DH2009: Digital Curiosities and Amateur Collections

curio-imageSession Title: Digital Curiosities: Resource Creation Via Amateur Digitisation
Speaker: Melissa Terras

Overview: Review of 100 virtual museum websites and multiple flickr groups plus surveys of amateur website creators, memory institutions and Arts & Humanities academics leads to new perspective on digitization and creation of collections online by dedicated enthusiasts.

Session Highlights

Areas of “Amateur” endeavor  have a long history of launching collections, such as:

  • cabinet of curiosities
  • foundation of astronomical research
  • british flora and amateur botanists
  • weather observations
  • open source software movement

Being an amateur doesn’t necessarily mean being bad at what you do!

Within the realm of self-defined museums some common topics often emerge:

  • ephemera (advertising, packaging, nostalgia)
  • comics
  • technology – especially old tech, there is a surprising trend of being fascinated by technology approximately 10 years older than the collector
  • personal and “embarrassing” collections
  • genealogy

For these self-defined museums the scope is self-defined – these are self-delineated collections. Virtual museums can document aspects of cultural heritage considered socially taboo or in some way too sensitive to collect. A great example of this is the Museum of Menstruation which claims to have been created 14 years ago and is currently trying to establish a public permenant display for the public.

Platforms have evolved over the life of the web, starting with static html, then blogs and now Flickr images as a mode of presentation.

This is a list of successful amateur collections online:

Visual Arts Data Service (VADS) is a more traditional site created by a cultural heritage institution. It contains 100,000+ images copyright cleared for use in teaching, learning and research in the UK. VADS is a very detailed static source of images with metadata, but provides no interaction.

Amateurs do provide metadata, but it is intuitive metadata. It might not fit into rigid buckets of data, but that doesn’t meant that the metadata available isn’t useful.

What are the boundaries between amateur and professional? Work vs hobby?

Many of these amateur sites get much more traffic than most standard museum sites. More than 50% of museum digitized images are never visited.

Memory institutions are starting to put things into the wider online community:

Much of amateur research has been driven by advances in technology. A great example of this is the advent of affordable metal detectors led to dramatic changes in archaeology. The internet and Web 2.0 technology are arming a whole new generation of enthusists who can find one another and collaborate more easily than might ever have been dreamed of 20 years ago.

Next Steps & Conclusions

Future research will involve looking at the psychology of collection: archives vs collections. For now it is important to realize that institutions are not the only hosts of “worthwhile” digital objects. Pro-am (aka, pro-amateur) are doing better with using web 2.0 & getting more traffic.

What can memory institutions learn from this?

  • interact with user communities
  • use the ‘grand central stations’ of flickr, twitter, facebook
  • usability of flickr is better than what most memory institutions build for themselves

My Thoughts

This session considers the ways cultural memory institution can take advantage of the web by looking at what the successful enthusiasts are achieving. This research-backed approach confirms what I would have expected. Libraries, museums and archives are leaving a lot on the table when it comes to putting their collections online. Sites run by non-professionals are doing an amazing job of drawing in new audiences, keeping people around and then initiating conversation within that audience.

The Flickr Commons is a big step forward, but it isn’t the only option. There are also varying opinions about how successful the crowdsourcing aspect of the Flickr Commons is for memory institutions. A lot of this goes back to to a core question “how do we know if we have succeeded?”. There is much to be said for setting out clear goals when launching online initiatives. Is your goal increased traffic to your site or crowdsourcing of metadata? A great example of an initiative whose goal is clearly collection of crowdsourced metadata is the German Federal Archives who chose to use the Wikimedia Commons for their photo metadata initiative.

If you are trying to extend your mission of providing access to materials to the public, then how do you measure success? Putting your materials in what Melissa called “grand central stations” (or what I have also heard termed “public crosswalks”) definitely increases the chances of serendipitous discovery by new individuals. That said, we can see from the successful blogs mentioned above that tackling a niche with enthusiasm and consistent posting can go a long way to building a following. JonWilliamson.com seems to have only launched back in November of 2008 with a post featuring a Scotch Tape Christmas ad from 1951. The author posted in May of 2009 that his images in Flickr had surpassed 100,000 views.

To conclude this post I leave you with a list of inspirational digitized collections online that were created by various cultural heritage institutions:

Have a favorite online collection website? Please share it in the comments below.

As is the case with all my session summaries from DH2009, please accept my apologies in advance for any cases in which I misquote, overly simplify or miss points altogether in the post above. These sessions move fast and my main goal is to capture the core of the ideas presented and exchanged. Feel free to contact me about corrections to my summary either via comments on this post or via my contact form.

Image credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/mms0131/ / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

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Posted on 29th June 2009
Under: access, at risk records, DH2009, digital humanities, digitization, learning technology, metadata, outreach, virtual collaboration, web 2.0 | 3 Comments » | Print This Post Print This Post

3 Responses to “DH2009: Digital Curiosities and Amateur Collections”

  1. Jon Williamson Says:

    I just wanted to thank Melissa for her efforts, I enjoyed corresponding with her as she was conducting research.

    Also, the scans on Flickr seem to be gaining momentum as the hit count now stands at 133,000 since reaching the 100,000 milestone just over a month ago.


    P.S. Nice site!

  2. Ben Brumfield Says:

    I also enjoyed corresponding with Melissa, and can’t wait for her to share the results of her research. Many thanks to you, Jeanne, for writing up your notes. For a lot of us, this is the only way we’ll encounter this information.

  3. Gary Roberts Says:

    I wholeheartedly agree. Having recently retired from the library and archives field, I can safely say it’s a task of pulling people kicking and screaming into the real world. I’ve been blogging and running a website or two for a number of years, all focused on the topics of books and ephemera of early tools and trades. Tons of cross-linking, cross-commenting between bloggers, discussions in public forums, etc., serves to drive traffic up.

    The tools are there, but too many institutions take an insular approach. “We serve our community” becomes a byword for not learning about how to utilize the social networking or blogging community. On a whole, I’ld say there is more information available now in the general community than there is in the restricted institutional realms.

    True, institutions have to abide by rules, such as paying attention to their own particular mission. But in doing so, they often forget that part of their mission is often to attract attention to their collections and services.

    All it takes is an internet connection.


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