Putnam County Museum

Putnam County Museum, History and Today

The Putnam County Museum, located in Greencastle, Indiana, was founded in 2003 with the mission to “collect, preserve, and interpret the natural, historical and cultural heritage of the county” (putnamcountymuseum.org). The museum was developed out of the need for the local historical society to have a safe steward for the artifacts they had collected. After a debate over the likely permanent location of the building, it is currently housed in a converted box store on the main highway through town. Today, the museum is run by an executive team of four officers, a board of seven members, an executive director, and an executive assistant. As it is a non-profit entity with few staff, the museum relies on a steady stream of volunteers from the surrounding communities, including the local liberal arts college. (Full disclosure: I was a routine volunteer working with collections and outreach for the museum for a year and a half, from early 2016-mid 2017.)


Digital Records Today

Scope and Management

To build any and all of their collections, the museum relies on gift donations from those associated with the community. Their history also provides for a wide range of technologies, as their holdings include those collected by the historical society and those collected by the museum over fifteen years. Because of this, the museum holds a wide variety of digital materials. The majority of the physical digital holdings at the museum include: voice recordings on wire, reel to reel tapes, cassette tapes, 8mm film reels, home videos on VHS and transferred to CD, transparent slides, and mp3 audio recordings. Additionally, there are scans of other physical objects in mostly PDF and JPEG formats.

Currently, the original forms of digital material are assigned accession numbers, preserved, and paperwork is secured to record the provenance of the object and its condition. These numbers are then entered into the museum’s database, Past Perfect. The object is stored on a shelf, in a drawer, or in a box. The scans are stored on an external drive devoted to scans. While the object is accessioned into Past Perfect, the scans are not accessioned at all. If these scans are not used shortly after creation, there is a likelihood that these will be nearly impossible to find. The scanner on site gives files a scanned-on date as a title; if the timeframe of the scanning is unsure, it can take a significant amount of time to locate. There is a recognition that there needs to be a practice in place to more quickly and thoroughly handle these files. Additionally, there are fewer scans than what the staff would like to have.


Staff Perceptions

Staff has, and continues to, struggled with the ideal workload and the limits of a small staff and heavy reliance on volunteers. Ideally, the museum would be able to better ensure that their digital holdings are accessible to interested parties. Several years ago, staff attempted to train volunteers to transcribe some of their vulnerable digital records. However, as is common amongst volunteer-reliant organizations, those volunteers who had the most time to give to the museum were the same volunteers who were computer-hesitant.

This contributes to a near-standstill of progress with their digital content. They do not share their digital content with other local organizations or social media. Despite efforts to transcribe audio recordings, the majority of their digital objects have not been transcribed. Additionally, due to the wide array of media types, there is often no reliable playback on site; if someone wanted to access the records, they may have to find a way to access the content on their own. Further, nothing is currently backed up to another form of media.


Hopeful Collecting and Potential Futures

There are two points of hope and bright spots for the museum’s potential. There have been movements to transcribe these materials. Staff applied for a grant to afford a transcription service – it was unfortunately denied. There have been some sporadic successes with training volunteers (mostly college students) to transcribe material a few hours a week. However, as college students tend to do, their schedules vary with their course load. Their proximity to a college allows that there is a steady flow of computer-ready volunteers.

Staff is also considering the moves that they would hopefully take to expand their digital holdings. As the local populations continue to age, they would like to obtain more oral histories. But transcriptions are also on their radar, to increase usability of these records. There may be a switch in policy to consider the transcript as the accessioned item, while the original media is a back-up.

Pluralist, multimodal, derivative access points: preservation for who/what?

As I was reading for class this week, I couldn’t help but see all of the pieces through the lens of the research projects I’m currently engaged in, because these questions of access (Of what? For who? How?) have been so central to all three projects. It might be that my projects are more focused on access, but to my mind, it’s much more likely that access is the reason for any archival endeavor. As Owens points out, “The purpose of preservation is enabling access.”

