I’ll Tell You What I Want, What I Really, Really Want: Super-Rich Online Repositories


Table 10, my home away from home at Western Reserve Historical Society (WRHS)


The hardy folk who make up the Advisory Board of the Horizon Report>Museum Edition are i the process of finalizing the shortlist for 2012.  The report itself will be published in December (just in time for the holidays).

As with any process where one begins with a big list and has to narrow it down, some favorite topics get voted off the list.   When topics get voted off it is for good reasons–sometimes a technology or an idea is still so far off the horizon that for most folks the details and the practice are unrecognizable.  [For those of you who are old enough to remember–think of Omar Sharif’s “mirage” entrance in the film “Lawrence of Arabia.”]

One topic that made the shortlist this year is called “Super-Rich Online Repositories (SROR).”  Here is our definition of an SROR:

Super-rich online repositories allow scholarly information, content, and tools to be accessible to everyone. With all of these resources available in a central location online, users have the ability to easily add new content and annotate existing content with information from their own research.  Super-rich online repositories help inform scholarly research by allowing users to connect content, such as artwork, to other pieces and build relationships between them through comparative images.

And here is the Editor’s Note that we passed along to the advisory board this week:  Research into super-rich online repositories in practice did not turn up concrete examples in museum settings. While there are examples of successful online repositories, none of them have the capabilities listed in the topic overview.

Museums aren’t there yet.  Archives aren’t there yet.  Libraries aren’t there yet.    But just because we aren’t there, that doesn’t mean we can’t talk about what might be done with a SROR.   And me,  I think about what I as a researcher really really want to be able to do with assets from 10-5 pm every Thursday, Friday, and Saturday.  I spend three days a week in various archives and libraries, though home base is pretty much Table 10 at Western Reserve Historical Society [see image above], where I am almost finished transcribing a set of travel journals from 1871 (less than 200 pages to go WOOT!) The transcription project has indirectly led to a further project looking at Spiritualism in 19th century America and in the past month I have explored connections between practicing spiritualists and  1) the founding of American museums; 2) the Michelson-Morley Experiment; 3) Spirit Photographs and Shaker Spirit Drawings; 4) Telegraphy and Telephony;  5) American Sculptors Working in Florence in the 1870s; 6) Dress Reform; 7) Free Love;  8 ) Vegetarianism; 9) Sir Arthur Conon Doyle & Agatha Christie; 10) Xenophobia;  11) Phrenology; 12) Dark Shadows; and 13) cemeteries as inter-generational learning spaces.

Atop the wooden table on which I am currently at work rests my laptop, headphones, Mss. 3934 The Randall Wade Travel Journals, my iPhone, car-keys, and the key to my locker at the archive.  In my imagination there is a future where most of the surface of Table 10 is taken up by a giant tablet which enables me to bring up books, images, video and audio assets, and enables me to follow up serendipitous research findings with even more results.  Graphically beautiful results.  Results that I can rearrange and recombine visually.  Results that I can photograph and annotate.  My table can be tilted  (like the steering wheel of my car) to better read the spidery writing found in letters and journals of the past and there is a convenient, scalable book stand that accommodates my use of authentic objects when available and I don’t have to get up and move to a quirky, antiquated unit to view long gone resources only available via microfilm and microfiche–they are accessible via my table too.

Close to two decades ago, at about this time of year, we launched the IMAGE Gallery at the San Diego Museum of Art.  Visitors would come in to use the massive touchscreens (okay they seemed big at the time–and they were perhaps 24 inch screens) to access beautiful, high-resolution images of the SDMA permanent collection (you could print them out too, we had a top of the line die sublimation printer).  I remember being annoyed when someone, after playing with the system for awhile asked me to help him find the “Mona Lisa.”    Of course, Leonardo da Vinci’s “Mona Lisa” lies at the Louvre and not at the SDMA.  In 1994, though, we were living in the land time forgot (that is, pre-internet as we now know it).    I shouldn’t have been annoyed.  The man wanted to see the “Mona Lisa” and he wanted to see it sitting at a screen in the IMAGE Gallery at the San Diego Museum of Art.  Everyone who works in a museum today understands the 24/7 information access demand.

Maybe my demands for Future-Table-10  are as annoying to some of you readers as that anonymous SDMA visitor’s request was to me in 1994.   I do know that I can visualize what I want a Super-Rich Online Repository to do for me.  And I can even sit down today and write out chapter and verse of my own personal user-requirements for both the repository and the delivery mechanism

Reader,  you may not recognize Sherif Ali ibn el Kharish on the horizon in Lawrence of Arabia, and you may not see Super-Rich Online Repositories in a Horizon Report anytime soon.  But as for me I know that the human brain is a wonderful, flexible tool.   It allows me to conjure up, without any hesitation, the features of the young Omar Sharif and the hopes and dreams of researchers past, present, and future right here at Table 10.

And that’s what I want.   What I really really want!


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