At the end of January I was fortunate to be invited along to an event to launch a new report commissions by the National Museums Directors Council working with the Collections Trust on ‘Striking the Balance: between public access and commercial reuse of digital content’. Our museums fed into this research as members of NMDC and I was eager to see the outcome and discuss some of the key challenges with colleagues.
You can download the full NMDC report here: Striking the Balance: between public access an commercial reuse of digital content.
The launch took place at the Imperial War Museum, and there were a number of talks from colleagues across the sector sharing their unique approaches and what they have learned.
I have to admit that the highlight of the talks for me was a presentation by Vincent Smith from the Natural History Museum talking about their efforts to digitise their collections using mass digitisation techniques. We also have natural history collections, and other large collections that are currently undigitised, so his experience spoke to our own challenges.
The museum is aiming to digitise 20m objects/specimens in the next 5 years. They are using, or in cases where the technology does not exist inventing, mass digitisation techniques to take on large portions of the collections. The form of digitisation, from quality of photography to level of metadata recorded to whether things were recorded on a specimen or draw level, depends on the anticipated research use for the resulting data. For example, Herbaria sheets need to be digitised to an extremely high visual standard to be of use to researchers, whereas with many entomology collections, the labels indicating find locations and dates are much more valuable than hi-res images of the specimens.
As well as sharing their digitisation techniques, Vincent shared details of the new processes that needed to be put in place behind the scenes to manage the IP rights of the resulting digital content and its publication, and their efforts to make the data appropriately accessible for the variety of research needs. He also spoke about their efforts to track and manage use of the data through UUIDs (Universal Unique Identifier).
Fingers crossed for NHM reaching their target, and hopefully some of the new mass digitisation techniques they develop will prove a boon for the rest of the sector.
Another highlight, though it does not represent a method we would consider, was from Jeff Cowton from Wordsworth Trust. Jeff explained that they were looking into insuring their collections, and with a cost of £20k a year, for collections that were irreplaceable anyway, it would be better to spend that money to digitise the collections and preserve them in that way. They worked with Adam Matthew Digital to digitse the collection in the space of six months with the assistance of a dedicated curator, who was also able to conduct a full collections review. AMD create a collections package that they lease out to universities, giving Wordsworth Trust a commission, an arrangement that will expire after 10 years. In the meantime the Trust can use the collections for anything that does not interfere with the AMD business model.
It was also great to hear from John Stack from the Science Museum, and previously the Tate, about his extensive knowledge of Creative Commons licences, another really topical talk for me as we continue to develop our approach to image licencing. As well as the nuts and bolts, he talked about the processes that he had been through in his organisations to decide what would be made freely available to meet the organisation’s mission around accessibility, and what was held back for commercial purposes in order to assist the organisation in generating income, also to help them fulfill their organisational mission. He communicated the need for backing of the decision at all levels in the organisation.
Overall this was a great event, and an excellent opportunity to discuss a hugely topical issue with colleagues from across the sector. It was nice to see that we are all in this together, facing the same challenges, and that there is a real community of support there – no need to reinvent the wheel.
Make sure you check out the report!