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On the war paths

Jacquetta Megarry looks at a Pounds 15m project to create an enormous multimedia database of Scotland's history.

The Millennium Commission, which has the responsibility for funding events marking the year 2000, has made its first grant to an information technology project for education: Pounds 7.4 million of lottery money towards creating a historical and cultural database for Scotland.

The Scottish Cultural Resource Access Network (SCRAN) will bring together 1.5 million documents and 100,000 images in the archives of Scottish museums, and make them available to schools and colleges throughout the UK, either in the form of CD-Roms or through telephone services such as the Internet.

The database will cover a broad sweep of Scottish history, from the Romans in Scotland to shipbuilding on the Clyde, with moving images and sound as well as text, photographs and paintings.

The museums participating in the project, including the National Museums of Scotland, are matching the lottery funding, which gives the project the generous launchpad of almost Pounds 15 million. From next spring, the SCRAN project has five years to become financially self-sufficient. The network, based in Edinburgh, will be funded by a subscription, which will be about Pounds 25 a year for primary schools and Pounds 100 for secondary.

Mike Spearman, who is acting director of SCRAN, says the database will be designed so that schools can access information no matter what sort of technology they have. If schools have cable television, (many in the Edinburgh area have been given free connection to a local service), the fibre-optic cable lines could link up with the database. If they don't have an Internet link, they can receive material on an ordinary floppy disc or CD-Rom. It will even be feasible to press a single compact disc for one primary school, he says. Such flexibility, he hopes, will make the maximum amount of information available to the maximum number of people.

Any schools computer project has to consider the problem of compatibility, with some schools using Acorns, others Apple Macs or PCs, or some combination of all three. As a matter of policy, SCRAN will cover all formats, although when it commissions its own CD-Rom releases it is likely to publish for both the Apple Macintosh and Windows for PCs.

Another necessity for anyone setting up such a substantial database is to use technology that is "future-proofed" against being rendered obsolete by ever-accelerating advances in computer systems. SCRAN's strategy is to amass information the raw material of future research which can be adapted for later use in whatever way seems appropriate.

An example of what SCRAN wants to avoid is the BBC's Domesday Project, in the 1980s, in which huge amounts of data about present-day Britain were published as a 12-inch laser disc. The format made the material inaccessible to anyone without the expensive, and now outdated, equipment to play the discs. Who remembers the BBC statement in 1983 that "the new Domesday Laservision player will become the accepted standard for educational and institutional use"? Alas, the laser disc went the way of Betamax and the eight-track music cartridge. Concentration on a particular access system is a mistake SCRAN has explicitly set out not to repeat.

As an example of the way the system will work, the sword of Braveheart hero William Wallace will be depicted in the database both by a professional-quality photograph and a cropped version that has been enhanced to show detail. Either or both can be used in the way that the teacher chooses. They can be put together with artwork and paintings on the William Wallace theme, or maps of battle scenes, as desired, with teachers and pupils able to devote their energies on creative tasks rather than negotiating prescriptive software.

SCRAN intends to invite bids for educational projects using its materials, and will put up half the cost. The winners of SCRAN grants will have to produce a finished copy of their resource and license other SCRAN subscribers to use the material.

Mike Spearman is both exhilarated and apprehensive about the task of assembling a country's history and culture in a national database. But he believes that the comparatively small size of Scotland's cultural and educational community will allow SCRAN to deal directly with the key people, making the project more manageable. This manageability, he believes, weighed in Scotland's favour when the Millennium Commission was looking for projects to fund.

Even if teachers do not find the time to use SCRAN, pupils should be encouraged to take advantage of the database. The skills they learn in handling information on their country's history will add to the resources for their country's future.

Mike Spearman, SCRAN, National Museums of Scotland, Chambers Street, Edinburgh EH1 1JF, tel: 0131 225 7534, fax: 0131 220 1870

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