There were way too many interesting threads in the readings for this week, so I picked a few that particularly hit home for me:

Screen Essentialism

Owens points out that cultural heritage institutions often want to hew more closely to the “boutique” approach of digital access, rather than a “wholesale” one, and while a “boutique,” curated approach to access this is generally framed as being more user-friendly, it also comes with the risk that access will remain secondary or tertiary. The more user-friendly frame often means that collections/items aren’t made available until the institution has a sophisticated access system in place. “Screen essentialism” in this view of access refers to the fact that there is no one inherent way of accessing digital objects; Owens urges us to “get over the desire to have the kinds of interfaces for everything where one just double clicks on a digital object to have it ‘just work.'”

Padilla and Higgins too warned of screen essentialism and “data essentialism”; oversimplifying the nature of data and obscuring complexities by viewing both the systems used to locate, process, and understand data, and the nature of data itself. Christen, on the other hand, describes Mukurtu as a system that does need to “just work” and have difficult computational processing happen below the surface, but in this case it’s not a matter of having a single system that works for every possible user, but creating and implementing a system that allows for customization an individual basis, because that is what best serves the collections Christen works with.

Collections as Data, Data as Data

Padilla and Higgins’s piece focuses on defining data, and thinking about digital library collections as pieces of humanities data, especially in how this mindset affects access to digital cultural heritage: “The authors hold that Humanities data are organized difference presented in a form amenable to computation put into the service of Humanistic inquiry.” So, practically thinking, information professionals should be considering how to make collections available and what access points would aid in these collections being “amenable to computation.” Padilla and Higgins’ emphasis on derivative (often DH) projects serving as incredibly useful access interfaces for digital collections, as well as mention of metadata as useful data in its own right, aligns well with the chapter we read this week in Owens’ book.

While I strongly agree with the ideas Padilla and Higgins are putting forth, I do harbor some concerns about how this article, and the larger research project it morphed into (Collections as Data) might be in conflict with archival practice and values. For instance, does the focus on interfaces developed outside of the archive, such as “The Real Face of White Australia” (disclaimer: I’m a Tim Sherratt stan), undercut the importance of contextual relationships between parts of an archival collection? Projects like this aid in access to and understanding of archival material, but are parts of a wider whole that many users may not realize. How can we maintain context (cough, the provenance debate) while also making digital archival collections “amenable to computation”? Are archivists being cut out of this information exchange, and if so, how we do re-insert ourselves?

Discussion Questions

  1. How does thinking through access impact processing workflows? Does MPLP work as an approach to all collections? How does prioritizing access play into undertaking documentation strategy projects?
  2. Do you have experience with ethical and/or privacy issues that might prevent you from batch converting and uploading immediately? What about when legal/copyright issues and ethics are at odds? When can you legally make something available but might not want to?
  3. Owens emphasizes keeping any sensitive material is a risk that information professionals must seriously consider. But  one of the projects I’m working on, Safely Searching Among Sensitive Content has made me think about sensitivity in so many contexts – reputational harm, for instance, is incredibly broad. How do you know you’re making the right decision? In addition, during the initial work on developing an access system for email collections containing sensitive material for SSaSC, we found that our platform’s search functions work better when the algorithms have access to the sensitive material, even while accounting for the fact that that material won’t normally be shown the user. How does work like this complicate our thoughts on collecting sensitive material?
  4. How does thinking about access to only metadata change or not change the way you would process and catalog collections? Does this apply to both descriptive metadata and technical metadata?
  5. What multimodal methods of access might work for the small institution you’re partnered with? Which would not (currently, at least?)
  6. In Padilla and Higgins’ piece, they posit that librarians/archivists/info professions are well-suited to “offering training in the skills, tools, and methods needed to take advantage of Humanities data.” Is this the case, on the ground? Why or why not? What are the major challenges we need to overcome, at an institutional and field level, in order to better serve users in this way? Is training in these skills different than simply providing multimodal access?
  7. Have you seen the feminist HCI values of “plurality, self-disclosure, participation, ecology, advocacy, and embodiment” in practice? How do you anticipate using them?
  8. Christen opens her article by stating that “Archives have long been ambivalent places for Indigenous communities whose cultural materials are held in their storerooms.” (21) In what ways do we, as a profession, reinforce that ambivalence? Question it? Does multimodal access, as delineated by Owens, ameliorate this ambivalence enough?

