CSIRO report: libraries, museums lagging in digitisation

By David Donaldson

September 16, 2014

Digital innovation is lagging in Australia’s cultural public sector such as libraries and museums, according to a new CSIRO report released today.

The report — An Innovation Study: Challenges and Opportunities for Australia’s Galleries, Libraries, Archives and Museums — found most organisations in the GLAM sector — galleries, libraries, archives and museums — had begun a process of digitising their vast collections of the nation’s cultural artefacts and records, but few had completed the process. The lack of substantive progress was, for the time being, robbing the public of access to these materials when they are not physically on display.

CSIRO’s acting director of digital productivity flagship, Dr Michael Bruenig, said in a statement that only few organisations in the sector have kept pace with newer technologies embraced by the public they serve. Although there were some notable examples of excellence and innovation in Australia where organisations have put digital services at their core, “rather than as an add-on activity”:

“For example, it is now possible to visit the National Museum virtually via a guided robot. This innovation means school students in regional Australia are able explore exhibits and engage with the museum, when they otherwise would not have the opportunity to.”

While the study identified many examples of innovative practice from Australian organisations, it added that:

“Australian initiatives tend to be isolated, episodic and difficult to sustain in the long term. There were also areas where Australia is trailing international best practice, specifically concerning the digitisation and access to artworks, books and audio-visual collections, most of which require new approaches to managing copyright and other clearances.”

According to Bruenig, Australia’s slow progress in this area means we risk losing public visibility of cultural and heritage material of significance:

“The way Australia’s collections are managed varies considerably. Some progressive institutions have collections that are fully digitised and can be accessed virtually over the web. However unfortunately some of Australia’s collections are still managed through log books and card indices.”

To take full advantage of digital technology, the report recommendations organisations adopt some new approaches:

  • Shifting to open access models and greater collaboration with the public;
  • Exploring new approaches to copyright management that stimulates creativity and supports creators;
  • Sharing skills, standards and approaches to digitisation building on aggregation initiatives like the National Library of Australia’s Trovethe Atlas of Living Australia and Linked Open Data;
  • Standardising preservation of ‘born digital’ material to avoid losing access to digital heritage; and
  • Sharing capability, storage and networks between organisations in the sector, exploiting the potential of AARNet and the NBN for collection and collaboration.

The authors also suggest the employing a “creative reuse” approach to what can be a huge workload, arguing that cultural organisations should:

“Shift the conversation from the difficulties of digitisation to possibilities of creative reuse. Much of the sector is caught between the massive scale of the collections and the expense of digitisation, on the one hand, and the varied difficulties around copyright, moral rights, cultural rights and orphan works on the other. Many participants perceived the need to transition from a push to a pull model where publics are engaged from the beginning and help pull through digitised content based on specific needs, which shapes the form of digitisation and allows for creative reuse.”

The cultural public sector currently spends approximately $2.5 billion, around 80% of which is provided by local, state and federal governments. The combined collections contain over 100 million objects, including natural and human-crafted objects, records, books, artworks, and recordings, but excluding archive material. However, at any given time, only 30% of it is available to the public — around 5% on-display and 25% via digital channels.

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