Collections on-line: Quality vs. Quantity
We are in the process of a major library reorganization at the C.H. Nash Museum at Chucalissa. In the reorganization we intend to begin digitizing the 50 years worth of accumulated photographic prints, 35 mm slides, negatives, and to systematically organize more recent digital images. Also, we will scan our archive of research reports, often written by students for course requirements, but containing a wealth of primary data. Further, we aim to digitize the University of Memphis, Department of Anthropology’s Occasional Paper series that contains archaeological research and conference proceedings from the past 20 years. Initiating the process raises the issue of how to disseminate these materials once digitized – or to the point, what do we do with all this stuff once placed in a format that better accommodates transfer and access. We could put it all up on the internet, but, even discounting considerations of logistics and ethics, should we? Does such wholesale uploading of material address the public outreach part of our mission? What is the appropriate solution? Is more always better? A couple of months ago we posted photos from 1960s Chucalissa field schools on Facebook. The photos generated much interest and feedback from the folks in the 40-year-old photos. Is our public outreach goal simply to have interaction or is there more to it than that?
On-line visual representation across the field of anthropology is quite varied. An example of an engaged and informative online photographic presentation is the Edward S. Curtis Collection at the American Memory Project of the Library of Congress. Besides the images, and lots of them, the site also presents a set of essays that contextualize the Curtis photos in time and space. The Field Museum in Chicago is one of the institutions that has placed many photographic galleries of their collections online. For example, photographs of collections from the World Columbian Exposition are online but there is very limited provenience or interpretive information despite the several introductory essays. My takeaway is that the online Field Museum collection has lots of pictures of things but little in the way of meaning. The British Museum galleries however provide detailed information on many of the artifact images presented.
A cursory examination of anthropological collection websites shows considerable variation in the presentation of images online. This observation raises questions about the very nature of these public access resources. If we have 50 years of photographs is it important to have each and everyone available online? What considerations come into play when considering community engagement and outreach in the access to collections on-line?