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The Importance of Digitizing Collections Amanda Melanson University of Florida April 19th, 2018


The Importance of Digitizing Collections


Summary I have worked in a handful of small-town museums and I’ve noticed that there seems to be a stigma around the idea of making museum collections digital and available online for the public. Some museums fear that offering an online database of artworks may keep visitors from visiting those works in person. Other fears are that it would take too much time, or would be too expensive to acquire the proper equipment. Though there are obstacles to keep cultural organizations from digitizing their collection, I feel that it is a necessity. As Clough, a Smithsonian digital archivist and author, questions (2013), “why should such an experience be limited to those who can visit in person?” (p.5) Along with the benefit for visitors, physical and virtual, digitizing a collection also helps to conserve the state of objects by keeping them off of the exhibition floor and away from harmful lights as much as possible, though the purposes of this research is to share how digitization is a means to create access. The Smithsonian Leading a Digital Movement In 2015, the Smithsonian completed a project of digitizing over 40,000 objects from their museum and their chief digital officer, Julie Taboh, spoke about why that was a priority in American, 2015, “It is really important to us that everybody who wants to see the objects that we have, has access to see them.” The people that need this resource, she says, are “children, kids doing a homework assignment; scholars who are unable to come to the Smithsonian; artists who are looking for inspiration, these are all our target audience.” It was important to document these objects in their current state so that people could view them and they wouldn’t need to be taken out again or exposed to lights for any longer than they needed to be, because that can cause any objects damage over time. Some objects that are displayed in the Smithsonian galleries need to

The Importance of Digitizing Collections


be kept in such dim lighting, as to not harm the objects, that it is hard to see the small details of each work of art. Digitizing those objects allows for viewers to better see these details in a way that doesn’t cause the objects any damage. Clough (2013) explains the importance of digitization and highlights some benefits that museums, libraries and cultural institutions can get involved in. “Online access to digitized objects, images, and records is democratizing knowledge, enhancing the visits of the many who come to us in person, and extending our reach to the millions who cannot. Coupled with social media’s powers of connection, digital technology exponentially increases the capacity of individuals to engage with our collections and upload their own stories. It is also closing the gap between formal and informal education, allowing museums, libraries, and archives to step in and assist the K–12 educational system with intellectual and physical resources. And by facilitating partnerships and collaborations among institutions, digital technology offers the public a streamlined way to access information and take advantage of powerful, jointly curated exhibitions.” (p.2-3) The Smithsonian is just one museum that has utilized this ideal to catalogue and conserve their collection. Something that I have done in digitizing collections was creating a digital database of research that I had done on a museum’s collection of local artist’s works. After I had taken photos, wrote about the condition of each object and wrote about the subject matter and artist background, I shared these objects one-by-one with the community. Each week, an object was shared in the town’s newspaper along with an artist description. This gave the museum a chance to showcase their collection with the town, showing value in their collection, and also

The Importance of Digitizing Collections


giving people the chance to see items that would normally have stayed in storage and out of the galleries. The community then had a closer, more intimate look at the collection. The works that this museum were gifted were meant to be showcased and viewed by the community, but not everything can be on view at any given time. Having everything accessible online is a handy resource for those who want to view it and, in this case, a much-needed database on some local history of the town. Clough also tells an interesting story to Stromberg (2013) where he had access to sacred objects that belonged to a Native American tribe. The tribe wanted these objects back to bury them, as that is what those objects were intended for. So, Clough got their permission to get digital files on each object and created a three-dimensional replica using 3D printing, so that the objects could be viewed by others after the real objects could be taken for its original purpose. This is an important anecdote and could possibly be a solution to putting religious works on display; as they are often displayed in ways that they weren’t meant to be displayed, or shown before crowds of people when they were meant to only be seen by a select few. A copy could instead be shown and possibly be interactive and used for display while the original be kept protected and/or kept in its original setting. The Importance of Digitization The importance of digitizing in a museum setting isn't limited to only art museums. The Natural History Museum (2015) in London uses digitization of their collections as a tool to document a moment of time for research on the past, present and future of organisms. Something that these researchers can view, because of the digital collection that they’ve kept, is “how long term environmental change impacts on the interactions between organisms.” By keeping record

