New Digital Archive Underway

This article reprinted from the “Bulletin from Johnny Cake Hill”, Summer 2010 (by Michael Lapides, Director of Digital Initiatives / Photo Curator)

The Adaline H. Perkins Rand Photography Archives is now the Adaline H. Perkins Rand  Photography and Digital Archives; an expanded name for an expanded mission. This name change represents the merger of the existing Photography Department with the new Department of Digital Initiatives. But what is a New Bedford Whaling Museum digital initiative, and why would it need a department of its own? Further, why is the digital archive linked to the photography archive; what is the connection?

Today’s Digital Era, characterized in part by an explosion of media types and applications, leads us to recognize the need for an institutional archive dedicated to electronic files. Linking of the Digital and Photographic Archives began as a result of a shared dependance on and connection to technology.

Within the Photography Archives, the history of photography can be viewed as a series of technological advancements. Arguably, over the last 170 plus years, there has been no greater shift in how photographs are made, or distributed, than what we have experienced recently. Silver based film has given way to electronic capture and digital media, and through the growth of the internet, the computer monitor now challenges for primacy in how people encounter museum collections. Currently there are more online visitors than visitors through our front doors, and this gap will only continue to grow as our web-based content increases along with our ability to create and manage it. The Department of Digital Initiatives recognizes that we must continue to create and sustain compelling content for this growing audience.

A broad definition of a digital initiative would be any project, process, or enterprise that is computer borne, or has migrated to the computer, and that improves access to museum collections, information, programs, or products. Much as Gutenberg’s printing press altered civilization forever, now the computer, through the web, changes how information and knowledge are created and shared. The web, like the printing press before it, substantially increases the distribution of all kinds of information, including access to primary source materials as well as related scholarship.

The Museum got its first computer in the early 1990s.  Within the decade to follow, while there were a few more machines, they were still mostly isolated from one another except through sharing via external media. This disconnection was recognized and addressed by the Museum in 2001, and with the help of an Institute of Museum and Library Sciences grant the Museum’s curatorial and library staff began the process of populating our just installed collections management database. The creation of the Museum’s collections database became the basis for what could be considered our groundbreaking digital initiative: offering an online version of this database. Initially we posted around 25,000 records, a majority with associated image surrogates. Today, we have well over 40,000 discrete records representing a substantial piece of our overall collections. This was a major turning point, and continues to be a growing asset.

Digital content of all varieties is growing exponentially. As we generate more and more, it becomes apparent that special care is required. One could argue that digitized materials, and content that is “born digital,” are in some ways more ‘fragile’ than some historic material. With digital content there is both a blessing and a burden that result from having a machine between us and it. The machine supercharges the distribution of the content, and the ability to organize and share it, but then inevitably machines break, associated software or media become obsolete. The digital age brings to the fore critical issues related to data preservation, integrity, and migration. It is fair to say that for many, paper is still the medium of last resort, a safer haven. When lightning strikes, when electricity fails, paper still works, it is tactile, it is concrete, we can hold it in our hands. It still makes a very nice complement to anything digital.

Digital initiatives tend to be collaborative among staff, volunteers, community members, and consultants. This new department is designed to encourage entrepreneurial thinking, developing a space for ideas to germinate and to encourage interaction. Projects tend to be both structural, in the sense of foundation building, and content driven.

Here are some of our current digital initiatives to be completed in 2010.

Website redesign (www.whalingmuseum.org): the goal is to transition from a static to a dynamic website.

Museum blog (http://whalingmuseumblog.org ): rich with behind the scenes information, timely updates, and articles.

Exhibit audio tours: available from the Frontdesk or our website. The production of these tours has been supported by the National Park Service and by the Melville Society Cultural Project.

Oral History Project: migrating existing recordings to digital formats and creating new ones.

Crewlist Project: creating a public access database for with the names of men who sailed from New Bedford on whaling vessels. This project is in cooperation with the New Bedford Port Society.

The Bulletin from Johnny Cake Hill: most readers will no doubt find the BJCH  in standard printed form, mailed as a benefit of membership. A small, but growing number of readers, will find it online.

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2 responses to “New Digital Archive Underway

  1. This is great news–and a compelling article, Mike, laying out the issues clearly and with insight into the museum’s role in preserving and disseminating digital materials. The Melville Society Cultural Project is proud to be involved in the exhibit audio tours. Perhaps parts of our paper archive will one day migrate to a digital format too, especially as we expand our holdings in graphic arts.

    You have a priceless collection of images and artifacts. We are excited about how you are making them public, and look forward to learning from you as you showcase imaginative ways of using them. These are wonderful developments in digital initiatives!

  2. Congratulations on the progress made and best wishes for the exciting work to come!

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