Thursday, 5 February 2015

I can see Port clearly now

For a week in November, I had the privilege of untrammelled access to the Photograph Collection of the Port Macquarie Historical Society. It is extensive - more than 20,000 photographs, albums, artworks and postcards ranging from the 19th to the 21st century - and distinctive, supported by a donation of contemporary images by the Port Macquarie News

President of the Society and Museum Director, Debbie Sommers, invited me to examine the collection with a curatorial perspective and advise on a future pathway for this unparalleled documentary record.

"I can see clearly now the rain is gone"

Historical Society volunteers work very hard to collect, preserve and share their photographic collections. Collection management was often established on a shoestring. As Port Macquarie Historical Society recognised, the key is to make small changes by checking larger agencies' best practices and standards, then applying them as resources allow.

"I can see all obstacles in my way"

Metadata could be classed as an obstacle, but standard solutions have been developed by librarians and archivists for decades.The Port Macquarie photographs (printed), art, and images (digital) have some metadata which is mostly accessible only when visiting the Museum.
My first foray into exposing image metadata collaboratively, in the service known as PictureAustralia, was a rigorous training ground for understanding what is needed for people to discover quintessential images of Australiana. The Port Macquarie collection is no exception, the currently modest amount of valuable metadata can be extended to improve its reach.

There is no shortcut to augmenting metadata. Socks and brassieres could be recorded as sox and bras, but both sets of spellings often need to be recorded if an image is to have the widest possible chance of discovery. Similarly, abbreviations are an anathema for future discovery.

Once made though, the investment repays over and over, as metadata is able to be shared with online offerings including the Society's own website, social media outlets such as Twitter, and inter/national discovery services such as Flickr and Trove

Distinctive, tailored metadata also differentiates curated images from the mass of minimalist descriptions online. And yes, you will want to find yourself in the school photo 30 years down the track.

"Gone are the dark clouds that had me blind"

Metadata choice may restrict the system chosen to support it but the reverse is also true. For example, a bespoke solution for museum artefacts can be expensive, but is it more so than stuffing bras and sox into your sock drawer together and forever having to maintain them that way? This is a dilemma often faced by a conjoined museum/historical society management team: which platform to choose for exposing metadata online as well as for  managing a collection.

The chosen system must take advantage of the metadata for restoration, care, discovery, purchase and publication. Such systems exist now, but did not when photographic collections were first mooted.

"Look all around there's nothing but blue skies"

Christina Fahy PMHS #2057

Under the stewardship of the Port Macquarie Historical Society Collections/Archives/Records Sub-Committee - Tony Dawson, Lorraine Lyne, Clive Smith, and Debbie Sommers - there is the necessary commitment to improving access to and use of this unique collection.

We will all be beneficiaries. 

"It's gonna be a bright (bright), bright (bright) Sun-Shiny day"

Acknowledgement: with thanks to Johnny Nash and his song "I Can See Clearly Now"

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