April 13-17, 2010
Denver, Colorado, USA

Think Globally, Digitize Locally: charting an institution's course toward the digital social good

Brian Dawson, Canada Science and Technology Museum Corporation, Canada


Digitized collections afford significant museum experiences, and can result in a wide range of satisfying outcomes and benefits – both planned and emergent – for the visitor. Collections also represent a broader benefit – a public good. They are specific instances of the global “Utopian” project of digitizing the sum total of human knowledge and making it available on-line – the potential benefits of which cannot be fully anticipated, and continue to emerge.

Cultural institutions are enmeshed in the broader debates of digital policy and strategy. Some countries are seen as leaders, with digital initiatives that thrive, while others appear to fall behind. This paper examines an institution’s role in the broader social project of digitization today, specifically the context in Canada, and considers a range of projects at three of Canada’s national museums, looking at how these projects support institutional mandates and objectives vs. external priorities. It examines the intersection of policies, priorities and strategies between the institutional and national levels, and how this intersection influences the path that institutions take with their digitization and access initiatives.

This may provide insights on the broader context in which cultural institutions digitize, helping institutions understand their digitization priorities and challenges, and their relationship to their environment and external stakeholders, so they can better articulate rationale and strategy for digital content.

Keywords: digitization, digital content, collection access, cyberinfrastructure, strategy, public good

The Changing Cultural Knowledge Environment

For centuries, Libraries, Museums and Archives have operated as a kind of public good, supported by a patronage structure of universities, governments, and philanthropy (Hedstrom & King, 2002). However, the environment in which cultural heritage institutions such as Museums, Libraries and Archives operate has been radically changed by society’s transition to a knowledge economy, and by the associated phenomenon of information technologies, digitization, and the Web. These changes have had great impacts on these memory institutions. One aspect is the sheer quantity and availability of information now in the environment – with exabytes of new digital information being created annually, at an exponentially increasing rate (Lyman & Varian, 2003). Information technologies have also become increasingly pervasive, such that “we no longer deal with ‘old media’ or ‘new media.’ We now have to think through what it means to be living with ‘more media’” (Manovich, 2008), available from anywhere at anytime. This “exponential growth of information available to us is one of the main pressure points on contemporary culture and that this pressure will only continue to increase.” (Manovich, 2008)

This is having a great effect on expectations. People are accessing these volumes of information in radically different ways. “Some effects of this quantitative change are already visible. Our new standard interface to culture is a search engine” (Manovich, 2008). This represents a radical break from the context of a traditional museum, library or archive. Technology has changed the genre, the modes and customs by which people access and even conceive of cultural heritage information. This in turn is challenging notions of what a museum, a library, or an archives experience is and should be.

Even the present-day primacy of the search box may be a transitional genre. Just as the “Yahoo! directory” has faded, the conventions for accessing information are being further reshaped by the rise of social media. These expectations are even more pronounced in the younger generation of digital natives, the Net Generation that has “grown up getting what media they want, when they want it, and being able to change it” (Tapscott, 2009).

There is an increasing competition for attention in this age of too much information. “Competition also comes from the ever-increasing number of freely available online resources. In such an information-rich environment, the value of any particular [digital cultural heritage initiative] product is likely to be diluted (Zorich, 2003).

Changing and converging institutions

As the collecting of culture became professionalized through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, libraries, museums, and archives developed specialized techniques to manage their distinctive collections and formats. But modern information and communication technologies have been breaking down these distinctions and creating critical professional challenges across all of these fields, starting well over a decade ago (Rayward, 1998). The Web has “blurred the boundary between exhibition and publication, and widespread museum digitisation programmes seem to push museums closer to becoming libraries” (Knell, 2003).

This is not to say there is a “re-creation” of the museum for a virtual universe – the continuity of expertise of preserving institutions is essential in the creation of authoritative content (Dickenson, 2002).  However, there are new expectations placed upon these institutions.

The image of the collections of all libraries, archives, and museums available on-line for consultation, by anyone, anytime, anywhere is a powerful one. In the public imagination, it exists already, as a world where all information is instantly available through the Google search box. Unfortunately, most of the resources of museums, libraries and archives remain hidden, for technical and cultural reasons. (Trant, 2009)

These pressures have placed new demands in institutions, with the work of preparing on-line content straining institutional operations, modes, and infrastructure for content production. These resource pressures are in turn challenging the very business models of these institutions (Falk & Sheppard, 2006).

