Week Ten: Digital Collecting and Preservation

Happy Archives Month!!!

For me, this week’s readings  (http://chnm.gmu.edu/digitalhistory/collecting/ ,http://quod.lib.umich.edu/d/dh/12172434.0001.001/1:4/–hacking-the-academy-new-approaches-to-scholarship?g=dculture;rgn=div1;view=fulltext;xc=1#4.7)  are a continuation of last week’s readings and discussion about digital humanities.

This week however really emphasizes the importance of archivists.  I have several friends who are archivists and I am fascinated by what they do, but I am more happy to benefit from their expertise while I work more with objects.  Recently, I have been guest curating an exhibit for the Baltimore Museum of Industry and have worked closely with their archivist to gather photos and background information.   It’s been a great collaborative experience – he’s helped me find (and choose) some great photographs and has steered me towards sources of information needed.    Working with him has helped develop my own research skills.

I came across this post today from the Smithsonian about their “Ask an Archivist” Day. http://siarchives.si.edu/blog/ask-and-archivist-bring-your-questions-monday-october-27 I find the descriptions of the different kinds of archivists there to be quite interesting and am glad to see the Smithsonian dedicating some of their efforts to preserving their own digitally-born history.   I also find it interesting that this whole “event” occurs solely on their Facebook page.  It’s very informative and apropos to our discussions this week.

Now go out and thank an archivist!!!


week 9: The future of digital history and scholarship

The reading from Daniel Cohen and Roy Rosenzweig http://chnm.gmu.edu/digitalhistory/digitizing/ in particular resonated with me.   I started volunteering and working in the museum field about 7 years ago and one of the things I have noticed is the push for museums to digitize their collections and make them available online.   At the very minimum most museums are expected to have a web site with a  link to information about their collection highlights.   Expectations are now leaning towards museums providing a link to a searchable database of at least part of their collection.

I have done some work in posting select collection objects to a searchable portal and it’s not easy.  There were issues with the compatibility of the collections software the museum used, the online portal, and editing the amount of information that was sent to the portal.  Ultimately, it didn’t happen.  The museum board assumed it could be done easily so no real plan was made and eventually the project was dropped.  But I have been at other museums where the effort to digitize has been successful and is ongoing.   The response from the public  and researchers has been very enthusiastic and requests for copies of photographs and other images is a good source of revenue for the museum.

I know that many museums had concerns in the beginning that digitizing and making images of their collections available online would decrease their visitation – in truth, it has actually helped increase visitation as people are more curious about the museum and want to see the actual object(s) they saw online.   I think it’s definitely the path that museums and other public institutions not just should take, but MUST take in order to attract more attention to themselves and attract researchers and visitors.

Free access….

This week’s readings were from Chapter 3 of Gary Hall’s book Digitize This! The Politics of New Media and Why We Need Open Access Now and Chapter 3 of John Willinsky’s book The Case for Open Access to Research and Scholarship.  Both authors write about how copyright laws have skewed in favor of copyright holders (often big corporations) interests and against the public interest and fair use.  Both discuss and advocate for free online access to scholarly works.  Hall advocates for his site CSeARCH which does provide for free access to research in the cultural studies field.  Research can be submitted, edited, added to, linked to other relevant material and is available at any time to anyone with internet access.  Willinsky focuses more on how scholarly journal publishers obtain copyrights from authors in exchange for peer review and publication and then charge fairly high fees for access to these journals which, of course, limits access to only those who can pay.  Both make the point that research shows that research and articles make available through open access increase the numbers of readers  and citations of the works.

I understand the frustration of being unable to access information in scholarly journals.  Several times I have times I’ve found articles I wanted to use either for school or personal use but when faced with having to cough up 20 bucks I always refused. (Even when I used the school’s access to the databases – not every journal is available).  I can buy a hard cover book for $20 and I can look through it before I buy it, so I’m not going to pay that much for a 10-20 page article I can’t even preview!  Any student/interested person who doesn’t somehow have free access is pretty much out of luck.  It would be prohibitively expensive for most people to buy enough articles for proper research much less for access to the online databases.

However, this raises two issues for me:

  • One of the benefits of the scholarly journals is peer review but are the open access site submissions reviewed in any way? This takes us back to the beginning of the semester and our discussion about how to differentiate between good and back information online.
  • Free and open access is an admirable and I am all for making more information available to a greater audience but there are costs involved for the publishers even for online material. So why should the publishers be expected to provide access for free?

I don’t have offer any solutions, I’m just wondering….

