As people’s lives become more digital, what does that mean for museums, which exist to hold on to real, physical things?
In 1999 we received quite a lot of funding from the Department for Culture Media and Sport’s “IT Challenge Fund”, to run a project called North Devon on Disk. The idea was to digitise images within Museum collections so that people could look at them easily without damaging original photographs or prints. We were really excited about some software that was being used in Hackney Archives, called HA2000, which uniquely enabled you to connect images with a map.
The North Devon on Disk Partnership included all the local museums in North Devon and Torridge, the Beaford Archive and the North Devon Record Office. We bought clunky 386 PCs for everybody, plus scanners, and managed to get OS map data that we could load up onto the machines. Initially nothing was held on-line – that wasn’t the point – but we had taped backups that could be assembled together into a master system in Barnstaple.
The internet was only just getting moving and this was a very innovative project at the time. There were lots of difficulties – one was that some of the participating museums were reluctant to let their images out, thinking that would reduce visitor numbers ad income from copying fees. This seems crazy in retrospect, especially as the size of the scanned images was a maximum of 1MB and therefore useless for printing. Computers were much, much smaller in those days, and 1MB seemed an enormous amount of storage space.
Another technical issue that would not exist now was my decision to use a multicoloured logo for the project. Hardly anyone had colour printers then.
North Devon on Disk survived for about 10 years, as various new versions were invented and project funding found. “Weaving the Web” put the archive online (with Exeter University) while “Learning Links” enabled schools to work with the content and create their own stories. One exciting project was “House Scouts” carried out in Winkleigh, where a display cabinet and IT module were installed in the village hall so that new images could be added at parish market days. At its peak there were 50 participating community groups on NDOD, managed by Tim Wormleighton at the North Devon Record Office.
As websites improved and more museums created their own online resources, NDOD became gradually redundant. The map-based system worked well within museums, but data transfer speeds meant that it did’t work well online. With higher user-expectations we decided to return to online collections at a later date.
PC based version of NDOD with map-search facility, c. 2000. Systems like this, made by small developers have largely been superseded by googlemaps and other apps.
Our current project doesn’t include getting all our collections online, but it does include a new website, social media marketing and some online access to collections. We started out doing this with the Royal Albert Memorial Museum in Exeter, with their South West Collections Explorer, but we were then approached by Google to become the first South West museum to sign up as a partner to their Arts and Culture programme. As part of this we get free hosting for our collection images and enhanced promotion through google.
Thanks to our learning officer Adam’s hard work, plus some great photography form volunteer Mark and support from work experience students, our google Arts and Culture page launched in May, and we now have over 500 images of our collections online.
Its 20 years since I submitted the first funding application for North Devon on Disk. Its surprising perhaps that rural North Devon has been involved in the digitisation project for so long. We firmly believe that looking after real things is our primary purpose, but digital versions of things are much easier to handle and circulate, and can serve to enthuse people about our real collections.
The next question to consider is who is saving the born-digital versions of the 1940s or even 1980s diaries, accounts books and photographs that we find so interesting today?