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 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.