Good questions!

March 2, 2010

I recently received a very thoughtful email from a reader (a graduate student in a museum studies program) who had some questions about what we do here at the archives — I thought that I would post his thoughts and my replies for our readers’ edification.

His email:

Hello. I am a graduate student taking a course in Museum Studies, and after touring your impressive website, and your blog about putting museum collections on the web, I had a few questions. I know that you are very busy, and I don’t expect an answer from you, but I thought that I would just email you and see what happens. It’s like that old proverb “nothing ventured, nothing gained”
  1. Embedding metadata into the image itself is a great idea and definitely aids both the researcher and the cataloging personnel.
    The question I have is how the embedding is done and is it done through proprietary or open source software.  I was interested in what it is used for in museum collections, how it is done, and which group (within the archive staff), is responsible for embedding the metadata for a particular collection when it is placed on the web.
  2. What is the cost of putting a large museum collection on the web? In a cost benefit analysis, would it keep people away from the museum or draw them to it? Also, when photographing artifacts the museum would most likely want to use a professional photographer, would they hire one (for example, would their digital preservation worker be the photographer or would they hire someone else)?
  3. What are the time scale and expenses are for putting a museum collection on the web?  Clearly, photographing collections, designing a webpage, and posting to the webpage are time consuming.  So, have you found a general idea of how much time and energy is required for the project?  And if so, do you think the end result is worth the amount of time, energy, and money required?
  4. Are there ready made programs for putting collections on the web, or do museums design homegrown database driven programs themselves? Furthermore, are there any grants, or other forms of financial assistance, available for this sort of process, at least for the digitization stage?

These are all great questions, and it’s always exciting to hear from someone who shares the same excitement for our practices as we do.  We’re in the middle of our image migration / embedding metadata project, which means that while I have some pretty good answers to your questions, the answers might change as the project grows.

We’re trying to get all of our legacy data encoded en masse, and after that we’ll probably embed images using Adobe Bridge. Basically, our intrepid digital collections person, Scott, found a library for embedding metadata. The links to these resources are here: http://www.exiv2.org/ and http://www.exiv2.org/download.html — he’s going to use the windows EXE and pass the parameters to the EXE via JAVA program.

I think that what we’re finding is that this is less of a technical problem and more of a planning problem — we have to make sure that our field mapping is REALLY, REALLY good and that we’ve anticipated all weird data inconsistencies. We’re migrating two systems, plus rando images that collections managers have had laying around, so we’re really going to need cataloging help from everyone, especially considering that the image creators are often the only ones who can answer questions we have about the conditions of creation.

About photography and the web — we have a staff of photographers (and have had since the early twentieth century) who are responsible for photographing museum collections. I cannot extol the virtues of professional photography highly enough — our amazing photographers really bring these objects to life, particularly parts of our collection that are subtle or dark. However, considering that we have nearly one million objects in our collections, our photographic record of the museum doesn’t include everything. For this reason, we’re also involved in a project to digitize our historic catalog card collection so that visitors to the web can see SOMETHING when they look for an object.

Regarding whether this brings visitors to the museum or pulls them away — I’m not sure what the current museum studies literature says about this, but our mission is to bring our collections to as many people as we can. We hold artifacts from every inhabited continent on earth, and goodness knows that not everyone will be able to come to Philadelphia to see their heritage on display here. It would be nice if at least anyone with an internet connection could enjoy our collections.

Compared to other museums, our efforts to get content onto the web are being done on a shoestring. We have an IT staff of 2.5, a digital content manager, a digital collections manager/database administrator and two archivists. We all have many other tasks to perform other than getting content on the web. There are some really great blogs out there from other museums about their digital initiatives — my two favorites are the Brooklyn Museum’s http://www.brooklynmuseum.org/community/blogosphere/bloggers and LACMA’s http://lacma.wordpress.com/ .

Regarding time and money, I don’t know if we have a general plan and sense of the costs of this project – no one has ever shown it to me, certainly, but I do know that collection management systems tend to be very expensive and the labor to populate this data is expensive as well. There may be open-source applications, but you will have to see if they have the scalability and functionality you’re looking for.

And yes, there are many, many grant-giving agencies who generously support museums, from the Institute of Museum and Library Services to the National Endowment for the Humanities, to local organizations.

I remember that when I was in graduate school, the world of digital libraries, archives and museums (LAMs) seemed exciting and overflowing with very bright people who were ready to change everything — the good news is that I was right, they are! Make sure that as you go into your working life, you find allies and collaborators for your exciting digital projects.

And as always, if you have any further questions about what we do here, feel free to contact us!