In thinking through these discussion questions, I was continuously reminded of Miriam Posner’s blog post, “Money and Time.” Every concern about staff resources and ways to implement access seems to align with the sustainability, resources, and burnout concerns that Posner brings up in relation to DH centers and initiatives: “You can optimize, streamline, lifehack, and crowdsource almost everything you do — but good scholarship still takes money and time.” Multimodal, plural, cultural sensitive access to digital objects and collections still takes money and time.

With Great Access, Comes Great Responsibility

Well folks, we’ve officially made it to Week 10 and my absolutely favorite part of the library & archives world – ACCESS! After these readings, however, I’m rethinking where “access” fits in to how we approach our digital holdings. While we tend to think about preservation in terms of the future, Owens argues that access to data *today* is equally as important…

…and other scholars agree. In 2012, the AIMS Working Group made an attempt to build a framework for how we approach born-digital collections. In it, they make the point that discovery and access should be on the top of our minds from the start – through the acquisition, accessioning, and arrangement & description stages. If we remember to keep access at the forefront, all of the data we gather – from donor agreements to item-level metadata – will make later considerations of how to make materials available all the more clear.

As for how cultural institutions actually make their materials accessible, Owens outlines the differences between “wholesale” and “boutique” approaches. The former requires less time and resources from the cultural institution, who simply provide access in the easiest and quickest form possible while researchers and users take the lead on making that information easy-to-use and appealing to larger audiences. “Boutique” approaches, on the other hand, are when the institutions themselves invest time and money into designing exhibits and detailed catalogs in order to attract users directly to the collections.

There are opportunities and challenges provided by both approaches. One example of a project that resulted from a “wholesale” approach is outlined in “One Terabyte of the Kilobyte Age.” The creators used the bulk data harvested from GeoCities to show modern-day users the site in the most true-to-form, low-cost way they could think of. They made sure to consider both the look and feel of the site’s original interface and ease of access (like that most people don’t have access to emulation software), resulting in a blog that anyone can visit to see screenshots of original GeoCities pages. On the opposite end of the spectrum is a “boutique” approach, where the cultural institution itself plays a large role in targeting its collections for use by a specific user group. One popular way that this is being approached is by creating a National History Day Toolkit! This resource, created through a joint effort by SAA, helps archivists learn how to target their materials towards middle and high school students, who then use the collections to make a project. While it can be harder to justify the resources required for these types of targeted projects, the results can be beneficial to the institution as a whole as users take the lead on creating new and innovative approaches to collections.

Technological advances in particular present a golden opportunity for libraries and archives to expand access to collections. Cultural institutions are full of humanities data… it’s just that librarians and archivists have historically been focused on displaying their data (books, images, etc.) to users, instead of encouraging them to engage with it in the ways that Owens suggests. Padilla & Higgins write that looking at humanities data (like books, text, and images) through a technical lens allows us to “see” it in a way we couldn’t before. Looking at photographs as a combination of pixels, rather than as something that we personally interpret or experience, can reveal patterns and alternative ways of depicting that image.

The digital methods and tools that are currently in use – and the ones that are yet to be created – can expand the opportunities that we, as librarians and archivists, have to engage with users. But DH approaches allow us to change more than how we all view collections – they can help us combat the structural inequities that have historically silenced and excluded certain voices from the archives. Sadler and Bourg argue that “without an explicit feminist agenda, the same processes of exclusion and marginalization that have always influenced libraries — and therefore scholarship — will continue to play out in our digital library and online discovery environments.” They call for the incorporation of feminist principles into software development, putting principles like plurality – acknowledging that there are always multiple points of view – and embodiment – focusing on the emotional responses that users have to collections – at the forefront of our technological advances. In my own studies, I am interested in exploring the imbalances in how non-English speaking populations are disproportionately represented in institutional archives, and subsequently, in digital projects that spring from them. Christen’s work in creating the Mukurtu digital archive is a prime example of efforts that are being made to combat the historical place that archives have held as oppressive institutions, rooted in elitism.

