‘Digital dinosaurs’: a response

The CSIRO has recently released a paper advising that the Australian GLAM sector has to become digitally innovative, or risk becoming “digital dinosaurs’ (http://www.csiro.au/Portals/Media/Australian-museums-risk-becoming-digital-dinosaurs.aspx. Also from the project google site – https://sites.google.com/site/glaminnovationstudy/).  While I endorse the sentiment that the GLAMR sector needs to connect socially online, provide innovative digital programs,  in education, and through digital preservation and discovery, I find the report and its recommendations to be somewhat shallow, and just a tad condescending.  I recognise that the same could be said of this response, given that it has been pulled together by one person, over the course of a weekend.  I’ll also be looking at the report from a records and archives perspective, with a little bit from libraries, and my own historian’s perspective.

The report opens with a foreword from Frank Howarth, President, Museums Australia. In it he talks about his wish to find the works of Australian photographer, Frank Hurley.  Hurley is well researched, and well known, with many publications available about his work. Yet, says Howarth, ‘the capacity of the GLAM sector’ to provide immediate digital access to the complete works of and about this important figure ‘ is patchy indeed’.  The failure lies at the feet of the various collecting institutions which have, apparently, failed to maximise digital access to their collections (and to Hurley, in particular), through a lack of engagement with the relevant technology, in particular registers, catalogues and indexes.  A wider conversation across all sectors to enable greater use of digital collection systems is required.   Howarth identifies the primacy of the ‘visitor experience’ and identifies that this occurs primarily through physical access to the sites and collections. Morevover, he suggests that the distinctions between libraries, galleries, archives and museums is 19th century, and a hindrance to true exploration of the distributed national collection (which is not a phrase to be found in the report, at any stage, until towards the end, where it is treated with some suspiscion) – in other words, that convergence on-line and in the real world is both inevitable and required.

Howarth identifies that there needs to be three key actions to enable this to happen :

1) Greater cross-sectorial conversations and links;

2) A great conference, like the Digital Forum in NZ, or Museums and the Web; and,

3) ‘Equity of opportunity and access to the potential of the digital world’.

These three themes are also picked up in the executive summary.

The first and last of these points are clearly motherhood statements, which need to be teased out further. Nevertheless, the first point is clearly needed, as identified by the gaps in this report, and, for example, by the comparable and complementary work of the National and State Libraries Association  (NSLA)’s Digital preservation working group and the Council of Australasian Archives and Records Association (CAARA)’s ADRI, which appear to be working independently of each other.  With respect to the second, while the Digital Forum occurs in a foreign country, it is accessible by most Australians and institutions with the necessary budget – why reinvent the wheel; perhaps we can take it over by stealth?  But the question needs to be asked, do these conferences drive innovation, and are they the most effective way of spreading the digital message?  As for the third, well, yes, of course, but how? The Collections Council was, of course, one approach to the problem. Abruptly deprived of funding by the Labor government, overseen by Minister for Culture and the Arts, Peter Garrett, the Council provided a voice across the GLAM sector and was working towards standardisation and areas of commonality – http://arts.gov.au/collections/collections-council-of-australia.  Perhaps a time has come for its return?

The focus of the study is to look at innovation (although this is not defined, and could perhaps benefit from close attention to the US Museums Association message on the subject –  http://museumsassociation.org/video/17092014-museum-innovation) and the opportunities provided to the GLAM sector ‘created by new broadband and digital services’.  So, the links to access, via digital technology, are clearly spelled out. This is not a bad thing, but it does mean that the report may be focused on product rather than process.  There is also an expectation that convergence is inevitable, and that those opposed to it are dragging their feet through an outdated allegiance to old ideas and concepts. Despite this, the report gives a brief one paragraph summary of each sector, drawn from the Australian Bureau of Statistics 2008 report on the culture and leisure industries.  I am not convinced by the convergence argument, myself.  I think that the collecting institutions and the professions that work within them represent different ways of understanding and working with information. Blurring the lines between them means that we must embrace the educative and interpretive roles of the museum, plus the research functions of science and natural history museums, creating not just collecting information, while at the same time ensuring that the evidential nature of the material collected is clearly identified and expressed. The material will need to meet or address some aesthetic criteria, or present critical perspectives of past, future and contemporary issues. Taking all of this on for all institutions, and collections, may be biting off more than we can chew. I’m also concerned that the increasing post-modernisation of the products of the GLAM sector will mean loss of context and therefore meaning and understanding.  Our collections are appraised, arranged and used for different purposes. Confusing these purposes may dumb us down rather than create and build knowledge (see, for example, Raymond Schutz’s analysis of the need for context in the digitised Holocaust archiveshttp://www.arhivelenationale.ro/images/custom/image/serban/2013/RA%202%202010/03%20schutz,%20raymund-engleza.pdf).

