UC10153 -- Working with collections -- Week 2

Draft, 15 August 2016
This page should be in a useful state, but still needs work before it's finished.

Collections and communities


The readings this week provide different perspectives on the nature of collecting and collecting institutions in Australia.

Some other perspectives

You might like to dip into these resources to gain some additional perspectives on the collecting sector:

G-L-A-M spells…

Let’s start with a few definitions. Museums Australia defines a museum as:

A museum helps people understand the world by using objects and ideas to interpret the past and present and explore the future. A museum preserves and researches collections, and makes objects and information accessible in actual and virtual environments. Museums are established in the public interest as permanent, not-for-profit organisations that contribute long-term value to communities.

As the page notes a museum might be a science centre, or a historic site, but what we’re concerned about today is really that sentence: ‘a museum preserves and researches collections, and makes objects and information accessible in actual and virtual environments’.

Of course the problem with this definition is that it’s doesn’t really distinguish museums from any other sort of collecting organisation. Libraries and archives would likewise claim to ‘preserve and research collections’ and make ‘information accessible on actual and virtual environments’.

The Australian Bureau of Statistics provides a series of definitions that are quoted in the GLAM innovation report, and they do tease out the differences a bit.

Museums are:

mainly engaged in the acquisition, collection management, conservation, interpretation, communication and exhibition of heritage objects and artefacts.

The main function of a library is:

is the acquisition, collection, conservation and loan of materials such as books, magazines, manuscripts, musical scores, recordings, maps or prints. Libraries also perform an information service role.

The main function of an archive:

is the permanent (or long term) preservation of unique records, selected because of their administrative, financial, legal, evidential or other information value.

While a gallery is:

mainly engaged in the acquisition, collection management, conservation, interpretation, communication and exhibition of visual arts and crafts on the basis of their aesthetic and historic value.

Of course, none of these definitions cover the full range of activities undertaken by a collecting institution, and there are many areas where their activities overlap. Archives create exhibitions, libraries collect artworks, museums sometimes have their own libraries and archives. We’ll explore this a bit more next week as we look at things like collection policies and significance assessment.

But in terms of emphasis, you might argue that museums are concerned with interpretation, libraries with information, and archives with evidence.

Interpretation is about helping people make sense of collections, to put them into some sort of broader narrative that connects collections with themes relating to our history or culture. So the National Museum of Australia describes itself as the place ‘Where our stories live’. An interpretation officer at the British Museums describes interpretation as ‘everything we do that helps visitors make sense of our collection’.

Libraries are explicitly concerned with helping their users navigate a broad range of information resources, which are increasingly online. But often they will also develop their own collections of unique materials such as photos, manuscripts and oral histories. This is particularly true of national and state libraries, but even public libraries will often maintain a local studies collection. The Wyndham Library Service in Victoria, for example, has created the Wyndham History site to display local information and resources. Deakin University Library has developed a range of exhibitions featuring some of their collection strengths. Note that both of these sites use Omeka, which you’ll be using in your own collection projects. Libraries are also really good at sharing information, which is why we have services such as Libraries Australia and Trove.

Archives are particularly concerned with the evidential value of their collections. Archival collections are often unique and it’s important to maintain evidence of their authenticity. Government archives, for example, provide democratic accountability by exposing the work of governments to scrutiny. This is only possible if the public has confidence in the systems and processes that select, preserve and manage such information over time. Archives can also provide evidence of personal identity – one of the responses to the Bringing them Home report into the Stolen Generations was the creation of a name index to help Indigenous people find family connections in government records.


There are more than 500 public libraries with about 1,500 service points, holding about 40 million items. But what about libraries in universities and government departments? Libraries Australia has over 1,100 contributors, sharing more than 52 million bibliographic records.

Archives Matters suggests there are more than 500 archival organisations in Australia. A 2007 survey goes into much more detail about what they collect. Many of these archives are associated with schools, churches, businesses, and historical societies. Information from the national and state archives and libraries indicates that there’s close to 700km of records in Australian archives.

Australian Bureau of Statistics data indicates there are about 1,000 museums in Australia operating from 1,200 locations. However, the australia.gov.au site suggests there are ‘more than 2,000 museums, galleries, sites and holdings in Australia’.

The GLAM Innovation report suggests there are more than 100 million ‘objects’ held across Australian collecting organisations (not including archives, because they measure things in shelf metres).

ARRGGHH! The data is variable and confusing. But we can at least see that there are many more collecting organisations than we might expect, spread across a range of sectors.

More stats:

How can you find them?