It is in our best interest to turn our attention to training our users in the digital humanities, so that they can be the ones who do innovative and interesting things with our collections. In doing so, we will be contributing both to the empowerment of our users and the long-term preservation of our cherished collections.

P.S. While you’re at it – take a look at some of the DH projects that are out there right now… there really is something out there for everyone!

Access for All? It’s not that simple.

Access is the reason why archives exist. As much as archives have been closed to marginalized communities for decades, they have always been open to someone. With digital materials, we have unprecedented ways of granting access to millions of people. But how do we reconcile that with fear over doing it wrong or of no longer having control?

In our Owens chapter for this week, we get a hard look at what access means. We’ve been having discussions about emulation vs migration vs legacy computing for weeks, but this chapter was much more practical and can be boiled down into one sentence:

Just do it

A stumbling block to providing access to digital materials is the feeling that we don’t understand the materials (especially the technical aspects) well enough to be able to provide access. We can provide access to things we don’t understand if we present them in their simplest form. No emulation, relying on the consumer to figure it out. If they want to access it, they will find a way to do and may be able to figure it out better than we can. They might even make copies. This results in a more vernacular/folkloric preservation, which lasts longer and has been a part of world cultures for centuries (Owens 186). We love theory but when it all comes down to it: don’t go into all of the ways that you could make it accessible, choose the easiest one to get it up there and then do all of the theoretical work about the best way to make it accessible later. Access, like digital preservation is an evolving process rather than a one-and-done solution. I admit, I love reading theory and trying to figure out the best way, but that gets in the way of actually getting the material to the patron, and that’s what we are here for.

There is another side to it: “access for the sake of access should not be the objective of cultural heritage institutions” (Owens 166). I know I’m completely contradicting my first section but I whole-heartedly believe in access restrictions. Copyright has a role, documents contain personal information and sensitive information and there are cultural reasons why access may need to be restricted. The Mukurtu Wumpurrarni-kari Archive is well-rounded example of what it means to provide access. They don’t provide access to photographs of sacred objects or culturally restricted objects to patrons or researchers who would not have access to that object in the analog world. The profiles allow people to access what they culturally are allowed to and allows them to add their own images and stories to the archive. This is what good access means to me: we don’t violate personal privacy (as defined by the law or by the individual) or cultural restrictions, but we still let people view and add objects. (This can also be seen in the recently adopted practices for handling and describing objects from native cultures in the US).

I believe in as much access as possible but I don’t think that ignoring personal or cultural practices promotes a respect for the objects within our care.

Part II: Everything is data.

Part of extending access means looking at what we have in a different way to be able to give as many people access as possible. Thinking about the output of the humanities as data, gives us a freedom to represent and test these pieces in new ways. (As explored in “Library Collections as Humanities Data: The Facet Effect”) Let’s remove the binary opposition between experimental data and what researchers do in the humanities, it’s all data, it just looks different. We are challenging archives, why can’t we challenge what data is? Data in its simplest form is information. Text, images, strings of numbers, are all different forms of information and therefore data. We can manipulate all of that to learn new things about the world around us and about what we create. Access and consideration of humanities data results in a cool way to make literature performative. It’s like an underwater version of A Streetcar Named Desire or every Baz Luhrman movie based on a classic work (think Romeo + Juliet). It’s a new way of looking at old texts, with an eye of realizing the constructed nature of how we view these materials. Using humanities data is about data manipulation, same as with scientific data. As archivists, we fear manipulation because it distorts the original, but part of providing access means providing access for research, for pleasure reading or for someone to decide to replace all of the proper nouns in Persuasion with the latin names for aquarium fish. We can’t just provide access for what we determine to be the right way of relating to material because that is exclusionary and goes against all arguments in favor of access.

