Getting our collections on the web – step one.

January 29, 2010

Non-nerds may want to amuse themselves elsewhere

So, we at the museum are moving to a new collections management system. A year away from data migration, the archives and the collections staff are teaming up to figure out the best way to make sense of our images, clean them up, take care of them, and move them.

Images can do a lot of things.

  • They are digital representations of an object. When a collections manager goes to pull an item from a shelf, it’s incredibly helpful for her to have a sense of what she’s looking for.
  • They tell the history of objects.  For instance, we often go back to old negatives to see what happened in the life of that object — was it broken before or after a certain date? Where was it excavated? When was it on display?
  • They help us promote our collections to visitors who can’t come to Philadelphia. Our collections include excavations from every inhabited continent. There is certainly an audience for our materials that may never make it through our doors.

These are all good reasons for us to figure out the best and most efficient ways to make our images available to in-house users and visitors around the world.

Archival appraisal is a complicated process — what we’re doing here is closer to weeding. We want to make sure that we have every image that could be useful, that tells the history of the object, and in the case of scans, that it’s the closest derivative to the original image.

What should I do with my images?
What should I do with my images? The only things I love more than archival appraisal are flowcharts...

The next steps are where this process is going to get really fun — we’re going to teach our collections managers how to do image cataloging (with an eye toward making this is as automatic and painless as is possible) and then we’re going to embed all of this cataloging information into the image itself.

What is embedded image metadata?

  • A series of tags that provide information like Who (camera and person)? When? Where? Camera settings, copyright information etc.
  • This data is physically part of the image file and will travel with it in any system.
  • It can be re-embedded in derivative JPEGs (eliminating redundant data entry!)

We’re using the IPTC core and extension standards to include a lot of interesting information about what’s in the photograph, when the photograph was taken, who the creator of the photo is, and who has rights to it.

This means that when we send an image to a researcher, he will have its cataloging information easily available, and that this information can be automatically pulled into cataloging fields in our new collections management system.

Like most institutions, we’re currently working with a lot of small, homebrewed, Byzantine access systems. I think that everyone at the museum is looking forward to a long-term, tenable, scalable solution.