Digital Collections

Digital collections represent a significant component of a digital infrastructure (Dickenson, 2002). But what is the nature of these base digital resources? There are many types of content being created, both digitized and born digital. There are many objects which are digital representations of traditional objects and format. There are also distinctive types of new media which have evolved, including e-books, e-journals, digital music, digital television, digital video, and Web sites, challenging traditional concepts of published vs. unpublished, rights and ownership, and approaches for preservation (Library of Congress, 2002).

These assets are created and managed by a range of institutions; for example:

  • Memory institutions such as museums, libraries, archives.
  • Universities and the research community.
  • Broadcasters, both public and private: they hold unique and important collections of video and other materials.
  • Corporations: they also hold significant collections, often in the form of their corporate archives of business records and related material.
  • Individuals, who are increasingly creating and sharing ‘user-contributed content.’

Frameworks for Cultural Digitization

For purposes of this discussion, we will consider five main frameworks for the conceptual forces driving cultural and heritage digital initiatives: access and use, digital preservation, cyberinfrastructure, commercial content, and social digitization. These are summarized in table 1.

Driving Force Description Examples
Access and use
(as a Public Good)
  • Primary motive is to make available for use
  • Typically driven my institutional goals (e.g. public good)
  • Million Book Project
  • Project Gutenberg
Digital Preservation
  • Organizing and managing digital media to ensure long-term access and preservation
  • Internet Archive
  • Information infrastructure to support research and learning
  • Includes infrastructure for competitive advantage in knowledge economy
  • National Science Foundation cyberinfrastructure projects
Commercial Content
  • Making digital resources available for consumption
  • Also includes cultural heritage licensing for revenue generation
  • Digital image licensing
    (e.g. Getty Images, Corbis)
  • Digital media stores (iTunes, Amazon, etc.)
  • Google Books (commercialized access)
Social Content
  • Digital content sharing for social motives
  • Mass collaboration
  • Individuals uploading personal photos to Flickr
  • Collaborative authorship in Wikipedia

Table 1: Conceptual frameworks driving cultural digitization

These are certainly not distinct categories; there are many overlaps between them. For example, digital libraries can be seen as an example of digitization for access and sharing, but may also be viewed as an element of cyberinfrastructure. In fact, some reports have identify accessibility as a public goal, as a necessary characteristic of an effective and trustworthy cyberinfrastructure (for example, ACLS, 2006). As another example, the Internet Archive, is an initiative that provides both access and preservation.

Digitization for access and use

Digitization to facilitate access and promote use has been the driver for much of the digitization by individual cultural heritage institutions over the past two decades. This driver is focused around providing access and promoting use as a social good.

Library and museum collection databases go back decades, but the rise of the Web gave digital cataloguing and digitization a new profile and priority (for example, on-line collections and OPACs). In addition to efforts by individual institutions, there have also been efforts to pool collections, create union catalogues and federated searches.

There are also a number of mass digitization and digital access projects. The Google Books project is the most infamous of these (considered below). Mass digitization has of course opened up a range of issues for national information policy, including copyright, standards, roles of stakeholders such as libraries and publishers, business models, and assessment of needs and use (NCLIS, 2006). There is a range of non-commercial mass digitization efforts to create digital libraries and cultural repositories, such as Project Gutenberg (, the Million Book Project (, the Open Content Alliance (hosted by the Internet Archive:, Europeana, and the World Digital Library.

Some of these projects bring together the collections of many institutions. For example, Europeana ( is a newer initiative of this type, currently in beta with 6 million objects on-line. Content is hosted by the contributing institutions. (

Another such initiative is the World Digital Library (, launched April, 2009. The WDL is a UNESCO-led initiative with the Library of Congress and over 56 partners, making available significant primary materials from countries and cultures around the world (Abid, 2009).

Digital Preservation

Digital preservation remains a challenging issue, with few sustainable, real-world preservation scenarios available as models (Blue Ribon Task Force, 2008). One groundbreaking initiative is the LIFE project, by the British Library and University College, London, which has developed a sophisticated model for understanding costs using a life-cycle approach (Blue Ribbon Task Force, 2008).

