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Getting your collections online

April 23, 2015 - Rachel

I was recently asked to present a session at the SW Digital Champions Forum on how to get your collections online. I wanted to do something which was practical but which also asked those bigger picture questions. I divided the talk into three sections:

1. Online Collections – strategy

Too often the answer to the why are we getting our collection online question is simply “because”. Although it is almost enough for museums to say “it’s our remit, our collections are what we do, we should allow more people to see them”, this can quite easily become an excuse not to ask the normal good practice questions everyone should ask when thinking about doing…well, anything:

> why are we doing this?
> who are we doing this for?
> how are we going to know if this approach is working?

As well as being a good thing to do anyway, these questions can be really useful in helping to focus the process itself. A general audience for instance will probably want longer, more story based representations of collections online; this in turn suggests the focus of the project should be on writing more about less objects – and certainly wanting to make sure you have good quality images to accompany these. Conversely, if you are mainly pitching at a researcher audience you may well be focusing on quantity.

Alongside this, the focus on “success” is important. This is something we push all the time as part of our digital strategy workshops and it applies just the same here. What does this look like? For collections online it could be a number of things:

> more visits to collections pages
> increased time on these pages
> more shares of object stories
> more likes / mentions
> increased sales of licensed photography
> increased throughput from / to the rest of the site
> …etc

If a project has a firm grasp of what this success is – and how to measure it using Google Analytics, or qualitative approaches – or whatever – then they stand a better chance of this whole process being a worthwhile one.

2. Implementation

The actual “how do I…” side of a collections online project was the focus on the second half of the slides. This is of course about the movement of records from “some kind of in-house system” to “some kind of web-based, public system”. The former can be existing CM systems, Excel spreadsheets, or nothing at all (yet) – but the primary questions are the same: which records and which fields do you want to make public?

With this in mind, I identified 5 possible routes – obviously not an exhaustive list, but I think I have the main ones:

  1. Use your collections management system “plug and play” system
  2. Build something bespoke which uses your collections management system (or other!) API
  3. Use an existing, hosted service – even something as simple as Flickr, Tumblr, Medium, Blogger, wordpress.com – or hosted databases such as Zoho Creator
  4. Build or adapt an existing open source system: wordpress.org, CultureObject, CollectionSpace, Omeka
  5. “Other”: CultureGrid, Europeana, Wikipedia, build a totally bespoke solution with its own database or (ouch) static html

3. Making the decision

Obviously each and every scenario is different – different audiences, resources, budgets, technologies, requirements…

Having said that I reckon there are five principles which can help steer the decision making process, no matter what scenario museums find themselves in:

  1. Be strategic: know what you’re doing, why you’re doing it and who for
  2. Know the answers to some fundamental questions: things like “can I get my data in and out?”, “is my stuff backed up?”, “what ongoing costs are there?”, “what risks should I be thinking about?”, “what standards are being applied?”
  3. Consider “Open” as being the baseline for everything: not just Open Source, but open data standards, open and transparent contracts and relationships with suppliers, etc
  4. Be wary of bespoke: although “bespokeness” is a continuum, and at some level you’ll have to have something built which is just for you, be wary about solutions that re-invent wheels which are already pretty well formed. Thinking “ok, so this guy wants to build X for us – but what if he got hit by a bus? Who else could pick this up?” is quite a good way of clarifying thinking here..
  5. Be measured: getting all 100,000 collections items online might be a good aim, eventually, but embrace small wins. Get ten objects up there first; blog about them, share them, get a feel for what people want – then aim to do a bit more. Don’t feel you have to go the whole hog in one go.

My slides are below:

Getting collections online from Mike Ellis


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