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Last week, I participated in an all-day seminar hosted by the Museum ofthe Moving Image in Queens. It was sponsored in part by a grant from the Institute for Museum and Library Services (IMLS), which provides federal funding to libraries and museums.

IMLS has been supporting an impressive range of innovative projects to help their constituents embrace the challenges of the digital world. This seminar was called: Open Collections: Exploring Online Cultural Resources, and the program focused on managing collections on-line.

A key goal was to promote the Museum’s free open source collections management application – ‘Open Collection.‘ IMLS supported developing this software, and from my untutored eye, it appeared many institutions might find it a useful tool, although it is not suitable for us. (The folks from the Museum of Natural History were quite enthusiastic about it.)

Even so, I was very happy to be reminded that there is a creative and functional world of digital catalogs and collections outside our rather narrow broadcast focus.

The CORSAIR system at the Morgan Library was nothing short of elegant, and the Virtual New York City project, underway at the New Media Lab at the City University of New York (CUNY) Graduate Center was just one example of an on-line collection as a work-in-in progress.

All the examples demonstrated that large, complex aggregations of digitized resources can be easily used — if they have well-organized databases/content management systems running behind them. It made me long for a few million dollars so we could produce something similar.

The seminar also emphasized the recent and growing shift away from local computing over to ‘superior’ web-based applications. OK, I got that message. These tools are coming up fast, and they offer flexibility and functionality, plus the opportunity for sharing tasks much more broadly.

But the shift is hardly seamless. How do our disparate databases, running on all manner of systems both local and web-based, communicate with each other, not to mention maintain file integrity and security? (Hey, isn’t that C3PO’s job???) And how do we pay for it? Clearly they have a way to go yet, and no one told us what was under the hood.

Also, I couldn’t help thinking about broadband access, and how this is based on the naive assumption that everyone has super-fast downloading capabilities. (Not so.) Or that small, sophisticated, hand-held devices will continue to roll out and alter how we experience the internet.

Mostly, though, the seminar reinforced my conviction that public broadcasting should mobilize our army of volunteers to help describe and catalog our video collections.

To me, descriptive cataloging remains one of the biggest hurdles we have to clear in order to make our materials findable, searchable, and truly accessible.

Alas, we will never have a crew of professional librarians and catalogers paid to tackle this problem. But wait — we already DO have thousands of well-educated volunteers and supporters at local stations around the country!

What with so much ‘tagging’ already going on, it’s not much of a stretch to develop a participatory plan. And with a web-based application, folks doing the work could reside anywhere.

To develop a credible and useful cataloging system, of course we’ll need standards. We’ll also need common database templates (based on PBcore), and we’ll have to create a structured process based on professional criteria.

Then, voila! If we provide training, review and oversight, we can let folks go at it. I imagine many volunteers would be delighted to participate in such a collaborative, substantive effort.. And no doubt, some of them would be excellent.

I left the seminar filled with ideas about how to get started — what could go into designing a pilot project and who might help us.

Much more exciting than free software – thank you IMLS and Museum of the Moving Image!