In the United States, the National Digital Information Infrastructure and Preservation Program is another major initiative, with a primary motive of preserving digital materials of significance through the creation of a national network of partners (Library of Congress, 2002).


There are a number of definitions of cyberinfrastructure, but most focus primarily on supporting research communities. One such definition defines cyberinfrastructure as “the information, data, technologies, expertise, best practices, standards, tools, retrieval systems, and institutions that make research possible in the digital age” (Schmitz, 2008). Industry also sees cyberinfrastructure as vital for success in a knowledge economy (for example, to allow for the commercialization of research, or provide competitive advantage).

Some definitions of cyberinfrastructure explicitly include cultural heritage collection content: “Extensive and reusable digital collections are at the core of the humanities and social science cyberinfrastructure.” (ACLS, 2006)

Commercial content

A significant amount of digital content is created for commercial purposes:i.e., E-books, e-journals, digital music, and digital video.

Mass digitization may also be organized for commercial reasons. Google Books (formerly Google Book Search, Google Print) is perhaps the most infamous mass digitization initiative. It has attracted attention for its scale, innovation, and controversy, including concerns about the application of technical and contractual protections (Johnson, 2008), disproportionate emphasis on works in English, the lack of distinction between books in the public domain and books under copyright, and the handling of orphan works (Abid, 2009). From the perspective of participating libraries, the aim may be to facilitate access and use, but from Google’s perspective, there are obvious commercial considerations and interests.

Traditional media are coping with digital content and delivery and access, and have been experimenting with a range of business models over the past decade. Many cultural institutions are also experimenting with commercial content models as a form of revenue generation or cost recovery, such as in usage, reproduction, or licensing fees for digital assets (Tanner, 2004).

Social Digital Content Creation

Social digitization and digital content creation – i.e. user-contributed content – have become significant source of digital content on-line. This includes digital media such as image (e.g. Flickr) and video (e.g. YouTube), and also collaborative text (such as Wikipedia).

Cultural heritage institutions are now participating in many of these social content spaces, making their collection content available. In some cases, it may be an institutional presence as a node in a social network (e.g. a Facebook page). In other cases, they are contributions to on-line digital repositories, such as Flickr Commons (see Oates, 2008).

Institutional Priorities and Sustainability

Cultural heritage institutions need to consider these various drivers when engaging in a digitization initiative. There is a wide array of organizations and initiatives, and the “proliferation of DCHIs [Digital Cultural Heritage Initiatives] has led to considerable overlap in the missions of various organizations and created confusion in the cultural community” (Zorich, 2003, Part II).

A consideration of the institution’s mandate is vital; most libraries, archives and museums collect for some form of public good. Some initiatives “are not fully developed or have not been adequately translated into objectives. As a result, too many DCHIs [Digital Cultural Heritage Initiatives] lurch from idea to idea without guiding principles” (Zorich, 2003, Part II).

Sustainability for digitization initiatives is another critical concern. “Digitization efforts, despite everyone’s good intentions, rise and fall on the waves of external funding.” They are more often “treated as ‘special projects”’ rather than as long-term programs. This short-sightedness leads to inadequate financial resources, the lack of a long-term plan for sustainability, and huge burdens on existing staff” (Zorich, 2003, Part II).

Institutions should also be conscious of the value that they bring to any initiative, especially if working in partnership. “Scanning and hosting are cheap… The harder, more expensive part is selecting, acquiring, cataloguing, storing and preserving books and other manifestations of our written heritage,” i.e., the specialized work of heritage institutions (Johnson, 2008).

Copyright and rights management present another set of thorny issues that institutions must manage.

Institutional decisions will ultimately be made in the context of national and international frameworks, standards, policies, and strategies. This is part of the landscape that institutions must consider.

National Priorities

Given the wide range of actors and the quantity and diverse range of content, coordination is essential. This is where national policies and strategies come into play.

There are “four building blocks of Knowledge Societies, namely knowledge creation, knowledge preservation, knowledge sharing and knowledge application.” Memory institutions such as “libraries, especially digital libraries, are truly at the heart of Knowledge Societies; they enable people to access, share, and apply knowledge” (Abid, 2009). Such access to content can be a source of competitive advantage. Memory institutions also play important roles with respect to curation and quality of knowledge, social memory, and ownership of intellectual property as a public good (Hedstrom & King, 2002).

Of particular importance is the “base-level information” held by a country’s preserving institutions: museums, libraries and archives, the “original sources on which the imaginative constructions of scholars, amateurs, and students can be built” (Dickenson, 2002).

Institutions “need new funding strategies, coordinated library action, and forward-looking principles to guide us” (Johnson, 2008). National digital content strategies can be a key mechanism in providing such coordination, guidance, and resources.

Surveys of national strategies

Many countries have developed national strategies, though no one strategy is fully comprehensive. The shape and focus of a given strategy is greatly influenced by the specific drivers behind it (e.g. cultural/heritage interests, e-government, research, etc.) (McDonald, 2006).

An extensive review of these strategies is beyond the scope of this paper, but several surveys of international initiatives, conducted in recent years, can serve as useful references. For example, Library and Archives Canada performed a review of relevant international initiatives (McDonald, 2006) as part of its preliminary work on a Canadian Digital Information Strategy. The Collections Council of Australia (2006) also performed an environmental scan of other national frameworks. And the Canadian Association of Research Libraries has done a brief survey of international cyberinfrastructure initiatives (CARL, 2009).

These surveys show that many countries, such as the United States, United Kingdom, Australia, and Europe as a whole, have significant strategies and initiatives for managing digital content under development or in progress. Some of these are spearheaded by national institutions; others are de facto initiatives that have developed sufficient support (McDonald, 2006).

In the United States, the Library of Congress is playing a leading role with respect to digital preservation with the National Digital Information Infrastructure and Preservation Program (Library of Contress, 2002). There are also national “cyberinfrastructure” initiatives, supporting the research and education communities, many of which are funded by the National Science Foundation (CARL, 2009).

Europe has seen major initiatives supporting content and use. Initiatives in Europe have led to Europeana, “a website that provides direct access to more than 4.6 million digitized books, newspapers, film clips, maps, photographs and documents from across Europe” (Geist, 2009).

Digital Content Initiatives in Canada

In Canada, the situation is fragmented. For cultural content, a number of Federal departments and agencies have been involved in digital content initiatives, including Industry Canada, Canadian Heritage, and Library and Archives Canada. Crown Corporations are also active with respect to their own collections, with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and National Film Board engaging in active digitization of their archival holdings. Table 2 illustrates some examples of the various driving forces behind major digitization initiatives.

Driving Force Examples
  • Artifacts Canada (VMC Image Gallery)
  • LAM sector - highly fragmented
  • Archives of public broadcaster (CBC), National Film Board
  • / Canada Project
Digital Preservation
  • Professional guidance from CHIN
  • Canadian Association of Research Libraries
  • CANARIE and provincial networks
  • University sector initiatives
  • Canada 3.0 Conference & Forum
  • Canadian Digital Media Network
  • Stratford Institute (University of Waterloo)
  • Licensing or use fees for commercial use of collection photographs
  • High levels of public adoption of social networks
  • Museum experiments with social media

Table 2: Drivers for digitization with Canadian examples

To make sense of the landscape, it is worth examining the mandates of some of these organizations. With respect to Canada’s digital culture, the Department of Canadian Heritage has played a role, operating several granting agencies and programs for a range of smaller cultural digitization initiatives (Geist, 2007a; Geist, 2009). Examples include programs such as the Canadian Culture Online Strategy and the Virtual Museum of Canada; however, several of these digital culture programs have been ended in recent years (Geist, 2008).

The department also plays an important support role for Canada’s museum community, through the Canadian Heritage Information Network (CHIN). An agency of the Department of Canadian Heritage, CHIN has been active in supporting digital cultural heritage for decades. Over this time, CHIN’s vision and priorities have evolved; it “has altered its [business] model several times in the course of the past 30-plus years in response to technology changes and members’ needs” (Zorich, 2003).