Week 7: Copyright, free culture and copyleft

I really had to take some time to think about this week’s readings from Lawrence Lessig’s book Free Culture  http://www.free-culture.cc/freeculture.pdf (specifically the Preface, Introduction, and chapters 1, 7 and 10). I honestly didn’t understand his point at first but think I do now.  Rather than go through his somewhat lengthy and complicated theory of the forms of regulation upon an entity and the shift in balance among them, I’d like to discuss his point about restriction of creativity.

In essence, Lessig claims that creators have always drawn from and built on the ideas and creations of those that came before them.  I completely agree.  Whether you agree with those older ideas, want to reinterpret or want to completely negate them, new ideas built on old ones.  You never know where a bit of inspiration is going to come from and often in retrospect you might not even remember exactly what it was the stoked your imagination – only that you had been inspired.  Lessig further argues that free cultures leave a great deal available for others in the future to be inspired by and build upon.  Essentially, when we restrict the ability to be inspired, then we restrict creativity.

The Constitution provided adequate protections for creators in the form of copyrights but more recent law had changed how those copyrights are created and greatly extended their length.  Lessig argues that these extensions unfairly hamper creativity.  He fully believes in granting protections to creators (I in all honestly thought he didn’t at first!), but only for a limited time.  After finishing the assigned readings from his book, I’ve come to better understand his point.  I think these changes to copyright law only increase the fear of being sued and limit the ability of others to be inspired and to think and to create.

          All this doesn’t just apply to movies or music or works of fictions, it also has relevance to the work of historians.  There’s creativity in non-fiction and critical thought too.  An interest in a particular subject can be (and I think usually is) but another person’s research and writing on that subject.  But it would be ludicrous to limit new thought, approaches, research and writing on a subject to the first person who showed an interest or until that person was finished with the subject.  It would greatly limit, if not eliminate, new thought and knowledge along with creativity.  And that I think is a good part of what Lessig is worried about.

PastPerfect Software review

PastPerfect Software Evaluation Version

Many museums now use some sort of database program to manage the cataloging of their collections.  Anyone in a museum job that works with collections such as a registrar, collections manager, archivist, curator, etc. needs to be able to use a collections database.  PastPerfect Software is one of the most popular collections databases currently in use.

PastPerfect offers a free evaluation version of their program that can be downloaded from their website http://museumsoftware.com  under the Products & Services tab.   The same page provides links to video resources on their Youtube channel and links to their complete user guide.

PastPerfect Evaluation Version download page
PastPerfect Evaluation Version download page

Using the free evaluation version with the videos and the user guide is an excellent method for learning how to use a collections database and learning about the process of accessioning (formally bringing in) items into a museum collection.




Pros: PastPerfect Evaluation Version is essentially the same of their full version but limited to about 200 records and does not include any of the optional add-ins such PastPerfect online or Inventory Manager.

PastPerfect home page
PastPerfect home page



The three videos listed on the evaluation download page will provide the basics on how to navigate through PastPerfect, add catalog records and conduct searches.  Other videos available through their Youtube channel provide additional information on how to conduct more in-depth searches, use the lexicon/Nomenclature 3.0 and highlight some of the optional features of the full version.
Version 5 bases its lexicon for naming for items on Chenhall’s Revised Nomenclature 3.0 which is the standard system used by museums and archives to assign the proper names to items, so it’s a good method for becoming familiar with nomenclature.

PastPerfect catalog record
PastPerfect catalog record

The entire User Guide can be downloaded as PDFs and it is possible to learn how to use all of PastPerfect by going through the User Guide chapter by chapter.

Tutorials on CD on “Cataloging Collections”, “Research and Reporting” and “Managing Contacts, Donations and Membership” are available for $39 each or $110 for all three which also includes the user guide.  This would be a good investment for someone who is serious about learning this skill.

PastPerfect has excellent and helpful customer service for anyone who has bought one of their products.

Cons: Because PastPerfect is so comprehensive, it can seem like a daunting task to learn how to use it.  Having more tutorials available on the YouTube channel on how to use the software would be nice, but they also want people to buy their products so they can’t make everything free.

The search, research and report features are very good but the learning curve is fairly steep with each.  Working through the tutorials on these sections is especially recommended.

I would highly recommend that anyone who is interested in working in a museum  job that works with collections items download the free evaluation version of PastPerfect and take some time to familiarize themselves with it.  Museum interns often spend a lot of time working on cataloging and knowing how to use a collections database will be a good skill to list on a resume when applying for internships.