How to achieve successful online community engagement with your historical collections

You want your historical or cultural heritage collection to become accessible, discoverable and engaging… have you thought of an online community engagement platform?

Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) delivers numerous avenues for participation in Cultural Heritage by all audiences from professionals to the interested public. Here are some important things we think you should know to ensure your project will achieve the level of engagement and accessibility that you desire.

1. Why and when you should use ICT

There are many purposes and forms of use for ICT in community engagement and the easiest ones to understand are the personal use cases you have experienced, ask yourself “Why are we doing this and what is the goal we want to achieve?”  You should consider your organisational goals as well as the benefit to the intended users and audiences – what are they going to gain?
ICT provides an amazing avenue for participation in Cultural Heritage if you first decide who your audiences are and what form of ICT participation will be meaningful for them.  For example, you may be looking to achieve:

  • Deeper user participation with a physical collection. This could be through interactive displays alongside the collection, the use of VR or AR technology and re-using/re-purposing your content.
  • Increase more users to view a physical collection. Perhaps a narrated interactive site that engages the audience and drives foot traffic to learn more and share knowledge.
  • Engaging a wider community and enriching knowledge and collections through crowdsourcing. An interactive community engagement site with moderated content enhancement.

2. Digitise your collections

Digitisation became a practical option in the early 2000’s with convergence from numerous sectors (office automation, manufacturing, engineering, entertainment, publishing, etc) making devices accessible, affordable and useful. Your collections will need to be digitised to both a high quality and an appropriate resolution for your audience to fully engage in all the detail and information within the items of your collection.

Capture Equipment
There are many types of digitisation equipment that exist, but there is no one size fits all. The digitisation process should be bespoke as it is important to match equipment against your material for;

  • size,
  • 2 or 3 dimensions, audio or video
  • handling and fragility requirements,
  • file outputs,
  • colour accuracy and resolution.

Capture Environment
When thinking about the digitisation technology, it is important to think about the entire capture suite, not just the scanning device. The space in which you will capture your collection needs to be accessible and the right size to work in and keep your objects safe, the colour of the floor, walls and ceiling have an impact on the light to avoid difficult to correct impacts on the captured image.
Lighting is critical to achieve the best results with white balance (colour temperature), evenness and the impact on materials all being important considerations.
How you handle the collection itself is important, to prevent unnecessary damage through inappropriate handling. You need to select the location carefully and use the best tables and copy stands, with appropriate temporary storage if the collection cannot be immediately returned to its rightful home.

Standards and Processes
Digitisation standards have evolved to match technology developments and it is important to identify the appropriate standards to adopt in your project. Tonal fidelity, or acutance, can make a huge difference to image quality. Simple things like resolution can also make a huge difference:
• 300ppi at 1:1 to allow the eye to see the same detail as in the original
• 600ppi or better to allow enlargements from 1:1

Organisations like FADGI and American National Archives have useful reference standards (Technical Guidelines for Digitising Cultural Heritage Materials) that are free to access.
However, standards alone won’t produce great outcomes, it is vital to establish or adopt internal processes to capture accurately, consistently and enable you to trace issues to let you successfully move collections to the digital space. At NZMS our digitisation processes are state of the art, however we are continuously developing and investing in these to ensure we keep up with the technology and needs of our customers.

3. Access your digital content

Once you have digitised your collection, you need to provide access to the digital images. Beginning with basic file viewers, numerous tools have evolved to provide online access. When selecting the best tool to use it is important to consider the purpose of the user – professional vs interested amateur, as individuals or as communities.
The phenomenon of social media has broadened communication channels and can attract new and larger audiences. There are also the traditional platforms such as Digital Asset Management Systems, Content Management Systems, Collection Management Systems, and (Sharepoint) Intranets.

We are now seeing the emergence of Community Engagement Platforms that combine the best of these traditional platforms and social media to provide a universal file viewer with the ability for people and communities to discover, access, and engage with a community and its history often using Cultural Heritage collections at the centre of the conversation.  Once engaged with your content your community will take you to places you intend, or perhaps even where you have not foreseen!

4. Plan for Success

The best piece of advice we can give you, is to plan your project from the outset to achieve your stated goals. Be clear about your goals and understand who the user/community of your collections is, also be clear about how they, not you, want to access and engage with your collections. Understanding these simple things determine the what and how of your plan. By planning to achieve these simple goals, your project will succeed.
The Future
We are seeing significant developments in both accessibility to and usability in 3D technologies along with the emergence of affordable reasonable quality 3D scanning and printing. Coupled with the rapid evolution of virtual reality and augmented reality, there are tantalising new opportunities for more interactive immersion in Cultural Heritage.
To ensure digitisation is keeping up with technological advancements there needs to be developments of standards, digital preservation and processes. New approaches to preserving digital files need to consider formats, data loss prevention and identification compression.

5. Summary

ICT has by no means replaced the analogue collections, rather it has protected them while enabling more people and communities’ access to digital equivalents, enabling them to participate, tell their stories, add knowledge, correct errors and enrich their histories and communities. This has enabled cultural heritage resources to focus on value creation activities, delivering richer services to their communities, and in the process, transforming Cultural Heritage resources and services.
For further reading about Community Engagement please read here.  If you are interested in learning more about an online Community Engagement Platform, Recollect is a fully engaging and interactive platform that can facilitate all your ICT needs and hold your collection of historical items that are accessible, discoverable and engaging.  We welcome you to contact us via email as well.