In more recent articulations of its mission, “CHIN enables Canadian museums to engage Canadian and worldwide audiences through the use of innovative technologies” (CHIN, 2006). Its priorities focus on skills development, promoting access and use for heritage content, public engagement and participation, and international outreach (CHIN, 2002). CHIN’s mandate is more tactical, supporting the Canadian museum community in engaging Canadians and the world. This is reflected in its project funding and supporting role in the development of the community and the profession.

Library and Archives Canada (LAC) combines the collections, services and staff of the former National Library of Canada and the former National Archives of Canada. These departments were merged in 2004, in part a consequence of the forces of convergence at play within the cultural heritage (library / archive / museum) sector (Wilson, 2009). LAC’s mandate, as set out in the Library and Archives of Canada Act, is:

  • To preserve the documentary heritage of Canada for the benefit of present and future generations;
  • To be a source of enduring knowledge accessible to all, contributing to the cultural, social and economic advancement of Canada;
  • To facilitate in Canada cooperation among communities involved in the acquisition, preservation and diffusion of knowledge; and
  • To serve as the continuing memory of the government of Canada and its institutions. 

(LAC, 2004)

This represents a more comprehensive strategic cultural heritage mandate, and in LAC’s view, “the digital world is becoming an increasingly important context for carrying out this mandate” (LAC, 2008).

There are also a number of partnership initiatives, such as Alouette Canada and (the former now having been merged into the latter). is spearheading a project called Canada Online. This project aims to digitize approximately four million Canadian heritage items (CARL, 2009).

Looking more broadly, the “provision of access” to cultural content “is the mandated priority of [Canada’s] preserving institutions – its museums, libraries and archives” (Dickenson, 2002). Collectively, all of these collecting institutions, big and small, have an essential role to play in any truly national strategy for digital content.

National digital strategy

Some commentators have expressed concern that “while European countries have launched major digitization initiatives geared at preserving and promoting their cultural heritage, Canada has failed to implement a national digitization strategy” (Geist, 2007a).

Library and Archives Canada (LAC) was given responsibility for an overall national digitization strategy (Geist, 2009), and initiated a dialogue on the topic in 2005, consulting with over 200 stakeholder organizations from a variety of sectors (LAC 2007).

This effort produced a draft strategy, which recognized that the “management of digital information in Canada is fragmented and inadequate.” It proposed both a vision and a framework for addressing the challenges in strengthening Canadian content, ensuring preservation, and maximizing access and use. The scope of the draft strategy covered digital information from the public domain, academia, government and the public sector, and the corporate world (LAC, 2007).

The draft strategy was a self-described “call to action” and admitted that it was “missing some important detail regarding its many recommended actions.” A number of commentators expressed concerns about limited scope and lack of specifics (for example, Geist, 2007b). Even with these shortcomings, the draft strategy represented a step forward; however, the strategy does not appear to have mustered the necessary support to proceed, leaving Canada without an overall national strategy for digitization efforts (Geist, 2009).

Library and Archives Canada has since issued the “LAC Digitization Strategy, 2009-2014;” however, this strategy is focused on the LAC’s own operations and its “vast and diverse collection,” with a goal of “digitizing large portions of its collections over the next 5 years.” (LAC, 2008) The status of a national strategy for digital content remains unaddressed.

The Canada Online initiative being championed by appears to be the clearest successor to the efforts toward a Canadian Digital Information Strategy. Its partners include Library and Archives Canada, the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, and many universities, including the Stratford Institute of the University of Waterloo.


Hence, the situation in Canada remains fragmented. Many content producers remain dependent on the funding base of various granting bodies and agencies, with no overarching plan.

This also presents challenges with respect to sustainability, particularly when funding is allocated on the basis of individual projects, and not sustained programs. “Funders such as Canadian Culture Online (CCO) require that access to digitized resources be maintained for a minimum of five years. But, there has been little consideration of what will, or should, happen to the resources in the long-term” (LAC, 2007, 16).

The project-based funding approach results in sustainability issues similar to those seen elsewhere (Zorich, 2003). “Hampered by inadequate funding, […] efforts are often piecemeal or incomplete” (Dickenson, 2002).

Another risk is that of “misapprehensions of some decision-makers and funding agencies;” for example, “too often, … what these institutions are asked to provide, to conform to funding requirements, are “accessible” popular projects, virtual exhibitions, or “fun” projects for schools,” at the expense of preparing an infrastructure of base content of enduring value (Dickenson, 2002).


