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#AskAConservator: digitizing collections

For #AskAConservator day, Marusia asks:

We are a small community Museum with about 2000 artifacts, mainly textiles. We have an accession number system that we share with sister Museums and is presently on paper files. We want to digitize our collection and are looking for an affordable solution. Can you offer some suggestions? Primarily we want a collections database system and if we can afford it, as a long term project, to make the collection available on line. We would like to do the first step in a manner that would lead to the second step so that we don’t have to redo for example photography.

Carmen Li says: Thanks for submitting this question! It's a multilayered one, and it falls somewhat outside the role of conservators. In a museum setting, typically conservators primarily deal with preservation issues, while collections managers handle documentation issues such as database management. On a daily basis, conservators and collections managers work very closely together to maintain high standards of collections care. I consulted a colleague, collections manager Erin McDonald, regarding your question.

Erin's response:

Choosing to move your collection documentation to a digital collections management system, or database, is an important step toward improving access to historic collections. There are a wide variety of systems available in today’s market; a good first step is to identify your needs. For a small, community-based museum, a system may not need to be as robust as one for a larger institution. An excellent starting place is available through the Canadian Heritage Information Network, starting with an institutional questionnaire, and the Collection Management System Criteria Checklist allows for a more detailed analysis of your collection needs.

Once you have identified the needs of your organization and collection, it is time to research available systems. One place to start is by reaching out to colleagues in similar sized museums to find out which system they are using, and if they are satisfied. With your needs in mind, you can ask about the strengths and weaknesses of a system, how labour- and technology-intensive a system is, and the ongoing cost of ownership. For even more information, resources are available at to assist you in identifying vendors and their products.

Having clear, well-documented policies on what data is collected and why, and how data is used are important starting points, as they allow you to apply a consistent rationale to your dataset. Once a system is in place, a critical step will be setting a data standard, to ensure that each field in your database accepts only “clean”, and accurate data. Having inaccurate, inconsistent, incomplete, or erroneous data will hinder your ability to effectively access information about your collection on demand, no matter how good the application is.

Be prepared for ongoing maintenance costs for any digital technology, and hosting costs if the desired outcome is a searchable online collection database. Keep in mind that freeware (software available without a licence fee) may appear cost-effective, but usually require technical resources to adapt existing tools to your needs. Cost considerations are especially important for organizations with fixed and small budgets. There is no one-size-fits-all solution for collections management systems, and usually a system will require some configuration to suit you organization and collection-type.