Unfortunately, once again, there’s no complete list of collecting organisations. Trove includes several hundred, but is nowhere near complete. Several directories have been created and then neglected. Here’s some places to look:

If you want to explore Trove’s collection of collections you can make use of the advanced search to filter results by organisation:

  • Go to Trove and click on the ‘Advanced Search’ link.
  • Scroll down to ‘Library’.
  • Where it says ‘Enter the name of a library or institution’ type in a name or type of organisation – try ‘Orbost’ and click on ‘Find locations’.
  • You’ll see a list of matching collections. Check ‘Orbost Historical Society Museum’ and click ‘Search’.
  • You’ll see all the items from the Orbost Historical Society Museum in Trove.

If you follow the instructions about you’ll notice that ‘(nuc:”VORH:M”)’ appears in the Trove search box. NUC stands for National Union Catalogue, and the code after ‘nuc:’ is a unique identifier for the Orbost Historical Society Museum. The NUC is also displayed in the list of the advanced search page and in the Australian Libraries Gateway. NUC codes are handy because you can use them to construct links to specific collections in Trove. For example, a link to the Orbost Historical Society collections on Trove is just: http://trove.nla.gov.au/result?q=(nuc:”VORH:M”). See Trove help for more examples.

Another way of exploring the collections in Trove is by using my experimental Trove Collection Profiler. Just select a collection to visualise and hit the ‘Display’ button. You can also filter individual collections by keyword.

Scope and sectors

As you will have probably already noticed, most collecting organisations exist in a sort of hierarchy from national to local. The national and state organisations in each sector tend to get together to develop policies, encourage collaboration and do other important things: there’s NSLA for libraries, CAARA for archives, and CAMD for museums.

At the local or community level there is huge diversity in the sorts of collections that are developed. They may be collections relating to specific institutions such as businesses, schools, or churches; or they may document the experience of particular localities, communities, or social and ethnic groups.

The Victorian Collections site separates the Victorian collecting sector into two categories – state collections and community collections. Many of these community collections – ‘metro-regional galleries, museums, historical societies, RSLs, sporting clubs, church, hospital and school archives, and more’ – are represented on the Victorian Collections site.

Browse through the organisations on Victorian Collections and have a look at the sorts of things they collect. Think about the sorts of subjects or interests they represent.

What I want you to do is create a simple taxonomy or set of subject categories that provide an overview of the collections. Don’t get too carried away, a set of 10 categories will do. For each category I’d like you to provide a description and an example or two.

What’s missing?

The broad-scale statistical picture gives us a sense of the size of the collecting sectors in Australia, and digging deep into Victorian collections gives a sense of the diversity of collecting activity. But what’s missing?

I included an article from the New York Times in the reading this week because it challenges some our assumptions about the nature of collecting and collections. In particular, it makes us think about:

  • Collections that seek to capture the voices and experiences of people that might not be preserved elsewhere.
  • Collections that are a response to particular events.
  • Collections that are digital and dispersed.

The question of gaps and silences is something that we’ll pursue in coming weeks, but it’s useful to think about how community groups can organise themselves in order to preserve their own heritage.

There’s a lot of literature around the idea of community archives, for example. A community archive might not just be an archive – it may include objects, videos, or oral histories – but it collects, it has a particular purpose, and it is generally independent of existing organisations.

One example that you may have come across in Victorian Collections is the Australian Lesbian and Gay Archives. This was first established in the 1970s with the particular purpose to document the experience of the LGBT community.

Another example is the work of the Anangu people to develop Ara Irititja. The purpose of the collection is quite clear:

Missionaries, explorers and others recorded and photographed the lives of the people and took these records away. Ara Irititja makes it possible to bring the history back home where it belongs. To have Ara Irititja in our communities helps keep the past in the present and helps keep our culture strong. It is important to link future generations through Ara Irititja to generations past.

The New York Times article also talks about collecting contemporary political movements or events. Documenting Ferguson is a collection that was established in the wake of the shooting death of Michael Brown and the subsequent unrest – they’re inviting people to contribute their own images, videos and stories. The Documenting the Now project is developing new tools to allow easy archiving of social media around specific events to ensure they become part of the historical record. Another example of a collection created around a particular event is the CESIMIC digital archive documenting the Christchurch earthquakes of 2010 and 2011.

So the nature of what we think of as collections and the circumstances in which they’re created are themselves changing.

Collection bingo

Your job – find an example of each of the collections on the bingo sheet. Try looking in Trove, Victorian Collections, the Australian Libraries Gateway, and the Queensland Museums and Galleries finder.

Write down the name of the collection and where you found it!

Collection bingo sheet

Once you’ve finished you might like to compare what you found with my bingo sheet which includes links to the collections I was thinking of. Perhaps you found others?