Digitising beyond the walls

Thinking about digitisation on any great scale tends conjure images of archives, libraries and museums, whose job it is to collect and retain the records of our culture and history.  But just as there is a growth of contemporary user-generated content online, a growing number of amateur and private collectors and historians are presenting a digitised view of the past online without involving a professional curatorial eye.

A recent U.S. conference on the Digital Humanities highlighted the role of amateur endeavour in the creation of collections, and the role of digitisation in creating virtual museums and exhibitions for online display to the public.  It signals that institutions are not the only hosts of worthwhile digital content, and may even get less traffic to their digitised collections than many amateur sites.  There's a great write up about this conference topic here.

In New Zealand, while it can take a bit of digging, it is not hard to see the growing presence of our own amateur and private effort. Perhaps most readily discoverable are the websites dedicated to family history.  For example, New Zealand Bound's free pages hosted by Rootsweb show the extent of effort put in by part-time genealogists to get New Zealand shipping lists transcribed online .  A website dedicated to Dunedin's Northern Cemetery encourages contributors to add biographical details and photographs of the people buried there.  My Ancestor's Story is a nicely done private effort to share New Zealand family history stories online.

Outside of genealogy is a range of content focused on diverse aspects of New Zealand's past.  The New Zealand history pool on Flickr has nearly 2,000 images from our past online.  The Early New Zealand Software database and the State of the Ark, an online computer collection belonging to Donovan Marshall, document New Zealand's software and hardware past.


Vintage postcard image from Flickr

A picnic scene from a digitised postcard in Flickr's New Zealand history pool

In the commercial arena, Fletcher Building Ltd support the Fletcher Challenge archives and an online digital collection of the past 100 years of Fletcher construction.  For some time, Colonial CD Books has been focused on digitising out of copyright heritage publications from the NZ Gazette through to local histories, and making them available for sale online.  Even overseas digital publishers like Lulu enable Kiwis to digitally publish family histories or other New Zealand stories for print or download, such as The Randall Family in New Zealand by Randall McMullan.

Digitisation is changing the face of our heritage, whether institutions are involved or not.  What we need to learn more about is the relationship between amateur and professional effort in creating and maintaining digitised heritage. Archives and museums are already receiving digitised materials from donors in forms that are unusable or poor quality.  The challenge is for institutions to create a lifelong relationship with communities and future donors so that digital content remains usable and originals being digitised are protected. Perhaps part of our future requires solutions like community-based repositories, already being demonstrated with the pioneers in this area, Kete Horowhenua.