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Digital Archive Fever

Tanya Szrajber, Head of Documentation, The British Museum, UK
Collection online: the British Museum Collection Database goes public

Over the next three years, the British Museum is making its collections database publicly available on the web. The release of the records will be phased, beginning with those for 2D art works (July 2007) and gradually adding material in a staged process. Conservation and science records will also be included, as well as those for the photographic collections, previously regarded as archival or ancillary material. The records include images as well as text, although not every record will have an image, which is understandable considering the size of the database, which consists of nearly 1,700 000 records.

The database will be shown as its stands, as a work in progress, and will include terminology files as well as catalogue (object records). All fields will be available, apart from price paid, personal address and NGR (National Grid Reference). The public is invited to add comment to the records, and this process will assist the Museum.

It is assumed that users will vary from researchers to interested non-specialist members of the public. No attempt has been made to re-write the records to suit an ‘average’ public user, should such a person exist. This is partly due to the size of the database but also because the priority is to update the records with accurate and up-to-date specialist information, in order to assist curators and researchers with their work. As a result, the records vary in content. A high percentage of records were created by documentation staff for over twenty years, working from Registers (bound ledgers) and record cards on Merlin’s predecessors, and may contain very basic, or even outdated, information At the other extreme, records edited or created by curators may contain very specialist descriptions and terminology. Although this is not the first time that the BM collections have been directly accessible on the Web, previous ventures (e.g. COMPASS) covered a small percentage of the collection, and special records were created for public access. The sheer size and complexity of the collection database, and the presentation of ‘raw data’ makes this project a very different venture, and challenging in a number of ways, which will be explored in this paper.

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