In Canada, some commentators have suggested that Canada has fallen behind in the national project of cultural digitization and access, implying significant long-term consequences: with Canadian content and perspective being increasingly under-represented and crowded out on the Web, national culture, productivity, and identity are at stake.

The draft Canadian Digital Information Strategy clearly outlined that the stakes were high, and the need was urgent: “It is clear that the nations that nurture their digital information assets and infrastructure will prosper; those that do not will fall behind. Canada must act quickly and decisively” (LAC, 2007).

Some organizations in the corporate and educational sectors are taking up this call. Voices in industry are increasingly raising the alarm, recognizing that content is a key component of the cyberinfrastructure needed to compete in a knowledge economy, expressing concern that a lack of strategy is putting Canada at a competitive disadvantage. Quoting Terrence Matthews, chairman of Wesley Clover, Mitel and March Networks, “…we seem to be standing still – parked on the side of the information highway, while other nations pass us by, at a time when the underlying technologies that make the digital economy possible are changing and growing faster than ever before” (Eisen, 2009).

Canadian identity itself is said to be at stake:

It has been estimated that less than 1 per cent of Canada’s information is available on the Internet... Canadians... find themselves being connected to websites outside Canada... forced to take information from other places in the United States or Europe and adapt it to Canada’s situation...We will gradually lose our Canadian identity if we rely too much on information from outside the country to educate our children and provide solutions for Canadians.  

(Jenkins, 2009)

A range of actors from the Canadian corporate and academic spheres are taking action to fill this void. One notable event was the inaugural Canada 3.0 conference and forum (, held in June 2009. This event was used to launch both the Canadian Digital Media Network (, a concentration of business-driven digital media research, and the Stratford Institute (, a special campus of the University of Waterloo, combining the disciplines of technology, business, and creative arts.

Participants at this event recognized that digital cultural content is a key ingredient for competitiveness in the modern information economy. In light of economic stimulus initiatives, they called for immediate infrastructure investment in digital shovel-ready projects (Jenkins, 2009).

Charting a Course

Institutions must chart a course through this fragmented landscape. They must consider the changes in their broader environment, such as shifting expectations and evolving standards. There are the various stakeholders and initiatives active within their country or domain. And they must consider the relative priorities of the various drivers within their institution, such as motives for digitization and access, sustainability, and business models. The experiences of the Canada Science and Technology Museum Corporation (CSTMC) may help illustrate.

Example: CSTMC experience

The CSTMC maintains a collection of significant artifacts for its three museums, the Canada Agriculture Museum, the Canada Aviation Museum, and the Canada Science and Technology Museum. This collection is supported by significant archival and library holdings which are increasingly recognized as valuable heritage collections in their own right.

CSTMC has worked in partnership on digital initiatives with other institutions and organizations in the heritage field. For example, the museum was a founding partner in Library and Archives Canada’s Images Canada consortium (

It has worked with CHIN as an active participant in Artifacts Canada, recently re-launched within the Virtual Museum of Canada as the VMC Image Gallery ( with almost the entire CSTMC artifact collection available at this site for years.

The museum has also worked with funding partners to develop major projects for the Canadian Culture On-line Strategy’s Canadian Memory Fund, and for Virtual Museum of Canada. These latter partnerships have become key ways of enabling projects – project funding from these programs has been vital in making many projects possible.

The museum has experienced issues related to this funding approach. One issue is with respect to sustainability. Keeping projects on-line for the five years, as is typically required by granting institutions, has not been an issue. However, digitization efforts have served the needs of the project, and have not been sustained once the focused project objectives are satisfied and the project is launched. Hence, digitization often happens in piecemeal, fragmented bursts of activity to support specific projects, as opposed to creating and sustaining long-term information infrastructure for others to build on.

A second issue is finding a balance between the objectives of the museum and the funders. Significant production resources go into creating contextual multimedia experiences. There is a danger that this allocation of resources can be a distraction from strategic content preparation. As one observer has expressed it, this risk can have the effect of “deflecting agencies from the real work of preparing on-line content. Ubiquitous access to deep and authoritative content is what the next generation demands, not poor simulacrums of actual experience” (Dickenson, 2002).

