Technology: Responses and Discussions


Summary of Paper

Ms. Kenney summarized her paper and highlighted issues she wished to focus on in the discussion. She began by conceding that institutions are not ready for the transformation she called for-from working on digital projects to a mainstreaming of digitization programs. Too many institutions still view their digital files as surrogates, rather than as institutional assets, and are not prepared to support them as such. While funds for conversion may be easy to procure, funds to maintain these assets over time are nearly impossible to secure. This may be in part because of the uncertainties that characterize this period of transition: the cost savings that would argue for making digital services a core service of these institutions have not yet been realized; infrastructure problems have not been addressed; and staff are apprehensive about changes in jobs and usage patterns. Institutions should be focusing on value over the long term, especially the value that accrues to digital objects as more related materials from other institutions come online. Because of the nature of the Web, any one institution’s digital collections are enhanced by-or compete with-those of others. Cultural institutions should now devote resources to maintaining digital resources on a secure financial, technical, and institutional base, and to engendering trust of digital formats among users.


  • Clifford Lynch, Coalition for Networked Information
  • José-Marie Griffiths, University of Michigan
  • Alan Newman, Art Institute of Chicago

There is a tendency to underestimate the importance of metadata costs, which can be half the total expenditure for a digitization project. Whereas we can reasonably expect the costs of conversion to go down over time as aspects of the processes are automated, we cannot expect the cost of creating metadata to decline. Moreover, we do not yet have a firm sense of what types of metadata are necessary. The creation of appropriate metadata depends on anticipating needs of the user. Do we really understand very much about our users? Do users want what libraries are offering-large collections of mainly unmediated and uninterpreted digital objects? Or do they want what museums traditionally offer-interpreted objects in a context that tells a story? We need to pay more attention to identifying our audiences and to developing technological responses suited to their needs.

Institutions should be preparing to deal with the larger implications of digital collections sustained over time. These include the responsibility to provide computer security and user authentication; the ongoing management of intellectual property rights in communities that comprise creators, publisher/distributors, and users; and the need to develop digital collections based on a business plan. A critical issue for museums and libraries is to determine what value is to be added through digitization and to base selection decisions upon that determination. This involves both a purposeful collection selection process for digitization and a reinforcement, in the finished product, of the crucial institutional brand recognition elements of reliability, quality, and trust. Given that libraries and museums are custodians of our culture’s memory, it is their collective responsibility to grapple with these issues sooner rather than later.

The matter of selection-for whom and why-is crucial in developing a business plan, since every pixel carries a price. Another way of looking at the trade-offs that technology forces on institutions is to recall the classic triangulation formula-cost is quality times quantity-and remember the need to be practical when designing digitization programs. In theory, we should be responding to consumer demands, but how do we do that in (virtual) reality? Are color and scale standards suitable for the consumer market also sufficient for the more demanding work of art historians? If not, which standard should a museum choose? How can museums develop technical and intellectual guidelines that will anticipate the changes in scholarship and connoisseurship over time? Perhaps things such as image resolution and scale, which can be complex and expensive when aiming for the highest-possible quality, could be adjusted to suit the character of materials and their anticipated use. For example, paintings may dictate higher resolution capture than a numismatic collection. Cost-recovery schemes could reflect the same variations, with low-resolution images distributed free of charge and high-resolution images offered through a license fee. Finally, we should not let short-term concerns about delivery dominate thinking about how to digitize and at what level of quality. The pace of change at the delivery end, like so many other things, is beyond our control, but we must pay attention to the long-term implications of our present-day choices. We should be developing guidelines for minimal levels of digital capture at the same time that we are monitoring the different type of access that our users are demanding.

Discussion of Technology


Academic librarians argued that cost recovery is becoming an imperative and that collaboration is touted as one way of cutting costs. Economies of scale provide one of the strongest motivations for collaboration. The librarians conceded that economies of scale have yet to be realized but asserted that the desire to avoid duplication is a strong factor in encouraging institutional cooperation. Looking at the example of off-site storage to control the costs of traditional book access, they proposed that a similar model could be used to control costs of storage and retrieval of digital data. Academic librarians also expressed concern about whether society will continue to transfer resources to digitization, especially since such efforts remain a cottage industry. There is not yet a mass market for the collections being offered; consequently, cost recovery is difficult.

Doubts linger about compelling incentives for collaborating. If information is increasingly seen as a commodity in the so-called knowledge economy, and if libraries are being urged to view digitized cultural property as an institutional asset, why should institutions collaborate? Moreover, technology has given users a sense of entitlement, even though there is no public recognition of the real costs of digital services. Large academic libraries that are used to collecting as comprehensively as they can in areas in which they declare an interest must decide whether to stop acquiring as many print items in order to digitize their existing collections and acquire new ones in electronic form only. Digitization is at risk of becoming yet another unfunded mandate.

Museum administrators were similarly divided on the issue of controlling the costs of digitization. Art museum managers were quick to claim AMICO as a signal success among art museums. With more than 50 members, AMICO provides a forum for museums to agree on standards for digitization and distribution of digital images, an achievement in and of itself. Art museum managers were also generally sanguine about the prospects for generating revenue and suggested user fees or graduated license fees for different levels of image quality as a way to recover costs.

History museum administrators were less optimistic that these approaches would prove satisfactory. They contended that collaborative databases such as AMICO and JSTOR are not generating new revenue, and that an assessment of the real costs of digitization must include the costs of not doing the things that institutions used to do. Revenue might have to be secured in a completely different way, such as taking advantage of the institution’s reputation to sell advertising.

The digital environment is forcing both museums and libraries to think of themselves as businesses, something in which museums have more experience than libraries. (A perfect example of this dichotomy of models is the fact that the Chicago Historical Society charges a fee to visitors to exhibitions; access to its research collections, however, is free.) One promising solution to obviate the wasteful cottage-industry model that cultural institutions are all separately pursuing is collaborative marketing of resources and services. Museums may have more experience than most libraries with building market demand for their services, and libraries may have more understanding of the infrastructure needed to sustain digital programs. However, between the two types of institutions, the real costs of delivering digital products and services remain a daunting unknown. Perhaps most troublesome of all for mission-driven institutions is the recognition that museums and libraries must stop doing certain things in order to scale up their digital programs. There was a shared concern that these institutions cannot afford to let their missions compete with those of commercial endeavors such as publishers, entertainment conglomerates, online image archives, e-book services, and so forth.

Access and Control

Museums and libraries have traditionally been containers of information-able to control access to and use of their collections because of the constraints of time and place upon those who wished to use or study the physical objects contained in their collections. But museums and libraries do not contain their Web-accessible collections, and they cannot use traditional methods to control access to them or the ways in which they are used. People will come to these collections on the Web when and where they wish (though technology does allow access to sites be managed). In many ways, the Web is bringing museums and libraries closer together, at least in the minds of their virtual audiences, because their collections inhabit the same space now: cyberspace. In other ways, this meeting of library and museums is an extension of trends already present for other reasons. The recent experience of public libraries, especially those in major metropolitan areas, is that libraries are increasingly becoming museum-like; that is, they are becoming a central gathering place for people who are in search of a variety of activities and services. Museums are also places where people have experiences with objects that can be esthetic, emotional, or intellectual. The direct encounter with art cannot be replicated or replaced. Access to art differs from access to information; however, to the extent that both types of institutions are learning environments, both face the challenge of creating that environment online.