February 23, 2017

The Complexities of Digital Information Management

by Tammy Troup, Digital Services Manager

The myriad duties required and expected of museums and historical societies set these organizations apart from traditional libraries and archives. Principally, the exhibit and interpretive missions of these organizations introduce layers of creativity and organization of knowledge, which researchers may never realize, while the collection and preservation missions require knowledge of standards, systems, and practices which only subtly affect a visitor’s experience.

The crux of the matter involves organization of the information resource under consideration. Regardless of the type of information resource--bone awl, Finnish loom, legislative record, vintage print, or first edition book of poetry--using and reusing the information resource requires management of information about the resource.


Information management systems advanced significantly over the past 150 years.
Clockwise from top: Scan of Original Accession Register, Photo of Card Catalog,
Screenshot of Advanced Search Montana Shared Catalog 

Although the format is relatively new, management of digital and digitized information resources for both online exhibit and interpretation and collection and preservation builds upon knowledge acquired through a century of information resource management. Reformatting—digitization—is a fairly straightforward technical process. However, management of the resulting digital files requires the development and management of metadata--information about the information. The result—a digital object—includes both digital images and a metadata record structured for machine readability. High quality metadata managed within an organized system allows a user to search for and discover an information resource and to locate any derivatives.

In the past twenty years, libraries and archives improved and refined the processes involved in the management of digital information. These information management organizations developed procedures which resulted in organized, searchable digital collections. Researchers who enjoyed the methods of targeted research and serendipitous discovery appreciated access to digital collections. However, not everyone’s online information needs were met.

Despite extensive metadata records--and the idiom that a picture is worth a thousand words--digital objects without context quickly contributed to an overload of information. Workaround solutions included metadata records with detailed interpretive descriptions or the use of digital objects as captioned illustrations in “digital exhibits.” Meanwhile, information professionals managed information about the original and digital resources across a technological stack neither interoperable or searchable.

Well-managed records provide enough information for
items and derivatives to be located and used and reused.
Clockwise from left: Screenshot of Metadata Record, Screenshot of File Manager with File,
Screen Still of Photo Archives
File Shown Above in File Manager
Well managed information makes reusing content easier and more consistent.
As an organization responsible for collecting and preserving as well as exhibiting and interpreting, the Montana Historical Society knows this stage of information management quite well. The professional staff of the MHS created the first digital exhibit Encountering Montana: Lewis and Clark Under the Big Sky in 2001 and began making information available on the precursor of the Montana Memory Project in 2004. In the ensuing years, nearly 50 TB of data representing a small percentage of the Museum and Research Center’s collections have been generated and multiple digital exhibits have helped us contextualize our digital and digitized resources.

At this point, the information management needs of our entire staff are much more advanced. These needs include electronic records management, digital asset management, digital preservation, as well as online presentation and interpretation. Meanwhile, the research needs and expectations of our online visitors have also become much more sophisticated. Multiple factors contribute to the challenges of digital information management--particularly in state governments--yet the MHS remains committed to building on and applying over 150 years of knowledge in order to maintain the persistent link between the past, the present, and the future.

As we advocate for our digital needs in order to advance our mission to collect, preserve, and interpret, we invite you to share your comments about the MHS’s online presence, role in interpreting and analyzing digital information, and any concerns about Montana’s digital cultural heritage.




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