One of the challenges that those of us who are responsible for managing digital collections face is that digitizing is often viewed as a “once and done” activity. Actually, digital collections have complex lives and are constantly growing and evolving. A fairly recent term for museums is popping up that better describes the complex life cycle of a digital object and how we manage that object. Digital Curation is the “selection, preservation, maintenance, collection and archiving of digital assets” (Wikipedia). In our museum, “Digital Curation” goes hand-in-hand with the more traditional notion of Curation, as well as Collections Management, which focus on the intellectual and physical management of objects in the collection. You can’t have effective curation of the digital surrogates of your collection and the intellectual content that surrounds it, if you aren’t effectively managing the intellectual and physical components of your collection.
Digital objects are not static, rather, they have a complex life-cycle in which data is created, stored, migrated to new technologies and distributed on the web where they may be used in new and sometimes unexpected ways. Technologies used to create, manage, view, and disperse our data are continuously changing. Digital repositories can become flat or obsolete and new repositories emerge to replace them. Collections data is used beyond the repository and has new relevance in Web 2.0 applications that allow users to apply our collections data in meaningful ways. Museum data has to be flexible and interoperable (meaning it plays will with others) so that it can be found, retrieved, used and reused in significant ways. Otherwise, we risk going back to the days of locking our collection in the castle keep. Digital collections require constant growth, evolution and innovation. It is a continuous process that requires dedicated resources such as staff and budget lines, along with innovation, risk taking and an institutional tolerance for failure when our experiments fail.
Here at The Phillips Museum, we are embarking on an exciting digitization project with an important community partner, in which we will be digitizing a specific segment of our related collections. Our director is writing the grant and we are establishing the project perimeters with our partners. This seems like the perfect opportunity to re-imagine our existing digitization plan, as well as critically examine our past and current practices–discarding that which hasn’t worked so well and embracing the advice of many wise people to try new approaches. This post is the first of a series of posts, in which I will be exploring the issues, standards and practices related to digitizing the museum’s collections.
Maureen Lane is the Collections and Digital Media Manager at the Phillips Museum of Art. She had an M.A. in American Studies from Penn State and an M.A. in Museum Studies from Johns Hopkins University. Contact information: email@example.com (717) 291.4319