Part of access is about allowing people to manipulate old things in new ways (think about The Real Face of White Australia – the original creators couldn’t image that we would use their records to show how diverse Australia has always been in a scrolling gallery of faces). We have to allow enough access to not prevent forms of use that we can’t imagine. Then there is the fear of damage, the digital equivalent of ripping the Declaration of Independence in half, that prevents us from extending access to the remote corners of our digital materials. We have to somehow do both: provide access and protect history.


Anyone else feel weird about the whole “users can use the data to make new things” idea? Maybe it’s a clinging to the idea of an archive holding physical and intellectual control of the objects, but how do we protect the data from corruption and provide such extended access?

Is the secret to providing access and protecting history to maintain protected versions that can’t be manipulated? Does that fall under not providing access or is it just good stewardship?

Little Compton Historical Society Survey

The Little Compton Historical Society is a small organization dedicated to preserving the history and cultural heritage of Little Compton, Rhode Island. Their collections contain, among others, paper records, photographs, objects, paintings and other artworks, maps, and scrapbooks. Their current digital holdings include born-digital institutional records, high-quality images of the paintings and artwork, an oral history collection, and scans and snapshots of many of the physical objects, photographs, postcards, and maps in the collection.

Marjory O’Toole, executive director of the LCHS, and Steve Lubar spoke with me about the current state of the LCHS digital collections and their vision for future preservation. While there is a general consensus that too much of an “overhaul” of current systems is not feasible due to limited staff and funding, they agree that there is a need for organization and thorough planning moving forward. The current state of the collection is outlined below.


The digital holdings currently reside in various locations. The LCHS uses PastPerfect as its primary database, and most of the lower-quality images used for online public access are stored there. Their higher-quality counterparts are maintained and organized by a volunteer and stored locally on a computer designated for collections management. Digital files that are not currently stored in PastPerfect are located on various computers, laptops, CD-ROMs, and removable media (thumb drives). Many of these consist of images that have been donated by community members who allow the LCHS to digitize their items for a project and then add them to the digital collections. As these are received by staff, they are generally stored on laptops and desktops in various locations, while the physical items related to the project are stored in a box in the archive.

The LCHS also has a large oral history collection that is stored in the same way and has not been made available to the public online due to privacy concerns. Requests for in-house use or digital copies of individual oral histories are considered on a case-by-case basis.

Born-digital records are stored both on DropBox and on laptops at the LCHS. Staff use DropBox primarily for the temporary sharing of large documents. Images from a cemetery book project are organized by chapter, while files from other digital exhibitions are less consistent. Research conducted for outside parties is also stored in DropBox as it facilitates the sharing of large files with people outside of the LCHS, and they can be easily accessed for other users if necessary. Marjory is interested in expanding the use of DropBox beyond temporary file storage.

File formats

The digital files are in widely-used formats, such as JPEG, PDF, and MP3. The file size and image quality vary: some of the scans and snapshots were done professionally at a high-quality level, while others are snapshots from digital cameras or camera phones. All of the images that can be seen online are low-resolution versions of higher quality images stored elsewhere at the LCHS. There is one notable exception to these commonly-used file formats: the LCHS previously contracted with a company called Digital Arc in Providence, RI to digitize some of the paintings, artwork, and several hundred historic postcards in the collection. The company delivered the images in TIFF files that are very large and unusable for many of the projects or online exhibits. These TIFF files are mostly stored on CD-ROMS at the LCHS, although some of them may currently be stored locally on a laptop.


As many of the digital files have been created from various sources, there is little consistency when it comes to organization, naming standards, etc. Marjory has a personal system for organizing her files, but other staff and volunteers have contributed items that are labeled in their own shorthand or per other standards. Files end up duplicated, occupying storage space and making it difficult to find other items through the clutter. In short, there is no consistent system in place throughout the LCHS collections. For example, one member is an excellent photographer who has contributed many of his works, but they are stored in various locations and labeled in a way that only he can easily use and identify. Volunteer Collection Manager Fred Bridge maintains the digital holdings in PastPerfect and has a personal system of organization for those files, as does Marjory with her own. Those who are currently working and volunteering at the LCHS are able to navigate through the various organization systems due to their institutional knowledge and familiarity with the collections, but there is concern that digital files will not be easy to locate or identify by future staff members and volunteers.


