Thursday, 18 September 2008

Digitising Everything

It's interesting to read about the Smithsonian's plan to digitise their entire collections. One of the classic questions for memory institutions is whether to digitise whole segments of the collection (or even the entire thing) or to cherry-pick items to fit with particular themes.

I've seen both types of projects - yes, of course, some parts of collection based digitisation projects are not as interesting as others but the very nature of their presence in the collection means that they are an important element (if not a shining light, perhaps a supporting player). Overly selective projects can suffer from decontextualisation, resulting in a very pretty exhibition which doesn't fulfil longer term preservation and access goals.

Of course, the classic problem with selection is that huge emphasis is placed on the selection process. A digitisation programme can live or die based on the objects chosen as well as the way they've been presented. The Smithsonian's approach is deliberately aimed at avoiding this problem - they making everything accessible in an attempt to better engage with the talents which exist in the digital creative sector (and through these, school students).

This is a really bold move and it'll be exciting to see how things progress. As I'm sure they're keenly aware this kind of strategic approach requires a commitment to digitise everything that enters the collections from now on. Those whose job it is to prioritise (and, no doubt, seek funding for) the objects will constantly be weighing up the benefits of digitising the existing collections or the new, and exciting, things that have just been purchased.

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