Putting Collections Online

In the MHS blog, Jeff Brand said the following: “In the age of information that we live in today, doesn’t it make more sense to create photograph, art and artifact collections online? Although I realize that a fair amount of income is earned by restricting these collections to paying customers, I also think that it’s unfair that more things aren’t made available to researchers and the general public as well.”

My question is . . . What’s the rush to get our collections online? I fully understand that putting collections online will increase people’s access to them, but the push we are feeling from lovers of technology is overwhelming. Technology is moving so fast that forcing museums to muddle through this is not good for decision-making or the use of resources. Jeff indicates that he understands the challenges this causes for museums. Our challenges include not having enough staff, or enough IT expertise, or enough funding to accomplish this goal in the way people are demanding of us. Magnify this by the fact that within 3 years, whatever we do online will be obsolete and have to be upgraded. How do we go about the digitization of our collections in a smart way? Is there some way to provide museum staff with workshops on digitization? Better yet, are there some modular, open-source, preferably free tools we can gather together that will enable us to easily create photo galleries, online stores or the like on our websites? What sorts of things should we be digitizing? Shouldn’t the care of our physical resources come first?

Mary Warner
Morrison County Historical Society

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17 Responses to Putting Collections Online

  1. David Grabitske says:


    There are a pair of digitization workshop opportunities coming to Minnesota in 2007. Here they are:

    Museums and Digitization

    The American Association for State and Local History will present a workshop meant to to introduce archivists, curators, librarians and other staff from cultural heritage institutions to the range of issues associated with digitization of primary source materials. The Minnesota Historical Society will host the workshop on July 11-13, 2007 at the Minnesota History Center in St. Paul.

    For more information, please see http://www.aaslh.org/DigitizationAgenda.htm


    School for Scanning

    Northeast Document Conservation Center will hold its popular 3-day "School for Scanning: The A-Z of creating digital collections" at Marriott City Center in Minneapolis, May 1-3, 2007. For more information contact Julie Carlson (jcar...@nedcc.org).

    Or see http://www.nedcc.org/education/conferences/scanning/description.php


  2. Jeff Brand says:

    My comments were meant in part to get program directors and staff to think about the technology that is available to not only diversify collections, but to also achieve the dream of making information more accessible to the member population. I disagree about the rush for advancement, it almost seems like the pace is similar to that of a snail compared to other countries. We live in a tech savvy world, but America is less overwhelming than places such as Japan and England whom are light-years ahead of the game. One of the things that have been discouraging me in the past few months is that I’ve applied for two positions within the museum field (one as a Curator, one as Business Manager) and I’ve been passed by each time. I’ve got a working knowledge of some of these technical programs. I was at an interview two weeks ago and brought a Microsoft Power Point presentation about my goals and ideas which seemed to fascinate the hiring committee. Perhaps the content wasn’t enough for them to hire me or perhaps using such technology as a medium for presentation was too much, too fast. Whatever the case, I have been trained in college to utilize these programs and to have these skills for the big world after graduation. If you are troubled by technology, there are younger generations looking for jobs and have those skills to help you create a better society to meet the demands and the needs of your membership base. I hope that I’ve got a good portion of you thinking about the progressive movement to create a more accessible collection database. Remember, part of our goals and missions statements are to educate the public
    and what better opportunity to do that than to meet the demands of more technology.


  3. Mike Worcester says:

    While Jeff makes some good points, I will have to differ on a couple of items.

    First, anyone who has been in the museum field for even a small amount of time knows that we are a bit behind in terms of technology. Evidence of that can be found when looking at how many places are just now computerizing their collections files (mostly with Past Perfect) in some form or another. It took many of us some time to get a presence on the web up and running. The crux of this can stem from the fact that technology upgrades canthough not alwayscost a bit of $$. And ya know how flush with cash many of us are.

    When it comes to collections, there are two key components that should be considered. First is computerization for internal purposes. The second is for public purposes.

    The internal component is fairly straight forward. Creating electronic copies of files makes intellectual control over collections much easier. Want to donate a black ladies hat from the 1920s? Well, we already have six, so thanks for thinking of us, but we will have to respectfully decline.

