The Use of ICT makes the Differences Between Archives, Libraries and Museums Irrelevant
Archives, libraries and museums play important yet varying roles in our society and have done so for many years. Recently however, the introduction of ICT has seen a convergence of the roles of some of these institutions, how they function and how they relate to the public. In the past it was seen that these 3 institutions performed very differently and had little similarities. However the process of bringing them into a digital realm has helped highlight how similar these bodies actually are. To understand this, we must first understand what functions each of these organisations perform.
Archives record unique information relating to a specific subject. Be it an organisation or a singular person. The records they hold are specifically retained in an organic manner in that, for example, they relate to the way the person or establishment conducted their business. The types of records stored within an archive can vary greatly from paper receipts to hand written letters to photographs. Each record is catalogued in a hierarchical manner for ease of reference and storage. There is a great deal of emphasis on the preservation of records as the aim of an archive is to store the items on a permanent basis.
Libraries differ from archives in that their records are not solely unique and they often have multiple versions of each item. The items in question being, more or less, books. Libraries provide a service to the public of loan and reference. Therefore the aim of the body is not to maintain the items it holds with a view to long term preservation but more of having a collection that can easily be used by the public for the purposes loan or reference. They of course maintain the books to some extent if they were to become damaged but since their items are not usually unique then they, on the whole, can be replaced. This definition is blurred in some cases when referring to special collections of unique books within a library which are more archival in nature.
Museums and equally Galleries, like libraries, are more social institutions with a view on providing a service to the public. Museums hold a very important part in society,
'As museum theorist Donald Preziosi asserts, museums are such a dominant feature of our cultural landscape that they frame our most basic assumptions about the past and about ourselves.' (New Museum Theory and Practice (Blackwell Publishing, Oxford, 2006) ed. Janet Marstine (p1))
The items held within any given museum can vary greatly. Museums and galleries hold paintings, sculptures, items of historical and social importance. It is all a question of provenance. The Museum's mandate is the collecting, preserving and exhibiting of the items it holds or obtains on loan from other museums.
These collections are vast in number and space is a premium, therefore Museums have the difficult task of selecting what to display, why and for how long.
'Museums are not neutral spaces that speak with one institutional authoritative voice. Museums are about individuals making subjective choices.' (New Museum Theory and Practice (Blackwell Publishing, Oxford, 2006) ed. Janet Marstine (p2))
This constant selection and rotation of items, along side the preservation of them, makes the museums job even harder. The role of the museum seems to be one that draws in the disciplines seen in both archives and libraries.
The use of ICT has greatly improved the function of all three of the institutions. On one level ICT aids the administrative, grass roots functions found in all organisations. Therefore planning, pay rolls, communications and visitor numbers all fall within this bracket. However, what is more important is how ICT has aided the bodies in the performance of their key functions, the ones that define what they do.
The greatest implementation of ICT can be seen in libraries. Within the past few years, libraries have been able to take their cataloguing systems and apply them in a virtual context. The very nature of a library means that it needs to be accessible to the public. In the past this meant various catalogue cards for each book held by the library; containing various pieces of information including the Dewey reference number, author, subject and the like. These cards could be browsed by the public user or librarian to find specific books. But the key here is that they had to be accessible to the public. Librarians, along with computer experts, have managed to transfer this accessibility into a virtual medium.
The reason they have been able to do this so well is two fold. Firstly, as expressed, libraries have previous experience of making their collections as accessible to the public as possible. Secondly, the static nature of that which they hold, books. It is rather easy to catalogue books since they all have specific worldwide quantities such as author, publisher, subject, genre and ISBN. This makes the classifications for cataloguing much more straightforward and therefore the development from a real to virtual cataloguing system has been much smoother. Also, these set elements have enabled ease of interoperability. Standards such as MARC means that if a book gets catalogued in Wales then that same data could be shared with a library in Scotland. As a result, when combination this cataloguing with the internet, the library became an archetype for the possibilities of the use of ICT in the cultural heritage sector.
Through the internet, libraries have been able to put database of their collections online. The user can now, without having to enter the library, browse and search the collection with much greater ease and flexibility than ever before. They can see how many copies of a specific book the library holds, where to find it, whether or not it is on loan and they can even reserve the book to collect later or renew a book loan that they already have. Some resources are even available online to read straight from the computer. This digitisation of books and resources is being pioneered by the likes of project Gutenberg and Google to provide free e-texts. And in the commercial sector, Amazon have just recently unveiled their Kindle system (http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/technology/7101392.stm)
that blurs the line between real and e-texts, with their electronic wireless e-paper delivery system showing the possible future for the digital book, as system that could theoretically be transposed from the commercial realm onto the library model.
