Tackling the digitisation backlog with volunteer power at the Museum of East Anglian Life

Our ‘Banish the Backlog’ campaign has been focusing on the gaps in collection inventories, but museums face many other types of backlog. In this guest blog post Caitlin Peck, Curator at the Museum of East Anglian Life, tells us about their new initiative for getting up-to-date with digitisation.

With seventeen historic buildings set in 75 acres of beautiful countryside, the Museum of East Anglian Life (MEAL) is the largest independent museum in Suffolk. We care for approximately 40,000 objects, once the everyday items of East Anglian life. Our collection has a particular focus on the production of food and social history relating to it, reflective of the region’s strong agricultural character. From working steam engines to butter stamps to circus costume, our objects tell a huge variety of personal stories.

Abbot’s Hall is one of seventeen historic buildings at the Museum of East Anglian Life

Like most museums, our collection is our greatest strength but, like most museums, we have a significant backlog to contend with. Ours is in the area of digitisation. At present, our collection records are index cards stored in filing cabinets. These cards date back to the museum’s foundation in 1967. The problems with this outdated system are obvious: it is not secure from loss or physical damage; it is not user-friendly or searchable; and it does not make our collection easily accessible to the public.

In January 2018, MEAL kicked off a project that will both tackle our digitisation backlog and create exciting new opportunities for collections access. Titled Search for the Stars, it will transfer all our collection records onto an online system and create a digital collections catalogue. The catalogue will provide a valuable research resource, and will offer a new way for those who cannot visit the museum to enjoy our objects. This is particularly important as East Anglia is very rural, and a lack of transport and mobility difficulties can be barriers to visiting. The catalogue will link up to search engines and we also plan to share some of our content through Wikipedia to maximise accessibility. As a new ACE National Portfolio Organisation, engaging our audiences with our collection is a particular priority.

Search for the Stars will also give us an unprecedented understanding of our collection. Through the process of putting them online, all our collection records will be reviewed for the first time in the museum’s history. New ‘star’ objects and their hidden stories are being identified – hence the name of the project.

So far, this digitisation project may not sound so out of the ordinary. It is the process, however, which makes Search for the Stars stand out. It is powered by volunteers and pioneers as a new model which we are calling ‘social volunteering’. The number of volunteers involved represents a step change even for MEAL, an organisation which has long been regarded as volunteer-centric: we have recruited 100 new people in the first five months.

Success is measured not only in the number of volunteers, but in their diversity. Our social volunteering model has three strands, each of which has significantly broadened our demographic to include more working age, student and young volunteers. We are now reaching volunteers across our rural region – and as far away as the US, Canada and Australia!

A Search for the Stars session with students at the University of Sheffield

The first strand is remote or ‘from home’ volunteering, which, as of May 2018, had attracted 40 volunteers. The second is group volunteering, taking one-off sessions to student and other groups, so far including West Suffolk College and the University of Sheffield. The third is ‘out of hours’ sessions, coordinated through the social app MeetUp. Not marketed as volunteering, these sociable get-togethers focus as much on chatting about the collection as digitising it and have encouraged intergenerational dialogue (including a grandmother and granddaughter attending together).

This model is low-resource and replicable. Although a new Curator, generously funded by the Esmée Fairbairn Collections Fund and The Headley Trust, has been recruited to lead this project, only two essential pieces of equipment are needed. The first is the right collections management system (MEAL uses eHive; it is well suited for this project, as it can be used anywhere there is an internet connection and allows unlimited users at no extra cost). The second is a willingness to experiment. This approach to volunteering is entirely new to MEAL. Not everything we try will work, but by exploring new possibilities with positivity and flexibility we are exceeding even our own expectations.

All this work is paying off. We are digitising 400-500 records each month, with the rate increasing alongside volunteer numbers. The challenge remains substantial and we know it will take time. However, we are tackling our backlog with more focus, drive and efficiency than ever before. It is off the backburner and taking centre stage.

 

To find help for digitising your museum’s collection, take a look at our Digital isn’t different resources.