Digital Curiosities: Resource Creation via Amateur Digitisation

  1. 1. Melissa Terras

    University College London

Work text
This plain text was ingested for the purpose of full-text search, not to preserve original formatting or readability. For the most complete copy, refer to the original conference program.

Digitisation, “the conversion of an analog signal or
code into a digital signal or code” (Lee 2002, 3) is
now commonplace in most memory institutions, as digital
representations of cultural and historical documents,
artefacts, and images are created and delivered to users,
generally online. The exponential growth in digitisation
projects towards the close of the 20th Century, along with
the establishment of guides to good practice and technical
guidelines, has meant that “Countless millions of
pounds, dollars, francs and marks [have been] ploughed
into digital projects that have involved the conversion
of library, museum and archive collections” (Lee 2002,
160). Much of the early academic debates regarding
the purpose, merit, and scope of digitisation are now resolved
as institutions create high quality resources for
the general user and academic researcher alike (Hughes
2002, Deegan and Tanner 2002). As a result
Digitisation is not a per-se research issue but is part of a
wider context related to the information society and the
effective use of the digital content by cultural institutions
(Minerva 2003, xxiii).
However, an area seldom considered in academic literature
is the creation of digital resources by amateurs.
Although hitherto ignored by information professionals,
recent developments in Web 2.0 technologies means that
museums, libraries and archives are now re-considering
their relationship with users and the general public, both
in the use of digital collections and how users can contribute
to an increasingly rich digital resource environment.
This paper assesses the scope of online resources
created outside institutional boundaries by keen individuals
who wish to participate in digitising our cultural
heritage, providing an overview and conceptualising the
potential contribution that can be made by amateur digitisation.
The rise of online “museums” created by amateur enthusiasts,
generally containing digital images of holdings
and artefacts, is a seldom considered but growing phenomenon. Amateur online collections have appropriated
a variety of technologies, from static HTML, to the hosting
opportunities afforded by online, new media, social
networking sites such as In addition,
with memory institutions appropriating Web 2.0 technologies
themselves – such as tagging, and encouraging
user feedback and involvement – amateur enthusiasts are
now being encouraged to contribute to the online presence
of established institutions. Online “museum” material
resulting from amateur digitisation projects can provide
a rich source of primary resources for both scholars
and the general public, and although this has been all
but ignored until recently by the Library, Archive, Cultural
Heritage, and Arts and Humanities communities,
its democratising nature is worthy of further consideration.
“On and on it goes – acres of the cyberworld full
of ephemera. What else is out there?” (Gorman, 2003,
p. 11).
It is acknowledged that “cyberspace is littered with the
productions of ignorant, semi-literate, and/or crazed individuals”,
(Gorman 2003, p. 14) and in many cases,
these online collections function as 21st Century cabinets
of curiosities. They can be viewed as amusing, eccentric,
or even worrying obsessions with a particular
type of ephemera which the rest of the world has chosen
to leave undocumented, providing a “an individual, a
“netizen” …[with the] means of expression for anyone
with minimal technical skills but abundant passion and
dedication” (Harden 1998). The Guardian newspaper described
the Museum of Online Museums (http://coudal.
com/moom/) thus: “The internet has brought advancements,
but nowhere has it been more successful than in
the field of meaningless rubbish. Here, vast swathes of
tat are housed in one handy place for easy navigation”
(2007, 31). Just because the creator describes their collection
as a museum does not mean to say it functions as
we expect of a memory institution, whatever that may
However, the content of these online sources ranges
from the amusing, to serious attempts at providing information
resources to both scholarly and amateur researchers
which are just not available anywhere else,
being useful even if they lack the institutional backing
and guidance of their official online counterparts. These
“museums” can vary from the ramshackle and quirky to
the glossy and guidelines-compliant documentation of
ephemera which established institutions are either not
interested, able, or willing to catalogue, digitise, and
provide online: “one librarian’s ephemeron is another’s
invaluable cultural resource” (Gorman 2003, p. 14).
The Museum of Online Museums maintains a registry
of such creations, including Devil’s Rope: The Barbed
Wire Museum (
htm), the Museum of Menstruation and Women’s
Health (, and Total Rewind, “the virtual
museum of vintage vcrs” (
all award winning, and featuring exhaustive documentation
and digitised source material not available anywhere
else. Additionally, many amateur digitisers are creating
“pools” of digitised objects utilising image-hosting sites
such as as a platform, creating exhaustive
documentation of, say, vintage dressmaking patterns
(, or
book cover artwork of cheap paperbacks from the mid
twentieth century (
Memory institutions themselves are beginning to experiment