    The public component is a bit more problematic. When someone donates an artifact, should they presume that said item will become part of an electronic file accessible to anyone with IE or Firefox? I wonder about that. We could even extend this discussion to archival and photo files, but that is a whole other ongoing, and extensive, debate. Personally, I am not comfortable with having a museums collections accessible to anyone other than staff. There is a difference from putting on your web site what the general areas of your collections are as opposed to allowing someone to peruse the details of your holdings. Is it sound practice to let people know how many late 19th century firearms you have? Or the extent of your Indian artifacts? Or that you might have a 16th century Chinese vase that would fetch a cool five figures at Sothebys?

    Being progressive in terms of technology is one thing. It should be encouraged and applauded. Using technology just because it is there to be used is another.

    My thoughts only, thanks for listening.


  4. Suzanne Fischer says:

    A very timely topic and one dear to my heart–thanks for bringing it up. Mary brings up lots of good points, particularly about the resources local history orgs have (or don’t have) for digital projects.

    I’m a strong advocate of digitization projects for small historical organizations, particularly for greater accessibility. The museum where I work is open only one day a week and has no promotional budget. By digitizing our resources, we can share our terrific collection with the world–and gain a larger visitorship as well.

    Happily, there’s some funding available for such projects. The NEH has a large Digital Humanities Initiative going right now, and locally, the Minnesota Digital Library scans photograph and document collections and showcases them online. I do disagree with Mary that whatever we do now will be obsolete in three years: there are robust national and international standards for scanning (see the MDL again) that are pretty stable/lossless. The online presentation of the digitized items will probably have to be changed in a few years, but the basic backend work (scanning/photography and metadata) you can do now will last for a long time. If the Library of Congress feels confident in digitization standards, so do I. I think the rush to get items online is that there’s currently some funding for it, and that you only have to do it once.

    I like the distinction Mike makes between accessibility for staff and for the public, and his point about security is a good one. However, it’s not too hard to put up a firewall or password-protected portion of your website, so not just anybody can learn that your museum has a monetarily valuable item. By putting collections online, you can use the same system for both your staff (collections management) and public use (website/web exhibits), which reduces redundancy. It also reduces the need to buy a separate software license for each workstation your staff uses.

    There are indeed some nice open source tools to help present materials online, particularly for photograph collections, and even the popular blogging platforms like WordPress can be tweaked for museum use (I’m currently compiling a list). However, having both the time and the technical knowledge for such tweaking is admittedly a problem. At HCMC, since we have some funding, and I have some tech knowledge, it’s relatively painless, but in general more training and more tools are definitely needed.


  5. Claudia Nicholson says:

    I agree with Mike: museums have struggled with technology, and not simply because some of us are ossified dinosaurs. (Although some of us are.)

    I think that a collections presence on the web is just like any other program that you undertake: what is the purpose, who is the audience, how do you sustain it once you get it up, how is it funded, and most importantly of all: what do you NOT do so that you can pursue the digitization project?

    I’ve searched databases of 3-dimensional collections and have, by and large, found the experience not terribly satisfying. A record (even if it has a photograph) of a single artifact is a disembodied thing, stripped of context, dimension, and mostly meaning.

    I had a very interesting conversation this summer with an excitable guy about our website, and how best to present our collections. He thought (and upon reflection, I agree) that it would be better to create web pages on a variety of topics that would be of interest to our publics, and then drop the artifact data into these themed pages. For example, one of the Boy Scout camps around this area was Camp Neibel in Balsam Lake, WI. The camp was named after a well-known Scout Executive who was killed in an automobile accident in the 1930s. He was responsible, among other things, for the group that started my museum, but the camp also operated into the 1950s. For old guys in this area, Camp Neibel brings back a lot of memories. We have material in the collection related to the camp, photographs, patches, and other things that were on site. Supplement this with an oral history from the program director at the camp in the 1950s, and you can pull together a series of pages that puts our collection in some sort of context. (My excitable friend also said that we’d get a lot more hits on our website this way.) This idea appeals to me a great deal, and becomes something that we can work on in increments.

    The worst thing about an on-line catalog is the incremental nature of it. I dont think anyone would wait until they had all their data just so, and had great digital photographs of everything before they put up their catalog. It is just so frustrating to search one of these catalogs only to find that the stuff you are interested in isn’t up yet, or you can’t get an image of it without visiting. Placing your catalog on-line sets up certain expectations about the availability of data that are often hard to meet.

    And then, there’s the idea that the importance of saving artifacts is so that visitors can have encounters with the thing itself . . . but that’s another thread!