Archives have a similarity to libraries however their core records, being unique and varied, throw up specific problems in making the transition into an ICT based cataloguing system that promotes interoperability. The problem is that archives could theoretically contain anything, letters, books, photographs. Unlike books in libraries, the items held in an archive do not have a simple set of elements that can be used to define them. There may be similar elements such as creator and year of publication but there may also be other elements that the archivist may wish to catalogue. These elements vary from item to item and from archivist to archivist. The problem is providence and choosing what elements are vital for thorough cataloguing. To try and solve this problem, standards are used; one such standard being the Dublin Core Metadata Initiative. The aim of which is to introduce a core set of 15 elements to help define an item. However this standard has come in for criticism, citing 'too much loss of detail' (http://ahds.ac.uk/news/newsletters/spring-2004/ Malcolm Polfreman, 'One way of looking at things (the AHDS Metadata Framework)')
as one of its pitfalls. Other archival standards have been introduced across the world, such as the Manual of Archival Description based on the Anglo-American cataloguing rules. However there is still a lack of a more universal standard due to the diversity of archival records.
Museums on the other hand have a very tough job. Their collections are vast, and their collections take up a great deal of space. Museum items are 3 dimensional and therefore cataloguing them in an ICT environment takes a great deal of extra time if including digital photographs of the pieces. The cataloguer would have to decide how many photos to take, from what angles, what light, resolution etc All this as well as cataloguing the elements that define the item in the same way the title, author and year of creation etc are recorded for books and archival records. Again, a metadata standard such as DCMI could help here. Thankfully, in this day and age of terabytes, storing all this information should not be a problem. The problem is digitising it all in the first place, and digitising it in a form that can be interoperable between institutions.
Some museums have done a great deal in putting their collections, or more to the point, select items of their collections, into online catalogues and virtual exhibitions. Some have not done any work at all. One problem, as with libraries and archives, is funding and time. These institutions are non-profit, funded by councils and grants. Therefore it is hard to find a balance between how much funding should go to creating virtual catalogues of their collections and the core museum processes such as restoration, collection, preservation and exhibition.
For all of the institutions, the problem is that ICT is still a fledging concept to them. Many libraries, archives and museums have been around for a very long time. Over that time they have collected many records and items, all of which are constantly in a state of flux, being added too. To take this wealth of content and to digitise it all and to digitise it in a manner that would give everyone everything they need would take a mammoth effort. As expressed, libraries have the easiest part of the deal, books are relatively easy to classify compared to the records/items of archives and museums. Thanks to this though, libraries are able to show the way forward for archives and museums. Archives are getting there and museums will get there one day too. The problem lies in classification, time and interoperability. Another problem is the user. As the public become increasingly tech-savvy, they demand more. Their levels of expectations are higher than the institutions can physically obtain at this moment in time.
So where does this leave archives, libraries and museums as separate entities? Are their differences irrelevant? Well yes and no. Yes in that they all have data and records that need to be digitised so that they can be easily searched and browsed. They also all have a great deal of data to be digitised. Plus, in the end, in their digital format, the records will be rather similar to one another. In the way that they are just digital data but also in that they will have similar fields of data. Museums, archives and libraries can learn from each other. In the past they may have seen themselves as entirely different units, but in the digital age they are beginning to realise that in the end, their essence is all about on thing - information. And information is universal.
The use of ICT does not make the differences between archives, museums and libraries irrelevant. The use of ICT merely illuminates the similarities between them, similarities that can enable them to march forward into the 21st century and beyond because they will learn to work together. Seeing where things have worked and where they have failed.
At the very core of the three organisations, their mandate, will stay the same. Archives will provide us with unique records detailing select elements of the history of a specific person, company or establishment. Libraries will provide us history to enable us to think about our future, celebrate the present and appreciate our past. The differences will always be there. ICT does not define these organisations, what they are and how they work, it just helps.
'Ultimately, it is the content that counts, and technology is content's servant.' (Digitising rare books and manuscripts) by Czeslaw Jan Gryez from
Digital Heritage (Butterworth-Heinemann, 2006) ed. Lindsey MacDonald p66)