This is supported to a degree by what the museum sees in its Web stats. The base content available in collection features such as the CN Images of Canada Gallery ( the Aviation Image Bank ( attracts visits orders of magnitude greater than any given multimedia offering.

Case Study: Picturing the Past

The Picturing the Past ( project is a useful case study. The Web site feature offers access to archival photographic collections, “stories,” and educational lesson plans.

The original motivation in creating the site was to find a way to digitize and make available a diverse range of rich archival collections. However, funding mechanisms of the time (in this case, the Canadian Culture On-line Memory Fund), placed emphasis on contextual, interpretive, and educational elements.

A series of project-driven initiatives were established to realize the project. These projects were highly sensitive to the detailed criteria of the granting body. In terms of execution, the bulk of the project resources (both dollars and effort) went into the production of these features (see “stories” and “teachers” sections). Great multimedia productions did result (see features under; in particular, Dear Ellie: Letters From the West; Guest Children; and Searching for the Sublime).

However, only two of the archival collections themselves are actually digitized and available. The original aim of providing extensive digital access to the base content of diverse archival holdings was not realized. Given the intensive resource demands of essay and multimedia productions, the collections feature – the content that represents perhaps the greatest long-term value as a base information resource (Dickenson, 2002) -  was starved of resources during the project. And with the lack of sustained resources beyond the original funded projects, the collections available have never been extended to the diverse subject areas originally imagined.

This case illustrates a broader issue: generally speaking, sustainability of resources for digital content production remains an issue for the institution.

Institutional Strategies

How should museums and cultural institutions proceed, in the absence of an official national strategy for digital cultural assets? We offer a few suggestions.


Keep focus on the institution’s long-term strategic priorities. Consider revisiting your mandate, mission, and objectives, to bring these in line with changing circumstances. In doing so, there is value in placing priority on base content – the digital assets that can serve as infrastructure for future creativity and knowledge work, and other unanticipated future uses.

Watch for organizational silos that may be causing internal fragmentation. There may be opportunities to find efficiencies or other synergies. However, caution is warranted on undergoing an extensive reorganization, since such an exercise can be highly disruptive – this should be carefully considered.

Scaling back programs in one area is another approach to allow for critical sustainable investments. Many institutions have found that a shortage of resources has forced tough decisions. Zorich (2003) found in her survey of digital initiatives 7 years ago that many were forced to cut another program to make sustainable investments that were required. However, this will clearly have impacts on constituencies that are served by these programs.

Be careful about how external funding is secured. Such funding may well allow institutions to tackle a new initiative that would otherwise not be possible, but the institution will of course need to satisfy the funder’s criteria. Do so on terms that will allow you to build what you really need, and carefully consider sustainability.


Find creative ways to partner with other organizations, to advance common objectives. Partnerhsips can be with other cultural institutions, academia, industry, community groups, or just about any other organization. Partnerships may also open up additional funding possibilities.

Meaningful partnerships require both commitment and energy. An institution should be investing in partnerships that are aligned with the organization’s objectives and strategy.


Find low-cost, low risk ways to experiment. Social media spaces are an example of a place where this is possible for virtually any institution: leveraging social content and the public social media networks and the social content therein may be easily achievable, and a safe place to learn.


Society’s challenges in managing digital content for the long term are monumental, but not insurmountable. National strategies for digital content are critical for the efficient and effective coordination of efforts. Without such strategies, efforts will continue to be duplicated and fragmented.

Where such frameworks exist, it is important for institutions to find ways to work within and leverage them.  But in many cases, institutions may need to plan a course in the absence of such a framework.

By taking advantage of international models that exist elsewhere, an institution may be able to position itself well to integrate with future frameworks and evolving initiatives that will emerge in its environment. There are a number of ways that institutions can align resources and work collaboratively with other like-minded institutions on common goals.

Finally, institutions can be advocates for the national frameworks that are required, and participate in the discussions and debates that will shape them.


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Cite as:

Dawson, B., Think Globally, Digitize Locally: charting an institution's course toward the digital social good. In J. Trant and D. Bearman (eds). Museums and the Web 2010: Proceedings. Toronto: Archives & Museum Informatics. Published March 31, 2010. Consulted