Monday, 17 November 2014

It's not all GLAMorous

In September, the Australian Centre for Broadband Innovation, CSIRO and the Smart Services Co-operative Research Centre investigated innovation in Australia's GLAM sector - Galleries, Libraries, Archives and Museums. The resulting paper is welcome and useful for providing avenues of strategic thinking to all of Australia's heritage collecting institutions.

But some entities are ignored. Despite acknowledging the importance of volunteers, historical societies, which are a source of volunteers for local museums and have a significant stake in the outcomes proposed by the discussion paper, are overlooked.

Historical societies operate in the interstices between the large cultural heritage institutions, and they often supply the workforce necessary to keep small museums and other cultural agencies operating. They engage with our history, and encourage their local communities to do so, on a weekly basis.

I would argue that they are a critical part of the GLAM sector, for two key reasons. Firstly, historical societies collate local knowledge out of the distributed resources held by libraries, archives and museums, while waiting for those larger services to aggregate content into generous services like Trove. Volunteers contribute personal resources, mainly time but also skills previously attained in the workforce, to form local collections of knowledge useful to current and previous residents, shire councils, students and historians. On this scale, the Societies are achieving what the CSIRO paper recommends - they are already "central to community wellbeing."

Secondly, historical societies care for the record of the built environment. They are 'on the ground', able to witness, advocate against and document our disappearing heritage as it is dismantled - brick, iron, stone, soil, timber, glass and even concrete. 

Recently dismantled historic crane at Dry Dock, South Tweed Heads, TH10-20
Recently dismantled historic crane at Dry Dock, South Tweed Heads, TH10-20

Homes, businesses, government offices, and industries are often unique, especially for places not in the metropoli, and therefore have a critical need to be curated and disclosed. A local museum is a useful vehicle for this purpose, but they are under threat themselves. This evidentiary knowledge of heritage is really the core strength and offering of historical societies, as well-managed local studies collections do not seem to be the norm.

The paper excludes university libraries although they do curate research which has public appeal. Trove steps into the breach here - its liberal inclusion guidelines mean that Trove is an excellent starting point for finding elusive special collections, no matter which campus they are tucked away on. Libraries such that at the University of Melbourne are helping to relieve the major digitisation effort still to be completed: there is a ".. need to prioritise digitisation initiatives according to end-user needs and preservation urgency as the task is massive... some organisations have digitised many things but there are many that will not be in the near future, things that should be digitised and are not being addressed..." [p.16]

Similarly Trove made a strategic choice to include links to the out-of-copyright Australian monographs digitised by Open Library and the HathiTrust - global partnerships which make content more accessible, no matter its country of origin. The wealth of material is extraordinarily beneficial for use as part of Australia's "intellectual infrastructure" [Schwirtlich, p.22]

Trove only goes so far. It does not provide digital access to many town newspapers which are bread-and-butter content for local history. Historical societies help to fill the gap, they too are part of the intellectual infrastructure of Australia - it's not just the GLAMs. But most lack digital infrastructure. To proceed to digital innovation, there is an ineluctable need for recognition.

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