The first part of the report looks at the institutional environment, including funding, collection size and access statistics. The first part looks at economic activity, and the funding and clientele for each sector.  The library sector is, unsurprisingly, by far the largest, with over 12,000 employees, more than 6,000 volunteers,  and an annual income of around $1220 million.  Museums follow with $710m and 5,000 employees  supported by the largest volunteer sector – nearly 23,000 people. Galleries receive around $470 million, with 2,500 employees and a respectable 3,700 volunteers. Archives tag along, a poor fourth, with $140 million in income and 811 employees (plus 120 volunteers).  Museums and galleries receive a significant proportion of funding from the public sector, as opposed to libraries and archives. Archives differ from the others in that they have a significant clientele among government bodies  Clearly, Howarth’s third activity and a converged environment are already facing some challenges.

The report then turns to collection statistics, including the size of collections and visits to the various institutions.

There are over 100 million objects held across Australia’s GLAM institutions. Australia’s museums and libraries hold the largest documented collections; galleries collections are far smaller. Archives are not included in these estimates as their collections are recorded in kilometres of shelf space, rather than numbers of objects.

Again, the differences appear to be more significant than might otherwise be expected.  And the exclusion of archives on the grounds that they measure things differently is really not excusable, particularly as the report identifies that

There is a hierarchy among GLAM institutions in terms of funding and status – there was discussion about different levels of interest from government, corporate and public stakeholders in the different domains within the GLAM sector – archives being the least visible.

Yes, archives are measured in shelf metres, but the main CAARA statistical reports also provide a nice calculation to turn those metres into items (or objects) – http://www.caara.org.au/index.php/archival-statistics/ – either mulitplied by 100 (NAA, revised) or by 158 (unrevised). Using the simplest calculation, the archives sector suddenly has 62.9 million objects and the library sector nearly 90 million items, of which only 7.6 million, plus 37 shelf km, or 43 million objects are retained permanently as with the other collecting bodies, with galleries possessing 2.9 million and museums, 49. 6 million.  This means that the lowest funded institutions have the majority of items.  The report then looks at the proportion of gallery and museum objects on public display, accessible online and recorded electronically, but does not do the same for libraries or archives.  While the question of ‘exhibit’ may be somewhat moot for libraries and archives (another convergence challenge), the question of accessibility online and electronic recording should be more easily determined.  Museums and galleries have 5.4% of their collections online with 46.7% recorded electronically, according to the ABS statistics cited.  I’m reasonably certain that all of the NSLA institutions have online catalogues, with the majority of works described at item level. The archival and manuscript collections within libraries may be more difficult to ascertain, but not impossible. Similarly, all the CAARA bodies (other than the ACT archives) have online catalogues and backend archive management systems, so the proportion of archives ‘electronically recorded’ at either series or item level should be fairly easy to determine, and also very high : the major archives provide a summary of the number of individual items described within the annual CAAARA report, a not inconsiderable 23 million items in 2011-2012 (approximately 30% of the archives collections. However, this does not identify the records described at the aggregate, series, level).

The question of what is accessible online is more problematic, and highlights one of the problems with the report.  Should libraries include the works digitised by Google or the Hathi Trust? If including University libraries, should the digital theses repositories be included? Does it include access to works only available digitally,  including journals and reports? Should archives include the material digitised by Ancestry, Findmypast and the like? Although the report embraces innovation and connectivity, it does not seem to recognise the now very traditional ways in which libraries and archives engage with and make material accessible over the internet (whether broadband or via dialup).