Due to a small staff and budget, much of the responsibility for managing digital content falls to Marjory and several volunteers. As projects overlap, so does control of and access to the digital files related to those projects. At this time, the following staff members and volunteers have access to the servers where important digital files are stored: Marjory, Fred, Carol (administrator), and Jenna (docent). Until recently, all docents used Carol’s computer and had access to the digital holdings. Now, docents are instructed to use a separate computer, which is connected to the internet but has no key files stored or accessible on it.

The LCHS provides access to its collections through a PastPerfect online portal. When made available online, images are watermarked, and the quality is downgraded so that they are less bulky and easily accessible. Marjory is most concerned with long-term preservation of the files and present-day public access to the digital collections. The quality of many of the scanned images is not up to par with the needs of researchers or visitors (for example, maps have been digitized but features are not readable online). Efforts to make more of the collections that are stored in PastPerfect accessible via the online portal are ongoing, yet time consuming and often gets pushed to the wayside. Making quality images available for purchase by the public is also a source of revenue for the LCHS. Digital Arc used to offer this but discontinued the service. Marjory is interested in a way to offer a range of options to users – from free, low-quality images to some high-quality images that can be sold for profit.


Volunteers are a primary resource for projects at the LCHS. As previously mentioned, one member is an excellent photographer and donates his time to photographing the collections and community events, while Fred Bridge handles the backups, computer maintenance, and making the digital items stored in PastPerfect available in the online portal. Other volunteers help organize and run events, as well as other necessary projects that increase public support.

The LCHS hosts monthly board meetings to discuss ongoing projects and longer-term planning. There is a Collections Committee that reviews and approves proposed actions. In the past, they have been very successful at getting grants to fund projects, and also receive gifts from community members that help fund specific endeavors, like the digitization of the Benjamin Franklin Wilbour scrapbook. Another highly successful documentation and digitization project took place about ten years ago and added approximately 10,000 items to the PastPerfect database. However, even when funds are accessible, they are challenged by the lack of staff and time to complete such projects. Preservation is at the forefront of their concerns, but any efforts put into place must take into account that they have limited means for staffing projects.

Lastly, as the executive director Marjory holds a key position within the preservation structure of the LCHS as a whole. She recognizes that preservation of their digital holdings is an important issue and is ready and willing to take steps to improve their systems. With a few weeks of prioritizing digital preservation efforts, Marjory is confident that she can make and enforce positive changes that will improve the safekeeping of the collections in the future.

Current Preservation Efforts

The LCHS uses BackBlaze as its primary data storage system. BackBlaze is low-cost, easy to maintain, and provides unlimited storage. Information is automatically backed up and stored offsite in data centers. At the LCHS, BackBlaze automatically backs up Marjory’s laptop, the administrator’s desktop, and the collections computer. The collections volunteers handle the maintenance and oversight of the backups; together they deal with correcting any error messages and ensuring the process goes smoothly. It is only when data is lost or missing that BackBlaze becomes difficult to use – trying to retrieve specific information from the backups is tricky and technical.

Goals & Priorities

Given the lack of manpower and funds, changing any of the current database software is a nightmare process that Marjory does not feel is feasible. Rather than change the current systems completely, she is seeking practical ways to improve the use of the services they already use, like PastPerfect, DropBox, and BackBlaze. The digital holdings of the highest priority at the moment are the ones that are, or could be, made accessible online to the public. The ongoing maintenance and preservation of these files is key to ensuring community support and funding for the LCHS as a whole. The most helpful guidance needed is practical advice on how to enhance use of current systems, streamline the maintenance process, and effectively organize the collections so that they are easy to find and access.