At last fall’s MCN conference, and again at Museums on the Web this spring, I spoke about work that the Jewish Women’s Archive is doing to set up its own repository using open source software. The basic repository we built uses Fedora with the lightest interface imaginable (ActiveFedora)–all we could afford on our own–and is hosted by Amazon’s Web Services–the least expensive hosting option we could conceive. It has worked well for us so far, although we are really ready to figure out the next steps.
We also live in current economic reality. We have done our bit to convince IMLS and NEH that we should spearhead an effort to develop this further, but the odds of a small Archive, even with our technical vision and ability getting such a grant were not high. It is time to focus on a better approach, which, child of the Sixties that I be, is obviously to network with other Small Archives and come up with a collective strategy.
Why Small Archives, and why a collective strategy? First, I believe that Small Archives–organizations like my own and many even smaller, which lack software development expertise and staff–represent the long tail of cultural heritage. If we were to focus just on the collections at major institutions–large universities, museums, etc., we would lose the majority of the world’s cultural heritage right there. And we are losing it. Small Archives and other small cultural heritage organizations are seeing film stock degenerate, images fade, single el cheapo hard disks and even multiple “archive quality” CD-ROMs fail, and are losing even basic physical assets at the usual rate: theft, fire, inadequate funds for environmental preservation … it all takes it’s toll.
When I first started writing about Small Archives, I thought of the plethora of (mostly) small organizations who make up the Massachusetts Studies Network. As often happens, I had not begun to think through the implications. Recent conversations by email with Patricia Liebetrau have brought to light a South African organization–DISA: Digital Innovation South Africa which has been digitising, as a funded project, South African cultural heritage and socio-political history for the past 10 years. During this time they have done extensive training and capacity building in South Africa and neighbouring countries. The same issues always arise – lack of technical capacity to install and customise open source content management solutions and lack of skills know-how for the creation of metadata, workflows and quality control etc. They have been discussing the need for a digital-library-in-a-box solution for unpacking and use in these organisations and institutions.
So, it isn’t just the mom and pop cultural heritage organization in upper New England facing loss of cultural heritage artifacts and information.
The solution, I believe, is both to provide simpler technical solutions–to make installing Fedora usefully as easy as installing Joomla or WordPress. It also has to involve providing hosted solutions, as well. Not every organization can maintain its own installation, and there is no reason why duplicating common infrastructure should be a necessary part of any organization’s mission.
Towards that end, Thorny Staples of Fedora Commons, and New York consultant Howard Goldstein and I have grandiosely founded the Small Archives Solution Community as the latest community project at Fedora Commons. We call it the “Small Archives” solution community, but of course, what we really mean is the mouthful of small cultural heritage organizations–museums, libraries, and archives–who are faced with similar problems–a burning need to preserve a specific, indispensible part of the world’s cultural heritage–and no budget with which to reinvent, or to sustain, new wheels.
We have already found a few fellow travelers at the above-mentioned conferences (and through friends!). If this sounds like your organization, and you’d like to discuss it more, email me, or comment on this post. I sense a grant proposal, and a damn important project in the offing.
More, as it happens….