The second part of the report looks at trends and innovations: this is something of a riff on the usual suspects, and would benefit from a more engaged understanding with the sector, and deeper research.  Trends include the increasing use of digital services, and particularly social media, based on a 2012 CSIRO study on megatrends, generally; the reduction in GLAM sector funding from government; environmental factors; the ageing population and globalisation.  Social justice issues such as access to information about ourselves, from family history, to Stolen Generations, forced adoptions and Royal Commissions into institutionalised child abuse are not raised.  Given the role of archives in ensuring civic rights and individual surety of identity, this is a critical gap. Curiously, though, section 4.1.2 of the report focuses on ‘Community welfare’.

The section on innovation and best practice reviews some of the better known activities in the digital sphere but neither engages with why they were successful, or what barriers might exist that may need to be overcome. Nor is the question of resourcing addressed.  Open access to collections is identified as a factor, with the Powerhouse’s use of Flickr provided as an example. The problem with the closing of Flickr Commons for several years, limiting the ability of collecting institutions to contribute in a cost effective manner is not discussed, nor is the State Library of Queensland release of 50,000 images to the Wiki commons. TROVE, of course, is mentioned, and its antecedents with Picture Australia and successful newspapers online project are identified, but the corresponding issues of copyright clearances and orphan works are not addressed, until one gets to section 3 – the ‘elephants in the room’.  The great Atlas of Living Australia is put up as a resource for geolocation of information about biodiversity data, but the issues of historic place names, questions of ease of integration with cataloguing tools, questions of uploadable datasets and size,  and even the availability of geolocatable information is missing (nor does the report mention, at this stage, the National Map data service http://nationalmap.nicta.com.au/). Citizen science, wikimedians in residence, third party metadata tagging and so on, all get a mention. Here the question of a cultural mindset among GLAM institutions would be a useful addition, in looking at the reasons why these apparently free and relatively simple to implement programs are so rare. The success of Google books in the US and UK is identified

Many North American and European libraries have collaborated in this initiative, however there are no Australian partners. As a result, many books about Australia and published in Australia are now only searchable in digital form from a copy held by an overseas library

In a digitally connected online environment, in which institutions are to become a melange, why is country of source an issue? Conversely, the Norwegian digitisation project is put up, but the question of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultural heritage (and the lack of funding for IATSIS and ‘language’ projects), which might benefit from improved access to culturally appropriate works is not addressed. From there we go to digital art collections, digital film and sound (Australian Sreen online and BBC creative archives, not to mention the BBC’s  digital public space), but not releases of public domain material on vimeo or youtube, to robots touring physical exhibits  and maker spaces.  Missing is a discussion about gamification, collections in Minecraft or Second Life, .scvngr, 4square or drones in the archives. Where too, are interactive videos, audio streaming, and Museum Dance Off?  The link to government initiatives at a policy level, rather than institutional level, is also missing.

Section 2.3 , ‘Relevant technology’, is more of the same.  Digitisation looks at the use of digital scanning in the digital humanities sphere, but does not look at the National Archives ongoing digitisation on demand program, and similar programs. Discovery points to the data visualisation undertaken by Mitch Whitelaw in the National Archives  as an Ian McLean researcher in 2008, but does not go further to look at how similar work has been adopted by the National Archives and Records Administration, working with the University of Texas, to work on digital archives approaches. Nor does it look at how that work is being used by researchers or the NAA itself. Common sense reasoning, analytics, and touch screens all get a look in, although the University of Sydney’s Heurist does not – http://heuristnetwork.org/background/, nor the long running Bright Sparcs project (now Encyclopaedia of Australian Science –  http://www.eoas.info/)and related programs at the University of Melbourne, or the work of IVEC in WA in supporting a range of archaeological and cultural heritage initiatives.  The role of the Australian Research Council in funding research and data use is not investigated, nor is the metadata aggregation of the Australian National Data Service or the CSIRO’s own engagement, via its library service, with managed research data repositories. While it could be said that space was an issue in the report, the same cannot be said for the number of links in the google site.

