Our esteemed guest blogger, Miriam Kahn, has used municipal and county courthouses and record centers to compile legal, real estate and genealogical information for 20 years. She experienced the shift from print to digital, from photocopies to microfilm to digital, and from paper deliverables to digital delivery—and is very familiar with issues surrounding long-term storage of paper, audiovisual, and digital materials. We asked Miriam to bring her years of insight as an information professional and free-lance researcher to a blog series on the merits and challenges of off-site and remote storage.
Although some archivists debate the necessity for item-level access, it is often more challenging to describe images in the aggregate. Collection-level description can be useful for images of the same subject, but problematic for collections with a variety of subjects, as it neither improves retrieval nor limits the handling of the originals. Group arrangement and description are necessary for large collections or when resources are limited.
Traditionally, archivists have dismissed arrangement at the item level as having little utility and being impractical for modern collections. However, archival surveys conducted over the years have found that a significant proportion of archivists have adhered to item-level description—even though it is contrary to the traditional archival practice of collection-level description. The same discrepancy between literature and practice appears to be true for visual collections.
When digitizing collections, archivists should always take legal and ethical rights into consideration and proceed with caution when documenting culturally sensitive content—with sympathy as to the context of how the materials were collected, and consideration in the manner in which such content is presented.
Image: University of Missouri’s Museum of Art and Archaeology
The University of Missouri’s Museum of Art and Archaeology exists to “advance…understanding of artistic and cultural heritage through research, collection and interpretation. [They] further their mission by preserving, enhancing and providing access to the collections for the benefit of present and future generations.” A museum staff of 12 (including part-time and student help) manage a collection of almost 16,000 objects, with a particularly strong antiquities collection.
Formal standards, such as Describing Archives: A Content Standard (DACS), Graphic Materials, and Rules for Archival Description (RAD), have been developed over time for the description of archival materials. While descriptive standards offer consistency, archival repositories employ descriptive systems suited to their holdings, not universal access, and description continues to be idiosyncratic.
Working with collections in a library, archives, or museum (LAM) setting requires knowledgeable professionals. Through a combination of specialized education and experience gained in the field, professionals amass knowledge and skills developed for a very niche area. Most positions found within a LAM will require a high level of education and experience, but not every professional position needed can be funded.
The development of selection policies is a core component of digital projects, and many selection guidelines and criteria have been developed by institutions, national governments, and international organizations. Institutions need to validate their selection procedures for digitization concerning external criteria, especially with the increase of collaborations for digital projects.
As discussed in a previous Library, Archives, and Museum (LAM) post, archives and special collections are often found within museums. While “special” is indicated in the name, the specialness can cause heartache and extra work for staff members who aren’t used to working with Archives and Special Collections (ASCs). This post will help define what ASCs are and identify common areas where ASCs aren’t special.
Digitization can be performed either in-house or outsourced. In-house implies that a department of the institution captures the images—supplying hardware and software, trained personnel, and overhead. Outsourcing requires entering into a contract with a vendor who will receive the images, convert them, and return the originals with the required digital files. Both in-house and outsourced alternatives should be considered when embarking on a digitization project.
At any given time, museum visitors only see 10% of a museum collection. When I was working at the Smithsonian, I believe the statistic was even lower—a whopping 1% of collection materials were on display! Now consider the possibility of a related but differently categorized collection – that of the museum’s archives. Archival materials rarely make it onto the museum’s exhibition floor and yet they are critically important to correctly interpreting the museum’s objects.
As archivists, we take our responsibilities seriously as stewards of the collections entrusted to our care, ensuring that our assets remain safe and accessible to users. The demand for increased online access to collections, coupled with limited fiscal and staff resources, makes balancing the two a challenge.