Online Photo Collections

Why are museums and historical societies so stingy with their photo collections? This is something I’ve always wondered. You’ve got an organization that’s been created for the public good, like a museum, and they have this fantastic resource, like a collection of historic photos, that could easily be put on the web to enrich the community, but instead they hold onto it. They control access, they charge fees, they keep everything hidden and away from public view, and they only let these pictures be seen as special “exhibitions” that run for a limited time. Then the photos go back into the dark where nobody can see them except for the chosen few. Why do they do this?

The latest thing to prompt this question is an RGJ article on an exhibition at the Nevada Historical Society featuring photos from the construction of the Central Pacific Railroad over the Sierra. Sounds like a great exhibit:

Along with dozens of historic photos that track the building of the Central Pacific from Sacramento, across Nevada and into Utah where it met the westbound-building of the Union Pacific at Promontory Summit, the exhibit includes maps of suggested routes for the railroad, artwork, artifacts from work on the railway and newspaper stories of the era.

Now, except for the artifacts part of that, this entire exhibit sounds like it could easily be put online. Grow your audience from hundreds to thousands, or hundreds of thousands. Instead of having it “run through Dec. 14” because you have limited space in your exhibition hall, put it online where it can be permanent. But do they do this? No. It’s like they deliberately want to limit the reach of this exhibit, to share it with as few people as possible. They want the control, they like being the keepers. That’s the only explanation I can come up with.

And it’s not just this one exhibit. Museums all across the country have huge collections of photos and artwork that they could put online. Some of them do a pretty good job. Just search Google for historic photo collection and you’ll get five million hits. But if you go in close and study the results, you’ll see that these are only partial collections. Like they’ll have a few dozen images online, and if you’re lucky some kind of catalog of the rest. Our local museum, the Nevada State Museum here in Carson City, has none of this. Neither does the Nevada State Library and Archives. The afore-mentioned Nevada Historical Society has a website so out-of-date that it doesn’t even mention this new Central Pacific exhibit. The only ones doing it right locally are the University of Nevada and their growing number of “Digital Collections“. Maybe the other museums and libraries in the area need to catch a clue from them.

Some of the resistance might come from the fact that these photo collections are a revenue stream for museums and other organizations right now, and they don’t want to cut that off. That’s valid, but short-sighted. Are these collections being maintained for the good of the public, or as a way to raise money for the museum? And which of those two options is better for society? You can still charge for prints, anyway.

More resistance might come from them thinking the costs of putting the pictures online is too high. And that comes from not understanding the web. Most of the organizations I’ve found online that “get it” are using software called ContentDM, which from what I can tell looks like a very good CMS for publishing photos. The software isn’t free, but I can’t imagine it breaking a museum’s budget. And if you don’t want to shell out for a professional solution, find some volunteer or staff member that knows PHP and get them to write the thing. Or bring someone from the community that has the skills onto the project as a consultant. Photo galleries are not hard things to program; I’ve done it myself, so you know it’s not difficult. And as far as hosting? Web hosting is cheap and getting cheaper every day. Maybe there are control freaks in the State IT department that balk at you running PHP or using outside hosting? Tell them to stuff it and remind them that you’re their boss, not the other way around. Or even use Flickr and poach off of Yahoo!’s generosity.

The obstacles are there, but they’re not insurmountable. More and more stuff is moving onto the web, the entire of human experience that can be transmitted digitally, text pictures and video, is moving onto the web. These museums, libraries, and historical societies need to get with it and realize that the transformation is happening. People don’t want to have to visit the museum in order to visit the museum, you know? If they want to do it from home, if they want to do it from their office or from a coffee shop or from a hotel when they’re on vacation, let them do it!

This is part of the motivation behind me wanting to build my own historical photo collection of Carson City and the surrounding areas, as a workaround for the state agencies that are dragging their feet. Some anonymous person out there has been great at submitting pictures to the Around Carson Photo Database, but one day soon I hope to start on a separate collection, a special site just for historic pictures, and dump in all the pictures I’ve gathered from all my different sources, and let you dump any pictures you might have, and maybe we can show them how to do it right and spur them to get off their butts to do it even better.

That’s how the grassroots works. One blade at a time.

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