Preservation: The Digitization Project

As a Museum volunteer for the past three years, I have become acutely aware of what an integral part volunteers play in the daily operations of the Museum.   Though my time has been spent in a place and on a task having little visibility, I am convinced that the work Bob Nicholls, Ken McBride, Bob Hafer and I have done and are doing will have a profound impact on the preservation of Ravalli County history and culture.

I speak of our ongoing work to identify, inventory, and digitize photographs, newspapers, audio tapes, and video tapes that comprise an important part of our Museum’s priceless archival collection.  The problem has been making those “basement” collections readily accessible to all interested parties.  As we know, time takes its toll on all things, particularly newsprint, video/audio tape and photographic slides/plates.  Without the ultimate in preservation environment, which sadly the Museum does not have, historic material in those formats will eventually continue to deteriorate and perhaps even perish.

With rapidly changing technology, the challenge is to preserve historic archival material in a format adapted to current technology and compatible with what comes next.  In today’s world that technology is digital.  Hence, scanning newspapers, transferring VHS video to digital disc and scanning photographs to computer hard drives, not only preserves the original, but makes public access to fragile, perishable material possible using computers and network research capabilities.

In the area of videotaped material where I am currently working, Bob Nicholls and I have identified and inventoried over 600 video tapes made during the “Sunday Series” era which covers Museum events and lectures from 1991 to 2008.   We have also identified and inventoried the Ernst Peterson collection which features film taken by him in the late 1950s and early 1960s and later transferred to video tape.  And, we have just begun to identify and inventory the Layton Jones and BVTV collections that involved early local broadcast TV here in the Bitterroot Valley in the late 1970s and early 1980s.  These materials and others will be part of the Museum’s Research Video Library which will be accessible to BRVHS Society members and non-members alike.

Unfortunately, the job of digitizing over 125 years of local newspapers, over 850 video tapes, and 22,000 or more photographs is resource intensive both in terms of manpower and money.  For example, it costs $3.00 a page to digitize newsprint and as of now, the Museum does not have near the resources needed to digitize everything in the near future.  While we hope to be able to use a small portion of the new tax levy for digitization, the enormity of the task will vastly exceed our current capabilities.  I am hopeful that as supporters of historic preservation become aware of the need for, and benefit of, digitization, they will help with the cause; perhaps even consider sponsoring a week, month or year of newspapers to commemorate a birth, special event or a memorial or volunteer with the inventory, transfer of other aspect of the digital conversion process.

In future articles, I hope to keep you apprised of the progress we are making on the digitization project.  In the meanwhile, please feel free to contact Museum staff to inquire about accessibility to currently inventoried video, newspaper and photographic material, and Thank You for your support of this very important project.

– Dan Rothlisberger

Preservation: A Process We Follow Chapter 1

Want to know more about how your local Museum works? Inside and out? For the next several newsletters we will be featuring segments revealing our ‘behind the scenes’ everyday life and the operations that make a Museum a Museum. We will talk about how we care for the collections housed in this unique and noteworthy building (itself a historic icon) describe how an exhibit is first inspired, then created, how we design and build the programming and interpretation that enhances our displays and how we influence and instill lifelong learning as one of the major building blocks of this institution. Should you find that these summary articles make you curious, wanting to know more… please contact us and we will layer on additional details and structure to respond to your queries.  Or better yet come on by and let us show you how the whole process works… We are passionate about what we do here, and want you to be a part of our progress as we advance purposefully into the future… Upcoming topics will include

  • History: A Community affair
  • History and Our Changing Culture
  • From Collection to Cases
  • From Research to Exhibition
  • Exhibition, Digitization and Access
  • Diversity and a Sense of Place
  • Education: A Collaborative Effort

 

Chapter 1 Preservation: A Process We Follow

Imagine your basement, attic or garage with everything organized by number and date. That gives you a picture of the job the Collections staff carries out. Caretaking the collection is one of the most central roles of a museum. In our effort to accomplish this task at 21st century museum standards, Ravalli County Museum has used PastPerfect Museum Software, a powerful industry standard, for a number of years now.

When an item is gifted to the Museum, we track it as soon as it comes in our door with a “Temporary Custody Receipt” signed by us and the donor. We ask for the story behind the item – who owned it, how they came to acquire it, how they used it – their story, which makes it relevant to our story as a community. From there, our Collections Committee weighs in to decide whether the item would assist us in meeting our mission to interpret the history of the Bitterroot Valley and its people. If it does, we send the donor a “Deed of Gift” to legally sign over ownership to us. Everything is recorded in PastPerfect, and then the work begins to prepare and house the object in our collection. There are numerous and necessary tasks to perform; we catalog, properly label, record condition, clean, photograph, and place items into archival storage containers as much as currently possible.

A similar paper and electronic process tracks the many loaned objects we exhibit each year, this comes with the addition of a signed return document to ensure compliance with the lenders wishes and to keep our records and obligations to the object in order.  As well when we rotate items from within our permanent collection we must ensure that these items are correctly removed from their housing, are ready for display and have the best attribution and provenance available for us to showcase the heritage of the piece and /or the family that donated it to our permanent collection. We must continually be aware of pieces being displayed for too long in the public areas as exposure can cause a decline in the integrity of the item. This is the foremost reason that about eighty five percent of our collection is not on perpetual exhibition. Not because they are not interesting artifacts or don’t tell a compelling story, but because of this need to conserve, safeguard and make firm decisions about rotation and placement.

Like many small nonprofit museums, we also continue to research and reconcile the early handwritten original paperwork and previous electronic registers with our current PastPerfect records. This entire, labor-intensive Collections process, which honors the donor, the object, and the history it represents to the Valley, is the cornerstone of Museum protocol. It can outpace both our staff time, resources, available collection storage areas and the appropriate supplies needed. These processes can come to a standstill without supplemental support; both financial and from the strategic perspective of a establishing a priority matrix and the appropriate allocation of dedicated time coordinated by trained and sustainable personnel.

 

 

The mission of the Ravalli County Museum & Historical Society is to acquire, preserve, protect and interpret the historical and cultural heritage of the Bitter Root Valley and its people.

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