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.
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.