with Web 2.0 environments, asking the general
public to interact with their digitised material through
social tagging, bookmarking, and commenting (http:// A forward-thinking project at
Oxford University, the First World War Digital Poetry
Archive (, has taken
this one step further by successfully asking the general
public to come forward with their ephemera to include in
the archive. Harnessing the energy, passion and interest
of amateur digitisation is of clear interest to the cultural
and heritage sector. What do we know about both the
creators and users of amateur digitisation projects? What
can we learn from this?
There has never been an over-arching academic consideration
of amateur digitisation projects. This paper
surveys the hitherto ignored phenomenon of virtual
and online museums and digitised ephemera created by
amateur enthusiasts, to ascertain the motivation, scope,
implementation, perception, and usefulness of such activity.
Is this predominantly meaningless “tat”, or are
virtual collections created by amateurs used, useful, and
worthy of further consideration? By what criteria can we
judge whether an amateur digitisation project is successful?
How can memory institutions harness the energy
and time devoted in creating these online resources?
First, the literature on digitisation was reviewed to ascertain
whether amateur contributions had been studied.
Second, a hundred stand alone, self-confessed “virtual
museums” were reviewed to indicate the coverage,
scope, and purpose of their collections. Likewise, groups
and pools on flickr were reviewed. Memory institutions
currently encouraging user interaction via Web 2.0 technologies
were surveyed to ascertain the extent of user
involvement. Third, ten creators of amateur websites
were interviewed to gain their insight regarding purpose, coverage and use of their material. Finally, a survey was
carried out with Arts and Humanities academics, to ask
if they had every used, referenced, depended on, or even
come across useful online digitised material provided
beyond institutional boundaries.
The study will report fully in Spring 2009, but preliminary
findings indicate that successful standalone virtual
amateur museums – those providing novel detailed
content unavailable elsewhere – tend to focus around a
particular niche subject such as histories of specific technologies,
or socially taboo interests. Another popular
area is the digitisation of family history and genealogical
material. Those utilising image hosting facilities, such
as flickr, unsurprisingly tend to focus on image based
material to facilitate discussion of the history of graphic
design and illustration.
The digitisation is carried out as a not-for-profit hobby:
the interaction with other enthusiasts and viewers afforded
by using Internet technologies gives a sense of camaraderie
and often encourages rigorous debate between
enthusiasts keen on properly documenting their chosen
topic. This enthusiasm is carried over to established
memory institutions which offer amateurs the means to
contribute via web 2.0 technologies.
There has been very little investigation or understanding
of how these amateur digitised collections are used. Creators
are generally aware of usage statistics, and most
can provide examples where specific, detailed queries
from interested researchers have been answered through
their collections. Academic researchers are happy to turn
to these collections when they provide information not
available elsewhere.
Enthusiastic digitisation by amateurs, a phenomenon
previously ignored by information professionals, is providing
a rich source of online cultural heritage content
which often documents areas not covered via traditional
institutions. The energy and zeal displayed by amateur
digitisers is worthy of further consideration, as amateur
collections often complement existing collections, providing
an alternative free discussion space for enthusiasts.
Web 2.0 technologies present great potential in linking
the amateur with the institution, extending the reach
and scope of digitised cultural heritage.
Deegan, M. and Tanner, S. (2002), Digital Futures:
Strategies for the Information Age. Digital Futures Series
(London, Library Association Publishing).
Gorman, M. (2003), “Cataloguing in an Electronic Age”,
in Intner, S. S., Tseng, S. C., Larsgaard, M. L. (eds.)
(2003), Electronic Cataloguing: AACR2 and Metadata
for Serials and Monographs, (Binghamton, The Haworth
Press), 5- 17.
Guardian (2007), “Web Watch”, The Guardian, Guide
Magazine, October 20 2007, 31.
Harden, M. (1998). “Web Graphics: Art on the Net”.
Museums and the Web Conference 1998, Toronto, Ontario,
Canada, April 22-25, 1998. http://www.archimuse.
Hughes, L. (2004), Digitizing collections: strategic issues
for the information manager (London: Facet Publishing).
Lee, S. (2002), Digital Imaging, a Practical Handbook
(London, Facet Publishing).
Minerva (2003), “Summary of Progress”. Coordinating
digitisation in Europe. Progress report of the National
Representatives Group, European Commission, The
Information Society Directorate-General, <http://www.

If this content appears in violation of your intellectual property rights, or you see errors or omissions, please reach out to Scott B. Weingart to discuss removing or amending the materials.

Conference Info


ADHO - 2009

Hosted at University of Maryland, College Park

College Park, Maryland, United States

June 20, 2009 - June 25, 2009

176 works by 303 authors indexed

Series: ADHO (4)

Organizers: ADHO

  • Keywords: None
  • Language: English
  • Topics: None