For the past fifteen years I have been involved in projects involving the publication of online databases. The Whitehorse Manningham Local History Database was the first regional local history database in Victoria. Since then a number of other databases have been published online including the Victorian Local History Database established for promoting collections held in organisations affiliated with the Royal Historical Society of Victoria. More recently Museums Australia (Victoria) has produced Victorian Collections launched a month or two ago.
At the recent Inmagic Museum Users Group meeting there was much discussion about participation in projects such as Victorian Collections. Below are some of my thoughts regarding involvement in an online database project.
Online database projects are a great way for societies to promote both their collections and their organisation. Including records in a regional online database allows researchers to know about the range of items held by your organisation as well as specific items that may be useful for their research. In some cases the use of an online database may be the first time researchers become aware of the existence of your organisation. Researchers can then contact you for information on viewing or obtaining copies of items, including charges for this service.
Participation in an online cataloguing project encourages standardisation of cataloguing in the use of fields required to adequately catalogue items.
Many online database projects also have a thesaurus which participants in the project are encouraged to use when selecting subjects making it easier for researchers to locate items on a specific topic. One such online thesaurus is the Victorian Local History Thesaurus. Another online thesaurus is the Australian Pictorial Thesaurus.
Online databases should provide a range of options to aid the searching of the database. Through the Internet we are now used to being able to type what we want in a box and after clicking the Search button have immediate access to the material we require. Sometimes this works but often a much more reliable search can be undertaken using the options provided in an Advanced Search screen. It is therefore useful to have more than one way of searching a collection. Even Google has an Advanced Search option.
Currently in Victoria there are two types of online databases.
In the first, organisations catalogue their collections and then export the fields required for inclusion in the online database. Organisations therefore have a full copy of the database records on their premises and can include information for their own use in additional fields if they wish to do so, enabling full control over their catalogue records.
In the second, organisations catalogue information about their items directly into the online database using the set of fields provided. The organisation therefore does not have its own copy of the records unless it has a reliable link to the Internet at all times. This may restrict access to the records within the organisation.
Cataloguing directly into an online database such as Victorian Collections could be a useful way for organisations having small and often valuable collections but whose main focus is not collecting such as sporting clubs, churches, RSLs and similar organisations in order to provide public access to their collections. However organisations whose main focus is the collection and dissemination of information may find that it is more useful to catalogue their collection in-house and then transfer all or some of their records into an online database (or databases).