Section 3 refers to a workshop, based in Sydney, at which some of the ideas in the report were presented. Aimed at “leading edge practice in the sector’, digital technologies such as telepresence suites, virtual conferencing systems or even Skype would have provided an ideal opportunity to both walk and talk the walk and talk. During the workshop a number of ‘elephants’ – barriers to digital engagement – were identified, but few solutions seem to have been identified, other than that institutions needed to take a greater role in providing innovative solutions, to stop competing with each other and to undertake ‘mentoring’ of smaller , less able institutions. Easier said than done, especially in an environment where resourcing is clearly competitive, and the institutions themselves rely on legislation to authorise their activities.  One can be far more interpretative of legislation if one is not then also responsible for ensuring adherence to the letter and spirit of other laws.  Four key strategies were identified :

1) Making the public part of what we do – citizen archivists, tagging and collaboration (TROVE Newspapers online, the NAA arcHive, Carnamah’s Virtual Volunteers)

2) Becoming central to community well being (Find and Connect, Forced Adoptions, Founders and Survivors)

3) Beyond digitisation (GovHack? ), and

4) Developing non-government funding sources.

They also visited

several institutions that seem to house galleries, libraries, archives and museums under one roof, notably the Australian Institute for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies, the Australian War Memorial and the Museum of Australian Democracy…

noting that “the apparent boundaries between the four styles of institutions already seem more porous than one might think’. However, this is a common confusion over co-location, rather than convergence.  Housed in the one building, the various areas nevertheless display the common characteristics and professional concerns of the individual collection types.

Finally, the authors took these four strategies to specific discussants, and tried to identify some areas of commonality. From those discussions came 6 strategic initiatives:

1. Digitisation and access
2. Digital preservation
3. National approaches to rights
4. Skills and organisational change
5. Shared infrastructure
6. Trans-disciplinary collaboration, Digital Humanities and eResearch

Again, a very broad brush has been taken to these initiatives.  Digitisation and access looks at questions of support and shared expertise, suggesting that expertise and equipment could be shared, although how this latter could be done across the country is not worked through – does the equipment travel or the items? How would it be funded? Digital preservation noted the need for an urgent ‘coordinated, national, cross-sector approach to avoid losing access to historical digital materials’. The copyright section noted the responses to the recent Australian Law Reform Commission review, and identified the need for a ‘stronger and unified voice on rights in general’. No argument there! However,  management of orphan works, and moral rights for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, could be simply managed by a national, co-ordinated response.  The report again cites Tony Ageh and the BBC Digital public space, to which my response is,

It’s more complicated than you think


From there we go to education, and the need for new skills and reskilling. As a person working in the education space, I can assure we are keenly aware of the need for these skills, but also that you can’t train everyone to do everything, nor should you. Nor have we forgotten that our core skills require archivists and librarians to be “client centred’ or ‘service dominant’, whether in the digital or physical environment. The report does not articulate the ways in which the GLAM sector is not client centred, which would at least provide a way forward for the proposed changes.

Shared systems and infrastructure focused on the eResearch networks,such as ANDS and AARNet. It was suggested that use of AARNet would assist with cross institutional collaboration, including storage and dissemination. Certainly, I can see benefits for cross-sectorial collaboration, including telepresence communication and the like, but I’m not sure that the various archives or libraries actually fit AARNet’s remit. Worth exploring, though.

Similarly, the suggestion that we work more across disciplines and engage with users is one which I think most institutions and professions are open to.

Finally, the report recommends a National forum, along the lines of the National Digital Forum in NZ and an Innovation and Access Foundation.  With increasing restrictions on travel and training, the AARNet supported conferencing systems may be the best way of establishing the first.  A National Foundation, established as a clearing house for private sector donations across the GLAMR world, may be one way of ensuring that archives, for instance, move from being ‘the least visible’ part of the sector.

In conclusion, then, I find the report to be somewhat long on rhetoric and short on research. There are some good suggestions within the report that need to be refined and further developed.  However, it seems clear that GLAM insititutions are already working well within the digital sphere, and are at more risk from glib dismissals and underfunding, than from a lack of engagement with digital technologies. Two and a half stars from me.

From Wikipedia to our libraries




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Archivist, historian, avid reader

2 thoughts on “‘Digital dinosaurs’: a response”

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