Business IT can help culture vultures digitise

The territory of the archivist and the IT function of a commercial company may seem worlds apart, but business IT could have much to offer those wanting to preserve New Zealand's historical information and heritage in digital form.

The territory of the archivist and the IT function of a commercial company may seem worlds apart, but business IT could have much to offer those wanting to preserve New Zealand’s historical information and heritage in digital form.

Business IT people have experience in inter-organisational collaboration and shared operability, areas that the world of museums and libraries are increasingly having to face as they seek to make their collections available internationally through digital media.

Business has an eye to return on investment and economy of long-term cost of ownership, says UK information management specialist Paul Miller. Too often, projects in digitising historically valuable material rely on up-front government grants. The conservationists are apt to rush out and start up a large number of digitalisation projects, and find it hard to keep the exercise funded for the long term, he says. Going the other way, much of the material a business is accumulating in its digital databases now could be useful to those looking back from the future, in the form of organisational knowledge.

Miller is the interoperability specialist in the UKOLN (UK Online) initiative in digital information management for library and cultural heritage communities. He spoke at the National Digital Forum, an event devoted to preserving and making available historical material, with the National Library as a driving force. Collaboration in the area of digitisation will avoid duplication, enable specialist expertise to be shared and provide “a strong national platform for the negotiation of funding”, says a statement from the National Library.

A survey of digitisation in New Zealand, completed for the conference, finds extensive use of the technique both in libraries and museums and within the more commercially oriented functions of central and local government, where it is seen as a matter of “document management” with an eye to the bottom line. In many ways, local and central government is ahead of the cultural practitioners. Sixty percent of local and regional authorities responding to a survey are already digitising, and the number will increase to 83% over the next two years, says the report.

Standards for retrieving and searching digital material are inconsistent, the report says, particularly where meta data (the data which describes documents and where to find them) is concerned. Most digital data is presented in HTML, with little use of XML, which would open the data to more flexible use.

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