    Good to have this discussion.



  6. Mary Warner says:

    David – Thanks for the info on the workshops.

    Jeff – Could you tell me more about how Japan and England use technology that is light-years ahead of the U.S.? I’m curious about this. Is there some way that their societies are supporting the advancement of technology in general, and in the museum field specifically? I do know that Japan is known for robotics and science and engineering are stressed in schools, but is there also another incentive that makes technology so attractive? For example, text messaging took off in a big way in England/Europe because it was introduced as a free service to users – unlike the U.S., where we have to pay to text. In developing countries, people made the leap directly to wireless phone service because they couldn’t afford to put in landlines. Are there other examples you can think of that have caused a more rapid adoption of technology in other countries?

    Mike – Your thoughts are dead-on with mine. We have also wondered if putting our collections online will cause a security risk. Kind of like supplying a shopping list for criminals. You’re also right in indicating that we have a responsibility not only to our researchers, but also to the donors of those artifacts.

    Suzanne – Many good thoughts. I’m finding some of those open source programs online, but the learning curve is still steep. Of course, you are right that the bits and bytes won’t change much over time. I was referring to all the hardware and software that will be obsolete in three years. Since starting at the museum ten-and-a-half years ago, I’ve watched floppy disks die. They were replaced by CDs, which seemed pretty stable, but are now threatened by other data-saving devices. I’m on my third computer now. Each time there is a change, we have to migrate that data and, with each migration, some of it gets left behind. And, then there are web apps that keep going out of style, so our delivery method for those bits and bytes keeps changing. It’s been reported that blogs are SO 2004! Being as how I started my personal blog in 2006, I’m obviously behind the curve. If only we had a crystal ball to tell us which technologies to invest in . . . .

    Claudia – Your question about what we DON’T do in order to pursue a digitization project gets right to the heart of the issue. Your thoughts on putting our collections into context on the web brings us back around to our missions. Are we merely places that collect stuff – like closets or basements – or do we serve a larger purpose by giving people the context? I rather think it’s the latter.

    Lest anyone think I’m anti-technology, let me assure you that the Geek Squad t-shirt I received from Robert Stevens (founder of The Geek Squad) holds a special place in my heart. I have a penchant for technology, which has given me the patience I’ve needed to teach myself html (and all that other techie stuff). There’s so much to learn that I want to use my time and our museum resources wisely. This discussion is an important part of that.


  7. Mary Warner says:

    Claudia – This link is for you. Seth Godin talks about the value of experiencing a "real" exhibit. http://sethgodin.typepad.com/seths_blog/2007/02/the_real_thing.html


  8. Suzanne Fischer says:

    Mary: The folks on the Museum Computer Network listserv were talking about this storage question recently, and recommended server-side web storage; if it’s online, you won’t have to migrate it from computer to computer. Of course, what if your ISP’s server has problems, what if someone breaches your firewall…There are definitely problems with all kinds of data storage. I really think things are starting to plateau and stabilize, though, and that we’re going to develop enduring standards pretty soon.

    Have you looked at the Exhibit tool, developed by MIT’s SIMILE lab? You can dump an Excel file into it and it generates a nice little web exhibit or timeline. Click on my name for a link.


  9. Mary Warner says:

    Suzanne – I am SO putting your Public Historian blog on my Bloglines feed. From your archives, it appears that you started your blog around the same time I started my personal blog.

    Question for all of you Local History Professionals Blog readers: How many of you have blogs – either personal or professional? How many of you read blogs? If you do, what are your favorites in the museum field?

    Thanks for the tips, Suzanne.


  10. Bill Wittenbreer says:

    Hi Folks:

    All of your comments regarding the the digitization of your collections were most insightful and informative. The $$$ involved in digitizing a collection or selected items can be expensive and time consuming. Fortunately, in Minnesota, we have the Minnesota Digital Library (MDL)(http://reflections.mndigital.org/). The Digital Library has gathered together over 10,000 photos and other documents from over 60 cultural organizations from around the state. The MDL will do the scanning and the institution supplies the meta-data. Granted, it is not the same as having your items on your own site, but it is a wonder way to share your items from your collections. I believe they have the capability to scan 3-D items.

    Bill Wittenbreer
    Augsburg College


  11. Suzanne Fischer says:

    Bill: The MDL is an amazing resource! They’re scanning only photos and documents at the moment; I’m not sure if they have plans to begin scanning artifacts. I do believe they’re currently working on functionality to make it look like the photos are hosted at your own site.

