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Collections: Responses and Discussion


Summary of Papers

In the oral summary of her paper, Ms. Smith emphasized the differences between digital content on the Web and traditional library materials. Digital objects have no analog in the analog world. Digitization for the Web is in many respects like publishing: it requires selection, editorial judgment, cataloging, and metadata. These decisions are presenting libraries with new questions. In the conventional reading room, no one was denied access to a book because it was under copyright, yet current copyright law makes it impossible for libraries to fulfill their traditional role as providers of access to all information. Mr. Reilly emphasized that technology is enabling museums to disseminate their collections more widely and to larger audiences. In this sense, museums are becoming more library-like. A new set of skills is being demanded of museum staffs in order to create and manage the digital environment; however, in the end, it is still a question whether the product is larger than the sum of its parts.


  • Christine Steiner, Esq.
  • Leila Kinney, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
  • Francis X. Blouin, Bentley Historical Library, University of Michigan

Copyright issues are eroding the traditional boundaries between creators, managers, and users. Much in the copyright regime that was possible in part due to the slow pace of creating and disseminating knowledge is gone for good in the fast-changing digital world. The court interpretations have shifted in favor of the copyright holders, and the number of materials in the public domain is shrinking. Nevertheless, it is important to remember that the value-added aspects of library and museum work are copyright protected.

Scholars are hoping that the Web will make teaching and research easier and more productive. Why can’t museums help overcome growing barriers to research and publishing in art by becoming more like libraries and making their collections available to a broader audience? Libraries present materials in ways that are good for pedagogy and scholarship, with as little interpretation as possible, so that users can find their own meanings. Museums have been loath to present their collections on the Web without full interpretation, yet they have not drawn on research by faculty and students who have expertise about museum objects. Doing so would increase the density and pedagogical depth of museum sites on the Web.

While museum and library collections may serve distinct purposes in the analog world, in the digital we are entering a slow, incremental process of transformation of all cultural resources. How can museums and libraries maintain the institutional context of the digitized items on their Web sites? Digital collections exist outside the confines of museum and library buildings, whose very architecture is evocative and creates a context for understanding the origins and uses of the items they house. How much of our current decisions about digitization are being shaped by past experience and the traditional organization of information? Must we continue to define content in terms of institutional boundaries and proprietary control? Will the time come when the Web is the institution and we are all artifacts of an age gone by?

Discussion of Collections

The complex and interrelated issues of selecting and editing collection content for digitization, and related concerns about intellectual property and rights holders, provoked the most sustained discussion of the conference.


In meeting the challenge to mount significant portions of their holdings, museums are stymied by the limited amount of information on the objects in their collections and by the difficulty of creating the documentation necessary to digitize these objects. Several approaches were suggested to accelerate the processing, cataloging, and creation of metadata for collections. For example, the model of engineering schools, in which teams of students are assigned to evaluate and describe a collection or group of materials as an academic project, could be adopted. While this approach seems particularly well suited to the interactive Web, the implications would be that museums would cede full responsibility for every identification or interpretation of an object. The trade-offs between increased access and authoritative information, however clear, remain difficult to resolve.

There was discussion about the degree to which museums and libraries should prepare their digital objects for consumption on the Web by creating contextual information. The assumption that libraries present materials on the Web that are uninterpreted or unmediated and that museums place objects in a context does not hold up under scrutiny. The very act of putting materials up on the Web constitutes selection and interpretation. Some warned that a naïve public might perceive the digital selection as a complete truth rather than an interpretation. History museum administrators suggested that what is needed on cultural sites is a clear identification of selection criteria and the underlying assumptions and approaches to the material. The Web does not provide the user a means of seeing the infrastructure of selection or description, or the original context or provenance of items. Some argued that, on the Web, the public wants and will accept multiple voices and interpretations as long as they are attributed to a source. As an analogy, the public understands that a filmmaker has a point of view and accepts this as a convention of story telling. Since institutions have no control over the use of digital content, they have no choice but to try to understand and react to the patterns of use of those visiting their Web sites and should bear the responsibility of making institutional choices clear.

Art museum administrators concentrated on how digital content is to be shaped within an institution. A focused dialogue between curators, the traditional controllers of interpretation, and professionals within education departments of museums should result in a greater diversity of views to which Web users may respond. The Web, with its democratizing technology that invites interaction and multiple viewpoints, is highlighting the tension between the curatorial and educational departments in many art museums. On the other hand, there is already a difference between the exhibition narrative and the exhibition catalog, in which the material is presented with much fuller interpretation and argument. The same differences in level of interpretation can be maintained on the Web, where the presentation of digital surrogates of objects can be accompanied by a variety of interpretations for which the author is clearly identified. The Web makes it possible for the museum to be a place where wider points of view are welcome without necessarily making the museum responsible for what is said.

While acknowledging that all scholarship depends on selection of the primary source to be preserved and made accessible in libraries and archives, academic librarians expressed great concern about any approach to digitization that would edit or bowdlerize the full content of the original collection. Scholars select items within a collection to mount and argue an interpretation of the facts, analogous to the way in which museum curators select materials to tell a story in an exhibition. Libraries need to recognize that in putting materials on the Web, they are creating a collection that others will use to tell stories that are different than the ones that scholars put together. Recent trends in scholarship and teaching show that visual resources are an increasingly important source of information. It is thus all the more important that images be fully identified. Also essential are an explanation of the relationship the objects on the Web have to other objects in the same collection and a description of why they were chosen. As educational institutions have long understood, material cannot be presented without an appropriate context. In any event, the Web will always have limitations as place of scholarship because the nature of some research material renders them inappropriate for Web dissemination. Consider the example of a bomb recipe found in the Chicago Historical Society’s Haymarket collection. An archivist argued that comprehensive digitization should mean including everything in a collection; items considered objectionable, such as that explosive recipe, should not be silently eliminated. But does such a recipe really belong on the Web? A history museum administrator countered that instructions for making a bomb do not belong in a story being told by that project, although they belong in the collection that contains them.

Intellectual Property

Art museum administrators maintained that their institutions are effectively managing intellectual property issues by recognizing the significance of copyright and engaging in direct negotiations with artists and copyright holders, even though these are sometimes difficult. They are also entering consortial agreements such as AMICO, which provides images for nonprofit use. Art museums can also control the distribution of digital images of their collections by using sur-prints within images or by adding value to a digital image and then melding the image and added context together to produce the originality required for copyright.

While conceding that art museums in general have been much more aggressive than history museums in dealing with intellectual property issues, history museum administrators expressed concern about how unprepared many museums are for addressing the problem. Many museums are very naïve about violation of copyright on the Web; they put up digital images for circulation without negotiating full rights for the material. Institutions that are conscientious about property rights are severely constrained in creating virtual exhibitions on the Web.

Librarians have traditionally been able to control access to their holdings and apprise users of their obligations to respect copyright requirements. The digital environment, however, is threatening these traditional barriers to improper access and use. Library databases can be restricted to authorized users. The real concern of libraries now is in determining what is in the public domain, since once a text is put up on the Web, it is completely out of the library’s control. A search for rights holders can be time-consuming and fruitless, especially for performances.

In the end, digital copyright issues put museums and libraries in the same situation. Museums are in direct competition with the copyright holder or Web user, who can download images and build a site overnight. Consequently, they have no more control over their digitized collections on the Web than do libraries.


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