The Importance of Digitizing Collections


of organisms, what they eat, what they interact with, how they interact, where they travel, etc., scientists and researchers can study and document the rise and fall of species. All of this is digital and can be accessed by other natural history museums for further research, creating access for anyone that wants or needs that information. Archivist, Harrison Wick (The Benefits of Digitizing Rare Books (IUP Special Collections, 2011) also makes the case for digitizing rare books for potential researchers. His case is that “digitizing is not a preservation tool, it’s an access tool… access makes that one copy of that rare book available to everybody instead of just having one physical copy of a book.” How else would college students or researchers have access to texts like these that are one of, or rare? Similar to viewing the Mona Lisa; I have never seen it in person, but I have been able to study it in art classes, digitally. There should be similar access to objects that are not as well documented as the Mona Lisa. Barry Supple also states a case in Kiminko (2015) for the Endangered Languages Documentation Programme. The main goal, and reason for funding, was “preservation and enlargement of cultural information and awareness in their broadest senses,” (p.xl) though it was done with researchers in mind to have access to texts that they couldn’t otherwise get a hold of. This is digitization being used by people in their field, for the benefit of other researchers being abe to access their findings. Mia Ridge, while being interviewed by Murphy (2016) explained “Digitised material seems to increase people’s desire to come and ‘see the real thing’, and hopefully it also increases scholarly attention and gets people telling more stories about collections,” she says. “For small museums, digitising and sharing

The Importance of Digitizing Collections


collections might help people realise they exist or remind them to visit, but it does depend on the quality of the overall user experience and whether people can find the website in the first place!” Museums are here for the benefit of those in its community and its visitor’s experience should be a priority. Offering digital access enhances the experience of museum goers and museums then deem themselves a resource, as they should be, to the community. How Can We Start to Digitize Our Collections, as Museum Professionals? The first step to starting a digital collection is to compile photographs and scans of your objects. A resource was created to help teach museum professionals how to properly photograph and scan in various types of objects. Digitsation: A Simple Guide for Museums (2015) states “A digitised collection is a flexible resource for any museum and can be used in a variety of ways from engaging online audiences, to enhancing catalogue information, exhibitions and learning packs.” So, the digitization can be used as a resource for many reasons and the approaches taken can also be unique. If this process is to be used to catalogue and keep research on a collection, than a database or program can be used such as PastPerfect or The Museum System. These databases can hold images, videos, information about the works and artist, specific dimensions and condition reports on the objects, and an extensive labeling lexicon that can be easily searched. Often, these programs can also be linked to your museum’s website online and shared for a fee. As mentioned in an argument above, museums, libraries, and other cultural institutions are entrusted in protecting, preserving and sharing valuable objects and information. The information that these organizations hold belong to the people and they should have access to it,

The Importance of Digitizing Collections


digitally and physically. There are many resources on how to do this because in the digital age this is becoming a necessity. Because digitization is meant to make information accessible, the people that work in the field are generally willing to share their processes- there are many resources online, by individuals and museums all around the world. References American Museum First to Digitize Entire Art Collection [Video file]. (2015, January 9). Retrieved from

Clough, G. W. (2013). Best of Both Worlds: Museums, Libraries, and Archives in a Digital Age. Retrieved from

Digitisation: A Simple Guide for Museums [A presentation by Collections Trust]. (2015, November 24). Retrieved from: ed_-_Digitisation_-_A_Simple_Guide_24.11.15.pdf

Digitising the collections | Natural History Museum [Video file]. (2015, November 27). Retrieved from

The Benefits of Digitizing Rare Books (IUP Special Collections). (2011, June 17). Retrieved April 08, 2018, from

The Importance of Digitizing Collections



Kominko, M. (Ed.). (2015). From Dust to Digital: Ten Years of the Endangered Archives Programme. Cambridge, UK: Open Book. Retrieved from

Kipp, A. (2016). Managing previously unmanaged collections: A practical guide for museums. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield.

Murphy, A. (2016, March 3). Digitising Collections- breaking through the museum walls and opening up collections to the world. Retrieved from pening-collections-world/

Stromberg, J. (2013, August 29). What Digitization Will Do For the Future of Museums. Retrieved from e-of-museums-2454655/

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