

1.     Been shown a variety of the collection management packages in use across the field.

2.     Learned the fundamental structure and logic behind relational databases.

3.     Customized a collection management system built in the PHP language.

4.     Gained an appreciation for the special source concerns of working with cultural data in an information system.

Required Materials

Required Reading:


Course Site


The course website will be where the majority of the class takes place, including videos, lessons, and interaction with the instructor and other students.  Before the class begins you will receive a message from the instructor(s) including login credentials and other information on how to access and use the site.


Course Flow


The course will consist of a series of video lectures, readings, and associated assignments broken up into week-long topics.  Within each week you will be expected to:


*      Watch all of the lectures and tutorials listed in the week*s introduction and read any assigned material.

*      Submit the weekly assignment on the course web site (or as a link to another site or resource, as appropriate).

*      Participate in the ongoing discussions on the course web site.  It cannot be emphasized enough how important this is to successfully taking an online-only course.  A significant part of what you get from the class will come in talking and listening to other students and the instructors as they discuss their own take on the material.

This course is designed to be completely asynchronous so there are no specific times for meeting with other students or the instructor.  Instead, interaction will take place via email and the course's message board, where you will also be submitting assignments and giving feedback to other students.


Attendance Policy

Attendance in an asynchronous online course is a somewhat nebulous concept.  While it is expected that you will accomplish all of the tasks by their assigned deadlines, participation in the class' online discussion is also critical to your success in the class and the frequency and depth of your interactions with other students and the instructor will be considered part of your "attendance" and thus part of your grade.  If you for any reason think you may have an issue, either on a specific day/week or overall, talk to us!  It is much easier to make accommodations ahead of time than after the fact.


University Policies


Disabilities (ADA) Statement:


Students with disabilities who may need services or accommodations to fully participate in this class should contact Ann Smith, Director of Disability Services in 121 East Annex, (voice) 581-2319, (TTY) 581-2325 as early as possible in the semester.


Academic Honesty (plagiarism, etc):


Academic honesty is very important. It is dishonest to cheat on exams, to copy term papers, to submit papers written by another person, to fake experimental results, or to copy or reword parts of books or articles into your own papers without appropriately citing the source.  Students committing or aiding in any of these violations may be given failing grades for an assignment or for an entire course, at the discretion of the instructor.  In addition to any academic action taken by an instructor, these violations are also subject to action under the University of Maine Student Conduct Code.  The maximum possible sanction under the student conduct code is dismissal from the University.


Class Disruption:


In the event of an extended disruption of normal classroom activities, the format for this course may be modified to enable its completion within its programmed time frame. In that event, you will be provided an addendum to the syllabus that will supersede this version.





If the only time you post a message is when you're turning in an assignment then you will have little opportunity to display your understanding of the ideas being discussed and we will not have much information to use when evaluating your success in the class.  Ask questions, throw in comments, and generally add to the discussion as much as possible, particularly if you think you missed something or you have a stupid question.  Odds are other people are as confused as you are.


As with all classes, it is expected that you will treat others with respect.  If you are repeatedly abusive toward your classmates you will be moderated out of the conversation and it will be considered an absence for purposes of the attendance policy.



With the exception of the final project, grading for your assignments is weighted equally across each week of the class.  Your final project will count as 1/4 of your grade, as it largely occupies the final 1/4 of the semester. 


Participation is a significant part of your grade.  The more you add thoughtful, insightful comments to the discussion the more both you and other students will benefit.  Questions are always welcome and should be asked publicly so that everybody can see the answer unless there is a very good reason to ask privately.  In many cases you will be expected to look at and critique other students* work as an absolute minimum level of participation.


This is a graduate level course and you are expected to perform accordingly. Meeting the requirements in an average manner will result in a "C" as the final grade. Better than average effort and execution will result in a "B". An "A" is reserved for those students who demonstrate exceptional creative development, application, innovation, effort, and an in-depth understanding of process. Under normal circumstances a C or lower grade cannot be used as a graduate student to count towards completion of your certificate. Failure to complete any of the required components of your grade with an average or better effort will result in a "D" or an "F" as your final grade.



Unit 1: Virtual Collections

Collecting information on artifacts is only the first half of the responsibility of cultural preservation and cataloging institutions; they must also work to keep that information alive and share it with researchers and the public.  In a digital context, methods of sharing data can range from an internal database made available to other institutional staff to a public website designed for dissemination. This unit surveys Web-based and mobile strategies of various collecting institutions, and describes several of the popular databases used to collect and manage artifact data. Students also examine the shift in control from curator to viewer that attends the transition from physical to virtual exhibitions.


Unit 2: Database Structures

Understanding how data is stored helps understand how the storage medium and mechanism influences the representation of an artifact.  This section introduces concepts of how databases are structured and demonstrates a common tool used in their creation and manipulation, the SQL language.


Unit 3: Publishing Data on the Web

Databases are rarely exposed directly to the Internet, and for most people would be largely useless if they were.  Intermediary languages take on the role of formatting data for output and passing data input from the interface to the database.  This unit introduces PHP, one language that is often used to manipulate web pages.


Unit 4: Merging Data and Logic

In order to be useful, web interfaces and databases need to be connected together.  This unit demonstrates some basic programming techniques that are used to insert, access, and display database information on web sites in the PHP.


Unit 5: Customizing a Collection Management System

The final unit will allow students to modify a collection management system to meet the needs of their particular cultural information.  While off-the-shelf platforms are useful, many cultural collections come with special concerns that must be respected and are not accounted for in generalized data models.  This section both highlights some of the potential issues involved in dealing with cultural data and gives students the opportunity to address those issues by adjusting the data model and output of a collection management system. The course concludes with a look at Augmented Reality and other mobile interfaces for cultural collections.




Unit 1 :

Virtual Collections

Week 1

Why create virtual collections?

What cultural impact do virtual collections have?

Click-and-brick models

Week 2

Survey of virtual collection tools and collection management systems

Evaluating CMS effectiveness and appropriateness

Unit 2 :

Database Structures

Week 3

Introduction to relational database concepts

Properties of data

Making meaning out of data

Week 4

Introduction to the SQL language

Writing data into a database

Administration tools

Week 5

Reading data from a database

Searching fields and text

Joining rows across tables

Unit 3 :

Publishing Data on the Web

Week 6

Introduction to PHP

Variables, flow control, input handlers Program input and output


Week 7

Breaking a program into parts



Unit 4 :

Merging Data and Logic

Week 8

Software libraries

Making small changes in large codebases


Week 9

Database abstraction layers

Query portability

Data objects in practice

Week 10

Planning for obsolescence and other data disasters

Standardizing data

Data output for alternative uses

Unit 5:

Customizing a Collection Management System

Week 11

Using the DIG Virtual Collection

Cultural concerns and customization

Week 12

Modifying the CMS

Domain specificity

Data exchanges and crosswalks

Week 13

Augmented Reality and non-institutional interfaces.

Week 14


Exam week

Final written review