Monday, September 15, 2008

open access to museum collections

Last Friday there was a post on Open Access News that Wake Forest University's Anthropology Museum had issued a press release about the launch of its online collections, supported by an IMLS grant.

I welcomed this news on many fronts -- there aren't enough ethnographic or archaeological collections online; the museum is using Re:discovery, a great product geared toward small museums; and I have a number of friends with ties to Wake Forest and I've visited Winston-Salem many times and have a fondness for the area.

What made me sit down to think about this for a few days was the passing description of this an an Open Access project.

I worked for many years in the museum community, and every museum that I ever worked for or consulted for wanted to make its collections available in one digital form or another. The Museum Computer Network was founded in 1967 to enable museums to automate their processes and convert collections records to digital form. Museums were among the earliest institutions to share their collections online in the mid 1990s. The University of California Museum of Paleontology had a web site in 1994. The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco brought their Thinker "imagebase" online in 1996 -- and they had volunteers assist with an early form of experimental user supplied subject metadata. e.g., proto-tagging. By 1997 the National Gallery of Art provided access to over 100,000 objects in its collection, and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art experimented with converting print museum catalogs into freely available online publications.

Sure, there have been lengthy discourses about levels of access to the digital media surrogates and questions of rights and control of those new media assets, and there is some information about the acquisition of objects that's subject to privacy restrictions, but no museum wants to limit discovery of their collections -- they want to facilitate their collections' use in research and teaching.

I've just not heard it described as "open access" before.

I'm not saying that it isn't a sort of open access initiative -- it most obviously is -- but I just think of it as such a normal museum activity I don't categorize it in my mind as anything other than business as usual. Then it hit me -- for the past 15 years museums have been major players in the open access movement without necessarily always knowing it.

Labeling this an open access initiative re-contextualizes this core museum activity into a different realm -- one that I hope will make museum collections information more visible and reinforce the importance of all categories of open access content.

1 comment:

Perry said...


Great post. I just saw that the Smithsonian is going to digitize its entire collection: