Should We Let Them Inside the Tower?

The discussion of folksonomies is interesting, and one that I know many museums are having right now.  Most museums these days attempt to have at least a selection of their collections database available for researchers to search, usually via their website.  This sounds like a great idea and many people express at least a novel interest in it.  Anybody who has ever actually searched one of these databases, though, can tell you that you have to be lucky to find exactly what you are looking for.  This is not due to technological limitations or anything, it is due to the museum field’s complicated methods of cataloging objects.  We restrict access to collections databases like they are the “nuclear football.”  Most staff members will never have access, and when they do manage to get it, it is usually only on a read-only level.  Even when we bring in interns to work with the collections, they have to undergo a background check and at least be in the process of obtaining a graduate degree (absolutely no undergrads!).  We treat the database almost as a sacred temple.  And much like a sacred text, the classification system needs a trained professional to translate it.  “Communication T&E” is not the first category that would come to someone’s mind when searching for something like a telephone.  Even when the trained staff is cataloging items we often have to check our copy of Nomenclature (and sometimes get very creative with categories).  This, of course, is what complicates the process of making our database searchable on our website.

So, many museums are now looking towards a system of folksonomies to bolster the standard categories and classifications.  Much like Nina Simon’s idea of allowing patrons to tag objects within the galleries, allowing patrons to tag items within the collections database would provide a feasible way to make the collection easily searchable using more common categories that people outside of the museum field can actually relate to.  It would also take the stress off of the web team rather than making them guess all of the phrases that a web user may try to use.  This very well could be successful in creating an online collections database that is actually usable by the general public.  The maintenance of this database, though, would take a lot of effort and could eat up significant amounts of staff time, a scarce resource for most museums.  The tag submissions would frequently be plagued by spam-bots and trolls, trying to inject unwanted materials into the metadata.  It is a risk/reward scenario that each museum will have to weigh to decide whether it is worth it or not.  For us, this is a question that we haven’t been able to answer yet.

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