    Mary: Thanks for your comments! I’d be happy to get in touch and talk about this more.

    Great discussion, everyone.


  12. Mary Warner says:

    One of my favorite museum blogs is Art Knowledge News, mostly because it posts so many wonderful images of art. It’s a pleasure to look at every day. You can find it at this address: http://www.artknowledgenews.com/

    Suzanne’s Public Historian blog is good, too. Check it out and leave a few comments. (Bloggers love comments. That’s how we know our stuff is being read.) It’s at http://publichistorian.wordpress.com/

    There are a couple of interesting blogs on copyright issues that I follow. One is Lawrence Lessig’s blog at http://www.lessig.org/blog/
    The other is Copyrightings by a student named Kevin (he doesn’t post his last name, so in the interest of privacy, I won’t either). His blog is at http://www.copyrightings.com/index.html


  13. Claudia Nicholson says:

    Hey Mary, thanks for the link. I cannot for the life of me imagine why anyone would drive out of their way to visit a "replica" [but a darn good one] of the caves at Lescaux.

    We do need to remember that we are in the "real thing" business.

    That said, I believe very strongly in the value of putting our collections online in some way. We would all like to be accessible to populations beyond the boundaries of our community. It is hard for me, for example, to make the case to people in Lead, South Dakota, that we are a museum for them (we stretch the boundaries of "local" just a little bit). But some day I hope that will be the case, and we can stretch ourselves beyond Minneapolis and St. Paul.

    Collections accessibility online is certainly one good way to make that case, however.

    I just wanted to get back to Mike’s point about security–I know that we discussed this during the Alliance Collections Initiative project, but I cannot remember the upshot. Prudence would dictate that you not simply make the entire catalog record for any given object available online. This would be especially true for value, location, and even donor, I think. The public information about the object would be something that you specifically selected to be informative and enlightening, without compromising the security of your collections.

    Better by far, though, to take those security precautions that cost little but get you much: keep keys closely held, ensure that all display cases have either concealed openings, or security screws, that there are no blind cul-de-sacs in your exhibit areas (to the extent that you can do that), and ensure that when the buildling is closed for the evening, it is truly closed. (I won’t tell you about the incident a couple of weeks ago when a board member closed up the museum, setting the alarm, but failing to lock the back door, no siree, I won’t tell you about that one!)

    And let’s make sure that we always emphasize historic, over monetary, value!



  14. Mary Warner says:

    It seems we all agree that putting our collections online is a good thing, as long as we keep security issues in mind. With our limited resources, what criteria do we use to decide what to put online first? How do we prioritize?


  15. Mike Worcester says:

    Allow me to clarify some comments I made earlier. Claudia captures pretty much dead on (props to you Claudia!) the essence of what my personal feelings are about posting collections records on line.

    I’ll suggest this possibility: Offering a list summary of what your collection holds. Perhaps the subject headings or similar. We already do that to a degree with our photographs. We have a detailed holdings list for research materials. Then if people are intensely interested, they can easily contact you. A small step to ensure that your collections records are kept private.

    Another possibility (mentioned previously I think) would be an "artifact of the month" type posting. Leave out the donor info, catalogue number, and other personal details.

    Someone accessing your records through seriptitous(?) means via a trojan horse or other easy to block trick is a computer security is certainly an issue that everyone should be concerned about.


  16. Trish Lewis says:

    I’m putting my own hometown’s history online as fast as possible. Too much of it may be lost otherwise. Many items I’ve posted about are archived somewhere, but that’s just it, they are all over the place, and it has taken me over 30 years to track it all down. I’m also talking to old-timers, who in turn talked to old-timers when they were young, and documenting what oral history I can, and placing THAT online. I’m posting photos, etc. also. I’m publicizing it as widely as possible to make it accessible to as many as possible. I am not and will not charge a fee. The website is http://56755.blogspot.com


  17. Cathy Walters says:

    This would be great for us who search for family info. I dont drive, I’m a housewife w/ no income and find hunting on web free, very hard getting anything. Also wouldn’t let us family researchers add to your info? You have Mr. Rollins Diary – Elgin News Papers-we just had our centennial last year, who knows what else you may have that would make my familys history fuller. Thankyou


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